I’m going to write this in a stream of consciousness, the same way I experienced Joplin.
It was my first time covering — more accurately, trying to cover — a disaster. The National desk knows I am a weather geek, so I came close to covering the tornadoes in North Carolina in April, and then the tornadoes in Alabama earlier this month. But the timing wasn’t right in either case.
This time, it was. I happened to be awake at 2 a.m. for a 6 a.m. ET flight to Chicago on Monday morning, just 12 hours after the tornado struck in Joplin. While in the air, I wondered if I should volunteer to go there. When I landed, I looked at the departure board and saw that a flight was leaving for Kansas City in 45 minutes. On a whim, I walk-ran to the gate and asked if I could buy a standby ticket. The agent said yes.
Two calls to New York later, I booked the 8 a.m. CT flight. I told the National desk that I’d be in Joplin at noon local time. I had no maps, no instructions, no boots. I had a notebook but no pen.
What I learned: always carry extra pens.
My cell phone was dying, but I reserved a car online before take-off. On the flight, I wrote a blog post about Oprah.
I was in the rental car at 9:45 and on the highway three minutes later. 176 miles to go, fueled by granola bars purchased at Whole Foods the day before. On the way, there was a conference call with the National desk. I was to travel to the ruined hospital and try to interview doctors, patients and other survivors. My worry, of course, was that the survivors would be far away from the hospital.
Monica Davey, a Times correspondent in Chicago, texted me the hospital address. My iPhone, now charging through my laptop, showed the way ahead. But as I approached Joplin, cell service began to degrade dramatically.
I’m aware that what I’m going to say next will probably sound petty, given the scope of the tragedy I was witnessing. But the lack of cell service was an all-consuming problem. Rescue workers and survivors struggled with it just as I did.
What I learned: It’s easy to scoff at the suggestion that satisfactory cell service is a matter of national security and necessity. But I won’t scoff anymore. If I were planning a newsroom’s response to emergencies, I would buy those backpacks that have six or eight wireless cards in them, all connected to different cell tower operators, thereby upping the chances of finding a signal at any given time.
This is my first time coming upon a natural disaster as a reporter. I suppose my instinct should be “first, do no harm.”
Entering Joplin, I drove along 32nd Street, the south side of the devastated neighborhood, getting my bearings, wondering if it was safe to drive over power lines, looking for a place to leave my car. I parked a block from the south side of the hospital and approached on foot, taking as many pictures as possible, knowing I’d need them later to remember what I was seeing.
I tried to talk to a couple of nurses. They said they were not allowed to.
I started trying to upload pictures to Instagram. It sometimes took what seemed like ten minutes of refreshing to upload just one picture.
A view of the north side of the hospital in Joplin. http://instagr.am/p/EoTHO/
What I learned: In areas with spotty service, Instagram and Twitter apps need to be able to auto-upload until the picture or tweets gets out. (I’m sure there’s a technical term for this.)
I walked to 26th Street, north of the hospital, where the satellite trucks had piled up, and found The Weather Channel crew that had arrived in Joplin just after the storm. After interviewing the crew, we watched the search of a flattened house. That’s when I was able to see the extent of the damage to the neighborhood for the first time.
Part of me thought, “This is a television story more than a print story.” It was an appeal to the heart more than the brain.
I started trying to tweet everything I saw — the search of the rubble pile, the sounds coming from the hospital, the dazed look on peoples’ faces.