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‘I learned what journalism really is’: CBS47’s Kirsten Mitchell reflects on Hurricane Michael coverage

U.S. & World

It’s hard to describe Hurricane Michael to someone who did not live through it, even one year later.

I was a reporter at our sister station WMBB in Panama City, Florida when the storm hit. It was my first “real” reporting job fresh out of college. Born and raised in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the beaches and sunshine seemed like the perfect spot to begin my journalism career.

I knew there was a chance I would cover a hurricane. As a young, hungry reporter, that was an exciting possibility. During the summer of 2018, we covered several tropical developments, but none majorly impacted our viewing area. Just as the hurricane season appeared to wind down, a new tropical development emerged in the Gulf.

I remember the Friday before Hurricane Michael made landfall I was doing a light-hearted, fun, live shot at the Panama City Beach “Pirate Festival.”

No one seemed worried. No one knew what was to come in a matter of a few days.

What began as a small, blip on the radar, turned into a monstrous Category 4 hurricane within a matter of a few days. Its path was headed straight toward the Florida Panhandle, with the eye of the hurricane directly over the place I called home.

On Oct. 9, the night before the storm hit, I was doing live shots on Panama City Beach, providing updates on the beach conditions and talking to residents about whether or not they were going to evacuate. That night, there was the most beautiful sunset. The “calm before the storm” if you will.

After I was finished with my live shots, I packed an overnight bag and headed into Panama City to be closer to the news station, a place I had anticipated to stay for the night. We were put up in a hotel near the station. That hotel is now gone.

When I got into work at 3 a.m. on Oct. 10, we were still hours away from landfall. A photographer and I were sent to the Emergency Operations Center, a command center about 25 minutes away from the station. That’s where all of the important local and state officials planned to hunker down for the duration of the storm. It was also the location for news conferences and updates from meteorologists from the National Hurricane Center. It was critical we have someone there should communication lines go down, that way we knew the latest information regarding emergency response, search and rescue, etc.

I continued to provide live updates from the EOC until I could no longer get a signal on our live equipment. When that happened, it was clear to me, that things were not good back at the station, and we had been knocked off the air.

A portion of a neighboring building’s roof fell on my station, and water flooded portions of the inside. My coworkers had to run to a church next door during the storm because of our deteriorating station.

There was nothing to do but wait. I was fortunate in that I was sheltering in the EOC building, arguably the safest place in the county. The building had hurricane doors down so we could barely see outside. We could hear Michael though. It sounded like a tornado directly above you, for hours.

Hours later, when the storm finally passed, the management at the EOC lifted the hurricane doors, where we got a first glimpse of the outside, and a beautiful purple sky.

At this point, we had lost all communication. The entire utility system in Bay County was down. No power, no cell service, no internet. No way to communicate with the outside world. At this point, I had no idea if my coworkers had survived back at the station.

Using burner phones, I was able to make contact with my family, and my coworkers who road out the storm in a deteriorating building. Everyone was safe.

For 31 hours I stayed at the EOC. The roads were impassable due to the massive amount of down trees so there was no physical way to drive back into town. When I look back on my experience, those hours were the most challenging. I was itching to get outside and begin working. With my station off the air, and no cell service to post to social media, I felt useless.

Luckily, there was one form of communication that survived the storm, and that was the local radio station, WKGC-FM (90.7) Myself, and another news anchor from the other local station in Panama City hopped on the radio and told people everyone was OK. We filled air time with any information we could gather from officials at the EOC. Even after we left the EOC, the radio became the only method in which Bay County officials could communicate with residents in the following days after the storm.

When we finally were able to leave, the path back to the station was unrecognizable. No street signs, flipped over homes, trees snapped in half like toothpicks, and anything that was familiar was a pile of rubble. Our 25-minute drive became an hour and a half.

People often use the expression “it looked like a war zone,” but it really did. National guard troops were everywhere, helicopters overhead, and constant sirens.

Beyond the destruction, lives were lost. Thousands of people lost their homes. Some people were without power and water for weeks. There were armed looters taking advantage of vulnerable people. But amid the chaos, there was an unexplainable bond in the community. People in their worst of times stepped up to help others. There was a massive response in the following weeks. First responders, non-profit organizations, and groups from near and far descended on the Panhandle to help people get back on their feet.

Without a working phone for several weeks, I learned what journalism really is. It’s talking to people. It’s sharing information. It’s providing answers to people when they ask you where they can find a hot meal.

Our building was heavily damaged after Hurricane Michael. Thankfully, our parent company, Nexstar, recognized the challenges our employees faced. The company created a fund for our employees who needed help finding a place to stay while their homes were rebuilt. The #NexstarNation came together to support us through donations and their time. News directors, reporters, producers, photographers and other additional crew members came down to the Florida Panhandle to assist us with our coverage in the weeks following the storm.

With support from management at WMBB, and Nexstar, I was given the opportunity to move up within the company and was offered a weekend anchor position at CBS47.

Now, on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Michael, WMBB is celebrating a newly remodeled station. As horrible and destructive of a storm it was, I think we can learn a lot about a community from natural disasters. It’s an incredible opportunity for areas to rebuild better and stronger than before.

Though there’s still a lot of work left to do, on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Michael, we are still #PanhandleStrong.

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Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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