Before I started my internship, I expected the first couple of days to be unpredictable. You have to settle into a routine, get familiar with the space you’re working in, and get a feel for what type of work you’re going to be doing. I figured that I’d fall into a somewhat predictable pattern come my third or fourth week.
Boy was I wrong- in the best way possible. As anyone working in the media industry can tell you, this business is about as unpredictable as they come. You have to be prepared for things to change at the drop of a hat. You have to be willing to completely rewire your entire priority list. Breaking news happens. Crazy scenarios unfold. Life-threatening, out-of-the-blue tornadoes rip through your surrounding area.
Wait, a tornado? Really? Well, that’s exactly what I first thought Monday afternoon when I was sitting at my cubicle with a fellow intern changing around some calendar dates on one of the station websites. Richmond isn’t exactly notorious for monstrous storms. Sure, we get severe thunderstorms more often than other places I’ve visited during the summer, but tornadoes are kind of a rare commodity in the city. They usually come around the outskirts and never actually through any place I’ve ever been. And, more importantly, they are usually always forecasted. Yes, what started out as any other Monday really turned into something that taught me some important lessons. This is the story of the storm that no one knew about.
So there I was, sitting with another intern, Devon. We had just come off of our lunch break and were slowly getting back into the groove of going down our little task list for the day. My supervisor was completing a report and had given us several things that needed to get done on some of the station sites. Like most people, we prioritized. We listed. And within minutes, any concept of a ‘list’ was totally obliterated.
The familiar pick-up of the overhead speaker echoed throughout the building: “Attention everyone, if you the your windows in your car rolled down right now, you may want to close them. It’s about to downpour.” I had heard this warning before. As I mentioned, weather in Richmond during the summer is pretty predictable. Like most east coast states, we get out fair share of hot and humid days that usually turn into quick-moving thunderstorms by the afternoon. But shortly after the announcement, I heard one of my co-workers near my cubicle start talking about hail. All of a sudden, it felt like a million things were happening at once. Within seconds of the hail revelation, the power shut off. Fortunately, we had a generator cut on- but even that was flickering for a few minutes after it started up. The sky looked pretty grim from the nearest window we could see, but I still didn’t think very much of anything- that is, until, I got a hysterical call from my mother.
Up next: IMPENDING DOOM?!
Now, answering phone calls and chatting away during work when you’re an intern is not something you want to do, but people were mingling and the entire atmosphere had quickly changed from “another workday Monday” to “THERE IS A STORMMMMM!” I knew my mom was probably calling because she wanted to know if I was okay, so I picked up the phone.
In hind sight, I probably should have stuck to texting. The thing about my mom is that she can get very emotional about certain things, and one of those things is crazy happenstance, end-of-the-world weather. So, my mom proceeds to tell me that she thinks there is a tornado passing through right by our house and now she is hiding in the basement. The kicker? She pulled the whole “If I don’t see you again… I just want to know that I love you very much.”
I hung up the phone, and any sort of light-hearted chat about how our computers had to be rebooted was completely lost on me. For a few seconds, I wasn’t thinking rationally. I let my mind go from ‘impending storm’ mode, to ‘impending you-will-never-see-your-family-ever-again’ mode. Of course, when I eventually got home later that evening, my mom told me that she just thought there was a tornado because she couldn’t open the door and that the tornado wasn’t actually passing through, but at the time, I almost lost it. I had no idea what to do at this point, so seeking some sort of ground, I ran into my supervisor’s office and began telling her about how there was possibly a tornado in the vicinity. She was already online looking at the radars, and my suspicions were confirmed: numerous counties across the area were under a tornado warning. The wind was really picking up outside and the rain had already started. I almost lost sight of what was happening- but at that very moment, a reporter from our news station ran into the office. “I’m stealing your interns,” he said, and without a word I looked at my supervisor. She said “okay,” and Devon and I followed the reporter to the other side of the building. Something inside kind of clicked. “Oh yeah,” I thought. “I work in news and entertainment. This is what happens. Let’s do this.”
