By Brian Blanco
It’s an awkward feeling walking through someone’s home while photographing their children sloshing through rising floodwater in the living room. It is, I can assure you, another feeling entirely when that same homeowner yells down from the second floor, “It could be worse, at least we still have power” as I look over to see the electrical outlets mere seconds away from being submerged. These are the moments that help to remind me that there are dangers involved in covering just about any natural disaster and that it’s important not to be complacent just because a named storm may “only” be a tropical storm, as was the case with Tropical Storm Debby.
SLIDESHOW: DEBBY SLAMS FLORIDA
As a Florida-based photojournalist I’ve covered more named storms than I can recall, ranging from those forgettable storms that, thankfully, produced little more than twigs in the street, to the now infamous Hurricane Katrina. I’ll admit that I was initially guilty of underestimating this storm. After getting the call from Reuters to cover Tropical Storm Debby, I was packing my car when my wife popped into the garage to tell me to be careful and I scoffed and said, “Oh Honey it’s “just” a tropical storm. I’ll go make some rain features and be back in a couple of days.” As it turns out, I was wrong, this storm caused more damage from flooding and tornadoes than I’ve ever seen a tropical storm cause. It ended up touching a lot of lives and, in meeting those affected, touched my life as well.
Logistically speaking, covering Debby was easy. There were no wide-spread power outages, no fuel shortages, no lack of hotel rooms, cell service remained uninterrupted and most businesses and restaurants remained open. All of this meant that I, thankfully, didn’t have to turn my car into a rolling Molotov cocktail with fuel tanks. I didn’t have to transmit photos via an expensive and complicated BGAN (sat phone) and, most importantly, I didn’t have to sleep in my car.
Because the storm was so wide-spread throughout Florida, affecting areas as far south as Sarasota to as far north as the Tallahassee, this was not a storm where you could simply stay-put and cover one geographic “ground zero”, because there was none. So covering it meant we had to keep our ears to the ground, ask a lot of questions and use our best judgment to anticipate where to go next. My colleague Phil Sears and I ended up splitting the state, with him covering the Panhandle and me covering North central Florida. It was a comforting feeling knowing that someone of Sears’ experience and talent was working with me on this one.
I ended up driving almost 1,000 miles in three days covering this storm and, in doing so, met a lot of people that reminded me that there’s an interesting thing about natural disaster victims; that they’re not really “victims” at all. They may have just lost their home, their livelihood and, in the worst cases, a loved one, and yet they’re always resilient and inviting. Never once, in the years that I’ve been covering named storms have I ever had someone turn me away when I show up with a camera and Tropical Storm Debby was no exception. Yes, Debby wasn’t the biggest storm in Florida’s history and we have a long hurricane season ahead of us yet, but to someone who has just lost their home, this storm was every bit as distressful as a Katrina.