As Hurricane Dorian headed toward the Florida coast, reporters for news networks and local stations fanned out along the state’s southeastern coastline but also were adjusting their plans to cover the devastation and relief efforts in the area so far hardest hit: the Bahamas.
CBS News sent Nikki Battiste and a crew to the islands, while CNN has reporter Patrick Oppman in Freeport on Grand Bahama and ABC News has had a crew in Marsh Harbour, a town in the Abaco Islands where the hurricane hit as a Category 5 with 180 mph winds. NBC News’ Morgan Chesky and a team are in Nassau, Bahamas, and other outlets also are working on dispatching reporting teams to the devastated areas.
The difficulty in tracking the path of the storm over the past few days has made it a bit vexing for news directors, who are trying to make decisions about where to place crews and whether to send their anchors. CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell anchored CBS Evening News from Florida for a second night in a row, while Bill Hemmer has been reporting from Jacksonville for Fox News and Today anchor Craig Melvin has been stationed in the Sunshine State.
The National Hurricane Center said Tuesday afternoon that the current track of Dorian, now a slow-moving Category 2 hurricane with sustained winds of 110 mph, sees the core moving close to the Florida east coast and the Georgia coast tonight through Wednesday night. The center of the hurricane is forecast to move near or over the coast of South Carolina and North Carolina on Thursday through Friday morning.
Given the logistical challenges in the Bahamas, meanwhile, networks have relied on video from residents’ social media feeds, showing widespread flooding and a landscape of wrecked homes and fallen trees and power lines. CNN on Tuesday showed aerial footage of Grand Abaco Island from stormchaser Brandon Clement showing widespread destruction.
Others ended up placing crews in the center of the storm. Last week, WPLG-TV in Miami dispatched reporter Jenise Fernandez and photographer Brian Ely to Marsh Harbour, part of the Abaco Islands, which ended up taking a direct hit from Dorian. They have been reporting since Thursday, making WPLG one of the few outlets in the area through the brunt of the hurricane.
“The island is decimated and people are really getting desperate for help,” the station’s VP and news director Bill Pohovey told Deadline.
He said WPLG was arranging for a helicopter to pick up the crew from the island, where there is “no power and no Internet and people are communicating by a satellite phone.”
Fernandez provided reports before the hurricane, then as the eye passed overhead and on Monday morning, and then after its second lashing. She and Ely, who arrived on Thursday and reported from the Abaco Beach Resort, where they were staying.
Pohovey said that Fernandez and Ely are safe, but there were many hours through the weekend when they had no contact with them. “There were some very worrisome hours as we waited to hear from them. They were hunkered down during the storm and were out of touch with us for 12 to 16 hours, and for those hours we didn’t know how they were doing.”
As the hurricane initially hit Sunday morning, Fernandez and Ely sheltered in a hotel fitness center next to a “bunker” set up by the resort as a safe space for employees and remaining guests.
After the first hit, Fernandez told the station that one of the roofs of the hotel blew off and for a time they struggled to keep a protective door shut as the winds picked up, and finally tied it down with the help of some weights.
“There were definitely some moments when things were flying, and I for sure thought things were going to fly through windows and thought for sure we weren’t going to make it,” Fernandezsaid in a live report via satellite phone on Sunday afternoon.
Given the flooding already in the area, she and Ely sought another shelter in a second floor room as the hurricane made its second hit.
“We literally saw the roof of the building next door to us fly off, just completely fly off,” Fernandez said on Monday morning. “It looked like a rag doll. I was actually sitting in the bathroom. The ceiling of the bathroom started to come apart, but it was the drywall that just completely fell.
“It was relentless. I have never been through a storm that just did not give up. It was just constant wind. Constant rain. All we could hear outside our window was debris flying everywhere.”
As the station shifts to the relief efforts for the Bahamas, Pohovey said that viewers — along with the mayor of Miami — have been contacting the station with expressions of concern for Fernandez and Ely. “Right now we really want to get this crew out of there,” he said, describing the exhaustion of his team after nonstop coverage and riding out the storm.
“They really want to come home,” he said. “They are heartbroken by what they see.”
ABC News correspondent Marcus Moore and a network producer also were on the ground in Marsh Harbour. As the eye passed through on Sunday afternoon and they went outside to survey the damage, they heard a calls for help from nearby raging floodwaters. They heard a man, a woman and two teenage girls struggling for safety. The producer jumped in the floodwaters to get the group a rope, a moment that was captured on video.
“We were in the eye of the storm, so it was calm, but we knew that within minutes, the rest of the storm would come through,” Moore said on Good Morning America.
The scenes also looked harrowing as Dorian approached the Florida coast on Tuesday.
On Fox News, correspondent Griff Jenkins, reporting from Port St. Lucie, stood on a sea wall as the surge picked up, drenching him in waves before he eventually stepped away.
“These are the outer bands of Dorian. We are 116 miles from the center,” he said.
Hemmer has been anchoring from Jacksonville, FL, and the network plans live coverage with a team of reporters at least through Wednesday.
O’Donnell ended her Labor Day holiday early and rushed to Florida to lead coverage from there, as the only network evening news anchor to report on the hurricane from the field.
Melvin will remain in Florida through Wednesday to anchor Today, and — like other networks — NBC News and MSNBC are also dispatching reporters to Georgia and South Carolina as Dorian is expected to track just off the coast.
One of the unusual characteristics of the storm is not just its intensity but its slow-moving pace, making its impact all the more devastating. So far, at least five people have died, according to authorities in the Bahamas.
“After 48 hours of beating the hell out of the Bahamas, this thing will not end,” Oppmann said on CNN on Monday, who reported with the help of broadband and phone satellite connections and a generator.