It's not glamorous to cover a hurricane

STAFF WRITERAugust 28, 2011 

— As darkness fell Saturday a surge of water from the sound flooded Nags Head, in what served as Hurricane Irene's final curse on this spit of sand that guards against the Atlantic Ocean.

Just then, my cellphone rang. "I think you'll be dining on your own," said News & Observer photographer Shawn Rocco, my tag-team partner who was trying to return to our hotel -- the unofficial media bunker for the storm. "I can't get through."

N.C. 12, the beach road in front of our hotel, sat under more than three feet of water. He was stranded on an island within an island.

No one in, no one out of the hotel. But reporters aren't ones to take no for an answer. So I said I'd come to him, even if I had to trudge.

"I wouldn't walk in that water with all the sewage probably overflowing from houses," a hotel staffer at the edge of the road tells me as I trudged through the waist-high water, leaving a wake like a boat. And then he mentioned the possibility of snakes.

No one ever said covering a hurricane was glamorous.

It often looks like fun on television. But sometimes it's not. As numerous people echoed on Twitter and Facebook: "Hey Weather Channel, let the guy standing in the ocean during the hurricane go inside."

The Weather Channel guy and the rest of us at The Comfort Inn in Nags Head fell asleep to the sound of rain dripping from the ceiling of our hotel rooms. The wind blew through the air conditioning units like the balcony door was open. A steady mist of water sprayed through the edge of the windows - which we duct taped to prevent shattered glass in case the wind ultimately triumphed.

Downstairs in the room where the television crews established camp, the ceiling tiles began crumbling and falling into the buckets that couldn't prevent the two inches of standing water on the floor. On Twitter, the media dubbed the hotel, "The Leaking Inn."

To stay at the hotel, reporters had to sign waivers saying they expected their rooms to get wet and services to be interrupted. It felt like the bunker - housing everyone from The Weather Channel and The New York Times to Discovery Channel's storm chasers and National Geographic - wouldn't survive the hurricane.

But none of this compares to what it was like gathering the story outside, along beaches, piers and sand-covered roadways amid the storm.

At the Avalon Fishing Pier in Kill Devil Hills, the wind shot the sand over the seawall strong enough to strip paint from a car. Going outside to interview onlookers felt like being buried in the sand with dunes accumulating in your ears.

The rain made it impossible to write in a notebook and the wind made tape recorders sound like a television without a digital tuner. You had to gather news in clumps - racing to the shelter of a rental car to write down all you could remember before jumping back out to ask more questions.

At a beach access point, we discovered that our SUV isn't really "all-wheel drive" when we drove onto what looked like pavement but turned out to be 10 inches of wind-blown sand. It took a half-hour to dig out. We gathered pieces of beach house decking and siding discarded by the wind to give the tires traction. A local law enforcement officer who stopped to watch enjoyed a good laugh as we finally rolled from the parking lot.

But amid all the mayhem, beauty persisted as we watched sand blow across the beach like smoke and heard the wind gasp in between its big breaths.

And there's nothing like meeting the hardy souls who defy evacuation orders by wandering out to the beach, the piers or their front porches to watch the anger of the sky and the fury of the sea.

As for our stranded photographer, Rocco waited on the other edge of the high water line - moving his car farther back in increments as white caps consumed more and more of the main beach road.

It took only 10 yards before I abandoned my wet march to join him, thinking every step about the warnings of sewage and snakes.

Back inside the hotel I found a local beach house owner I befriended the day before: Jay Martin, a car broker from Lynchburg, Va., who drove a Ford F450 dual-wheel truck. Our ship had arrived.

We met our gracious and surprised photographer on the dry land. Next order of business: a hot meal, something we hadn't enjoyed in more than 24 hours. We found Trade Winds Chinese Restaurant down U.S. 158 in Kitty Hawk, the only restaurant open for miles, and treated Martin to dinner.

On the way back to the hotel, we picked up a two-member TV crew whose SUV couldn't handle the high flood waters.

As we walked inside, cold water, soda and beer gleamed in a massive cooler. As I took my first sip, my teeth closed with a crackle. It will take a while for the sand from Hurricane Irene to wash away.

jfrank@newsobserver.com or 919-460-2605

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