“You have a camera?” the reporter asked us. In the most Apple-endorsy moment I’ve ever had, I held up my iPhone. Devon had one too, and we were in business. For the next couple of minutes, Devon and I were instructed to get footage of what was going on outside—from the safety of indoors, of course. We probably ran through the entire building with our phones trying to get different angles of the wind and rain coming down. Most of the footage we ended up getting would have looked great if we had actually been outside right in the middle of all the nonsense, but the reflections in the windows were too strong. In a moment of desperation, we ended up going into the lobby and timidly stepping outside to the covered front to get some good video. The first 15 seconds I captured during my brief encounter with the storm outside was pretty tame- and then, of course, a huge (and close) bolt of lightning happened, followed by a crack of thunder. It was enough to elicit an unexpected reaction from myself, even though we were supposed to be capturing footage for the station site. Thank God for editing!
After our run-and-gun session, we then had to somehow get the footage from our phones onto the reporter’s computer. The back rooms of the news station were a mad house. Everyone was running around trying getting this or that interview. My supervisor had dropped her huge report altogether to quickly write up a short article and update some of the sites’ Facebook and Twitter pages. One of the stations wasted no time in gathering user-generated content, and invited fans to submit their own photos of the storm’s wrath. After Devon and I had got our footage transferred, we began looking through our own social media pages to assess the damage. Devon was able to ask one of her friends to use a picture of a downed tree that he had posted on his Facebook. Dozens of people had uploaded pictures, short video clips and statuses.
Within an hour of the storm’s passing, everything seemed to die down. While the tornado didn’t actually come through the building, I later found out from my brother that it had visited him at work. From talking to other coworkers and family members after the fact, I found out that the brunt of the storm had pretty much made a line from west of where I live moving east, impacting intersections probably just minutes away from the building. In fact, the storm had almost followed the corridor of the highway I take to work every morning- and THAT was scary. If witnessing the actual rain, wind and hail wasn’t enough for much of Richmond, the rest of the damage after the storm was. Driving home, there were still trees and branches all over the road- and this was after crews had spent two hours cleaning up. Thousands were without power, and it seemed like every other stoplight didn’t work. Traffic was backed up forever in certain parts of the area. It definitely took a few hours, if not days, for things to get back in order.
Up Next: Lessons Learned.
Alright, so this wasn’t the storm of the century or anything- but it certainly was the biggest storm I’ve seen for a long time, and it was really something that I got to see it all unfold while I was at my job. The thing about this storm was that it was so unexpected. It taught me a lot about the news and media industry- things that I already “knew,” but had never given second thought.
Firstly: the Internet does it again! But seriously. From user-generated content, to crazy updates on Twitter from witnesses who caught the burnt of the storm, to running around frantically trying to get footage to upload to the site immediately- this stuff is crucial for breaking news and emergencies. It was so useful to interact with our listeners and get a bigger view of the storm’s destruction.
Secondly: remain calm. It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment and freak out when emergencies happen, but I’m grateful that that reporter grabbed Devon and I and got us in on the action of the story. When something breaks, or the energy of the building suddenly shifts, remain calm and be willing to help wherever you’re needed. If you’re dealing with a potentially life-threatening situation or something that compromises your safety, reach out to your family to let them know you’re okay, but focus on dealing with the situation at hand.
And one of the most important things? Be prepared for change. Whether you want to work for a newspaper, magazine, TV station or radio station, things will change. And they will change often. Sometimes, they may come in the form of terrifying tornados. Other times, they may come in the form of celebrity meltdowns or an exciting business announcement. In an industry like this, task lists aren’t safe. You are going to have some days where you have to abandon what you’re working on in order to focus on bigger things. Embrace it; it’s exciting!
Now, does that mean that every day you’re going to be running around the building taking videos on your iPhone? Of course not! But, what this does mean, is that in the back of your mind, always be prepared. My second week, I was working on a contest page for a station when my supervisor grabbed me and had me write up a breaking news article about how the Redskins were moving their summer training camp. In fact, now that I think about it, I didn’t even get to finish the article because then I had to run upstairs and help shoot a video for one of the station’s YouTube pages! Is it always go-go-go? No. But when it is, it’s pretty great.
Dat lightning strike.