The powerful windstorm that hit Quincy on Monday, July 13 brought down hundreds of trees and knocked out power to thousands throughout the city. It's the type of moment when a journalist thinks, "It's time to get to work" -- unless one of the homes that's been damaged is your own.
That's exactly what happened to me.
I was surprised when my phone rang about 10:30 the morning of Tuesday, July 14. I became less surprised when it continued to ring through early afternoon. The calls and text messages came in from familiar names:
- Alex Degman (Illinois Radio Network)
- Alex Heuer (St. Louis Public Radio)
- Sean Crawford (Illinois Public Radio)
- Tanya Koonce (Peoria Public Radio)
They saw my Facebook posts about the storm damage at my home in Quincy and wanted to talk to me about it.
My wife, Jamie, looked at me and asked, "Why do they want to talk to you?" I became "Mr. Journalist" at that point and explained to her how important it is to talk to someone who was involved in the storm, not just a city leader or the head of an emergency response agency. I said while those interviews are important, the personal interviews are the best.
Plus, deep down, it's also a bonus as a journalist when you have someone you can talk to who is comfortable being part of an interview.
I have known the journalists who reached out to me for years, be it through my participation in the Public Affairs Reporting Program and the Illinois News Broadcasters Association or as co-workers with Tri States Public Radio. So when the first questions out of their mouths were "Are you and Jamie OK? How are the dogs?" it did not surprise me one bit.
Those are the types of questions that make you feel much more comfortable about a situation.
I think for the most part, journalists do the same even for people they do not know. I know I try, and will make a point of it more in the future. We must make sure we approach people as human beings and not soundbite machines.
I told them that we were all fine. We ended up losing a giant tree from our front yard, a storage shed in our back yard, and electricity for about 28 hours. All in all, though, we came out really lucky.
From there, my time on the other side of the microphone began, starting with “What was it like when the storm hit Quincy?”
I had to admit to them that I had no idea because I was in Macomb at the time. I had just anchored Afternoon Edition and was catching up on work when my wife called.
"When are you coming home?"
"OK, see you then."
Short, sweet and to the point. So I was surprised when she called me back about 10 minutes later.
All I remember her saying was that she was standing by the window in our living room when the wind ripped our giant ash tree out of the ground. As she spoke, the storm sirens started going off so she and our dogs headed to the basement.
I told her to stay put and that I would get there as soon as I could. I ran into no bad weather, though I admit I was speeding a bit.
That led to the natural follow-up question: "What were you thinking?"
I could tell how shaken my wife was. The uprooted tree stretched from almost our front door to our neighbor's driveway across the street.
I am forever grateful that tree fell as it did because my wife was standing in the living room watching it. That’s exactly where it would have hit had it toppled the other direction.
I have to admit, it was strange reliving that moment on the phone over and over and over. As journalists, though, that’s what we ask people to do all the time.
"Tell us your story and tell it over and over."
I know how the game works, so it did not bother me at all, but we journalists must remember that for someone who is not used to the news business, it could be quite difficult.
A couple other questions stood out from my interview moments, not as much for the questions, which were good, but for my answers.
"How does the city look?"
I saw some of the aftermath as I entered town. My route home required many extra turns to avoid closed streets due to downed power lines and toppled trees.
I told Alex Degman that Quincy "Looked like someone cross-cut a forest." I thought to myself, "Hey, that's pretty good" so I used it a few more times. It apparently was good because it was used in several stories about the day.
Looking back, I want to smack myself in the forehead for saying that. My reason:
I have covered politics for 12 years so I am used to hearing someone repeat a line over and over. That actually frustrates me, but when push came to shove, I did the exact same thing.
The fact that my interviewers chose that line is no fault of their own. After all, we try to find the most interesting, emotional quote that paints a picture in our listeners' minds.
At the end of each interview, I was asked some form of the question "Is there anything else I should have asked you that I did not?”
I try to end my interviews with that question whenever possible. In fact, I hope every journalist does. It lets your subject talk about what they want to talk about, instead of answering your questions.
Many times, that will provide you the best quote for your story. Other times, you will get the answer, "No."
I took the opportunity to talk about my neighbors.
When I got home from Macomb, my neighbor Rob was helping my wife start our portable generator. I looked out front and saw people I knew, and some I didn’t, using chainsaws to cut the branches from our giant ash tree.
I joined them as quickly as I could. We spent two hours trying to clear Oak Street, which runs from the mall to the hospital.
As soon as we cleared one lane, the cars showed up, delaying our efforts. That was frustrating because some were just taking pictures or pointing.
One person did ask if we were OK. I thanked him for that.
For journalists and onlookers in general, show some restraint and don’t get in the way when people are trying to help others.
With no street lights due to the power outage, we had to quit about 9:00 p.m. At that point we all shook hands and walked back into our homes to wait for the power to return.
As a journalist, the togetherness displayed was the real story to share. I was a little preoccupied at the time, which is why I am sharing it with you now.