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Wind. Floods. Gunshots. Journalists face danger and challenges in covering Florence.

Surf surrounds a television crew during a live broadcast near Oceanana Pier & Pier House Restaurant in Atlantic Beach Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 as Hurricane Florence approaches the Carolinas.
Surf surrounds a television crew during a live broadcast near Oceanana Pier & Pier House Restaurant in Atlantic Beach Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 as Hurricane Florence approaches the Carolinas. tlong@newsobserver.com@newsobser

Local news organizations covering the devastation of Hurricane Florence have faced their own obstacles over the past week, with reporters, photographers, staff and crew working through exhaustion and often placing themselves in harm’s way to deliver the news.

Several newspapers and TV stations in the eastern part of the state had to abandon their newsrooms because of flooding from the lingering storm, while some in the field faced physical peril.

In one such instance, a team from Raleigh’s WRAL TV station was threatened as it attempted to cover a looting incident at a Family Dollar store in Wilmington this weekend.

Reporter Brad Johanson, reporting with photojournalist Chad Flowers, described the incident on air: “As we pulled up, Chad got out of our van with a small hand-held SLR camera … we understood that the Wilmington police knew about the looting and were not going to arrive at the scene. Chad got out, took these pictures that you are seeing. One woman came up to him and said, ‘You better get out of here, they’re going to kill you.’ Another man approached him and said, ‘I’m going to kill you, don’t take my effing picture.’ At that point … torrential rains came down, Chad was able to get back into the van just as we heard a gunshot over our shoulder. We got out of that area.”

WRAL vice president and general manager Joel Davis told The News & Observer on Monday that Chad Flowers had shot about 30 seconds of video and was getting back into the van when they heard the gunfire.

“We don’t know whether the shot was fired at them or in the air,” Davis said. “No one was hurt.”

Another flood for the Robesonian

At the Robesonian newspaper in Lumberton, it felt like Hurricane Matthew all over again. The newspaper building flooded in the 2016 storm, and it built a brand new building. But much like many parts of Lumberton itself, the newspaper has flooded again.

Editor Donnie Douglas, working remotely from Raleigh, said on Facebook on Monday that there would be no print edition of the paper until further notice. The paper’s press is down and with all the flooded roads, delivery would be an issue anyway.

But the paper is still producing news and putting those stories online to keep the community informed. They’ll put out an e-edition as well. The news doesn’t stop.

As of Monday, pretty much all of the reporting, writing and editing is being done by Douglas.

“We will be populating robesonian.com with stories as we can get them together,” he wrote. ”But right now I am kind of a one-man show as most of my folks are w/o power and Internet … Good luck to all. I know there is tremendous suffering here.”

Douglas gave an interview with CNN’s Headline News program “Weekend Express” on Sunday. He told the anchor that Hurricane Matthew was devastating, but that Florence is worse. Douglas became emotional during the interview, talking about how devastating the storm is for Robeson County.

He returned to Lumberton on Monday afternoon and had power and internet at his home, so he’s working from there.

“I have a couple of reporters just getting back online, so we’re starting to get engaged as a team,” Douglas said in a phone interview Monday with The News & Observer. “The most important thing is populating the website with need-to-know news. I did the same thing during Matthew. I knew I had to get out of town to have internet and electricity. ... I really thought I’d never have to do this again. ... I just hope the press was spared.”

Wilmington Star-News building damaged

In Wilmington, the Star-News offices were forced to evacuate, with some reporters and editors working from the WWAY TV offices in Leland.

The paper’s executive editor, Pam Sander, told The News & Observer on Monday that they had always considered their building a “fortress” because it’s very thick and has no windows. “But the roof was not 100 percent anymore, so we had to vacate early Saturday morning or late Friday evening — the days are running together,” she said.

The majority of the newsroom is back in Wilmington now and working out of the Hampton Inn Medical Park.

Sander said it has been a good lesson in how nimble news organizations can be when they have to be.

“We’re very mobile anyway,” she said. “We have reporters in the field and everything is web-based. It’s a good but exhausting lesson for us to see just how mobile we are. We’re at the Hampton Inn and still getting the paper out. We’ve published everyday, even though there are some places we can’t get to.”

Sander said it’s also a point of pride for her staff that despite the obstacles, they have kept alive the newspaper’s streak as the oldest continuously published newspaper in the state.

Sander is also the regional editor for newspapers in Jacksonville, New Bern and Kinston. She said the Jacksonville office was flooded and evacuated, but the staff “didn’t miss a beat and pushed on and did exceptional work.” Offices in Kinston and New Bern were not damaged.

New Bern TV station evacuated

In New Bern, one of the earliest and hardest hit areas in the state, TV station WCTI NewsChannel 12 had to evacuate Thursday night because of flooding. The station got assistance from sister station WPDE in Myrtle Beach.

In a statement on the station’s website, WCTI general manager Matt Bowman said it had been monitoring the weather and had a plan in place.

“When the conditions in the area intensified suddenly, we made the call to have our news staff evacuate the area and team up with our sister station WPDE in Myrtle Beach to continue covering the storm and providing our viewers with vital, potentially life-saving information.”

TV stations get tornado warning on-air

A tornado warning early Sunday morning caused two Wilmington TV stations to interrupt live on-air broadcasts so that the crew could shelter in place. WECT and WWAY both had teams leave the studio temporarily, but audio seemed to continue.

The news crews were back on air in minutes.

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