NEW YORK—News executives love disasters. They get to act like Chuck Norris and Assemble the Squad.
“Maginnis, you cover first responders.”
“Wilson, get over to NOAA and stay on those maps.”
“Kelly, official press briefings. Work with Yurozawski to keep tabs on every emergency room within a 300-mile radius.”
“Bergram, you’re Cop Shop, but we’ll keep the aperiodic radio tracking the locals.”
“Ramstein, find that German guy who gets a hard-on for global warming.”
By the time a managing editor or a news director gets finished “covering this mother like blubber on a seal,” you’ve got thirty people who feel like they’re crammed into a D-day troop carrier, waiting for somebody to throw open the landing door and engage the Nazis. They have lust in their eyes. They’re hopped up like nekkid trance drummers at Burning Man.
You know those reporters clinging to lampposts in 120-mile-per-hour winds on the pier at Sanibel Island?
Same thing. They’re pumped. They’re wild. They’re getting all orgasmic from the needle burns on their cheeks as the gooey red juice of the hurricane danger zones envelop them in delirious wet convulsions.
I know. I was one of those guys.
I worked at a newspaper in Dallas where we had tornadoes all the time. We would have these Assemble the Squad meetings where the managing editor would hand out umpteen jillion jobs, including “Gladys, we need a Top Ten Texas Tornadoes of All Time sidebar.”
And I would stand there like the last guy to get picked in peewee football, wondering if they were gonna use me at all, and the high sheriff would finally look at me and say, “And Briggs, you do color.”
“Color” was this word for feature writing that meant “Find something to write about, preferably something with a lunatic or a bereaved person in it.”
I would always protest. Every decent story had already been assigned. I’d already done the story on the bearded backwoodsman sitting in a bass boat while a hurricane approaches, saying, “All I need is my gun and my dog, and if God decides it’s my time, then it’s my time.” There was nothing left to write about.
And so they would tell me to chase the storm.
You’re not supposed to chase the storm.
Sometimes, before I left the office, I would write the article telling people don’t chase the storm and using examples of how you can get killed chasing the storm. And then I would go out and chase the fricking storm.
When you chase the storm, you’re looking for two quotes and two headlines. This never varies. Pay attention.
The first quote is “It sounded like a freight train.” You won’t have to wait long for this quote, but don’t waste it by letting somebody boring say it. It needs to be spoken by an Old Coot, preferably dressed in hip waders and a plaid shirt.
I’ve often wondered how “It sounded like a freight train” got so embedded into the DNA of every Texan that people who have never even seen a freight train will still say it. People who have experienced freight trains only via Preston Sturges movies screened in gay bars will still say, “It sounded just like a freight train.” It’s apparently a universal simile.
The second quote you’re looking for is “It snapped them trees like matchsticks.” Every once in a while you’ll encounter some eyewitness—probably a transplant from New Jersey—who didn’t get the memo about matchsticks. So he or she will say something like “The force of the winds just disintegrated that building.” This quote is worthless. It doesn’t matter what the tornado destroyed—houses, cars, chemical factories—it always looks like matchsticks. Long after smokers moved on to Zippos and Bics, the matchstick remained as the symbol of horrifically splintered objects.
Okay, once you get your quotes, you’re gonna write one of two stories:
1. BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS.
2. SWATH OF DESTRUCTION.
At first I didn’t understand the difference between the two.
Biblical Proportions is body bags. You need a high death toll. The gold standard is Galveston 1900: so many bodies they couldn’t count them accurately, probably upwards of 10,000. You need a hurricane for that headline—no tornado is ever gonna get those numbers. You can also do a Biblical Proportions story with, say, an influenza epidemic, but it doesn’t have the same punch because people die too slowly. Hurricanes are news-cycle-friendly. Without quite saying it, you write the story to imply that God smote us. The Almighty visited Four Horsemen on Texas in the form of Death, Famine, Pestilence, and Destruction. You can actually make up new names for the Four Horsemen, like Grantland Rice did in the most famous sports lead of all time, because nobody remembers what it actually says in the Bible.
But usually you don’t get a pure Biblical Proportions story. I found this out the hard way when I covered a tornado that had zero dead bodies—it actually went through a highly populous area without killing anyone—and so at the end of the day the city editor threw a bunch of notes on my desk and wanted me to write the lead, and I attempted to write a forbidden headline:
DODGED A BULLET.
My amazingly inspirational Dodged a Bullet prose failed to find any support with my boss. God pulling us all into his protective bosom was poison at the newsstands. In fact the editor was fairly peeved that I would presume to “minimize the enormous property damage that occurred.” He insisted that the lead be changed to Swath of Destruction.
First of all, what is a swath?
Has there ever been a swath of anything except destruction? What if there was a swath of wonder? What if the lead said, “A swath of wonder descended on North Texas as hundred-mile-an-hour winds ripped the roof off of a really ugly church that we’ll be able to rebuild, with better imagination this time, thanks to the insurance money.”
He was having none of it. “Swath of destruction” was decreed and swath of destruction it remained, in 60-point Bodoni Bold.
But I didn’t truly understand the complete Disaster Algorithm until an episode during which I was commissioned to chase a hurricane. (You don’t really chase a hurricane, you pretty much just play chicken with it, but the principle is the same.)
So the hurricane is primed to hit Houston and I’m headed down to the coast, and since I’m the only reporter with a radio phone in his car—this was before the cell-phone era—I’m getting constantly redirected.
It’s shifting towards Corpus.
It’s gonna hit Matagorda Island. Be sure to get a Wildlife Devastation sidebar.
Keep going south. Stop at the King Ranch and get quotes about how the cattle know when the storm is coming before the people do.
So finally I’m all the way down to Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas, waiting on the hurricane, and a guy at the Brownsville Herald tells me it looks like it’s gonna hit farther south in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
I’m all over that. Now I’m energized. I’m thinking of little adobe towns like in The Wild Bunch where mustachioed vaqueros are sandbagging the dirt streets to protect their women and children. In a matter of two hours I’ve set up camp at a place called the Drive-In Restaurant in the border town of Matamoros. (It was called the Drive-In because it was the only building with its own parking lot, and it was actually one of the finer restaurants in Matamoros, with a bar that must have had a hundred varieties of tequila.) So I have this table at the Drive-In and I’ve hired a driver with a four-wheel vehicle, I’ve got a translator, and for some reason an editor at El Bravo (coolest name for a newspaper ever) decides he wants to go with me, and this is actually causing a problem because now I don’t really need the driver or the translator and so I need to pay them off somehow and just go with the Mexican journalist.
And then I get a call from The Desk.
“No story. Come on back.”
“No hurricane. It’s gonna hit Mexico.”
I know it’s gonna hit Mexico! That’s why I’m in fricking Mexico!
“Naw, we’ll use the AP wire.”
And then I sputter for a while about how I’ve got expenses down here and they do not take American Express and all these millions of pesos are going on the expense account and, by the way, I’ve got two pissed-off guys who were willing to chase the hurricane with me and I’m gonna need to make amends, and at the very least that means whiskey and it might mean hookers…and I’m getting crickets on the other end of the line.