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Rosenwald, Md.
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Posted at 01:40 PM ET, 08/29/2011

The unglamorous life of a print reporter covering Irene

You know who is lonely during a hurricane? A print reporter. A print reporter covering a hurricane is as unglamorous as a print reporter covering the red carpet at the Oscars.

A print reporter has a notebook, a pen and, these days, a smartphone, which the print reporter often cannot operate. But a TV reporter has a cameraman, a sound boom, a big satellite truck, and generally better food.

The TV reporter’s most important accouterment: the video camera,
A wave releases sea foam as it crashes over the tidal wall along the Ocean City boardwalk. (RICKY CARIOTI/THE WASHINGTON POST)
which during a hurricane sends into your home dramatic images of the TV reporter being pummeled by wind, rain and stop signs.

This is why, during Hurricane Irene, the biggest star on the planet — bigger even than Justin Timberlake — was Jim Cantore, the Weather Channel veteran hurricane reporter who is often the subject of variations on this theme of joke: “If Cantore is in your town, run!”

Well, Jim Cantore is no Steve Hendrix.

Hendrix is my colleague, my friend (sometimes) and, during Irene, he was The Post’s lonely print guy not being followed by TV cameras or sound guys in Ocean City. I asked him a few questions about where he stayed, what he ate, and how he worked in an attempt to examine how lame his life was over the weekend, not being the TV guy covering the storm.

Considering his work habits, I expected only a few sentences in response, but he responded with a lovely tale of his time abroad. Here it is, in its entirety:

By Steve Hendrix:

By Friday afternoon, Ocean City was shut down. Empty of people but with all the neon signs and traffic lights working. It was remarkable, on an August weekend, to see that main street stretch out like a blinking, flashing ghost town. It was like the Rapture had come and Ocean City had proven a very pious place.

They were stopping incoming traffic, but as soon as the officer saw the paper with “PRESS” on it taped to my window, he waved me through. The OC police were unfailingly helpful to media all weekend, letting us go anywhere we wanted, and answering all questions. (Having once been threatened with arrest outside of Beaumont, Tex., when I went for Hurricane Rita, I appreciated that).

The Hilton stayed open to accommodate media, and there were lots of us. I drove in on Route 50 behind a sat truck from Cincinnati. CNN had a whole floor, and all the TV folks set up in the openings of the garage so they could shoot out at their windblown reporters. TV journalists do great things, but even some of them are sheepish about the lean-into-wind antics expected of them during hurricanes.

But we all love it, these kinds of stories. The excitement, the proximity to big forces and potential danger. Even when it’s uncomfortable, that only makes for better war stories later.

And this wasn’t uncomfortable; this was a Hilton, and a nice one. The hotel had only a skeleton staff, but they managed to scare up some nice buffet meals. And until the power went down, folks could watch their own coverage on flat-screen TVs. (They didn’t carry the Nationals game — outrage — but I was able to listen to it on my laptop.) When we lost power, a generator kept minimal lights on and one elevator, but no outlets. Dozens of desperate charger-addicted reporters plugged their phones, laptops and cameras into a single bank of power strips on the hotel reception desk. I began typing my feeds by thumb and sending them by BlackBerry.

As a print guy, my biggest challenge was taking notes. There were about 300 holdouts on the island, and I talked to any who I met. But outdoor interviews were wet ones, and conventional office pens smear and run. Pencils are better, but even they fail when the paper gets soaked. I found myself doubled over, trying to write in the tiny shelter of my own body, looking up to hear whatever they were shouting over the wind. I guess newspaper folks have their crazy weather antics, too. But dang, nobody gets to see our hair blow.

At one point early Saturday, with the winds in the 40s, I jumped in the car for a “ride-along.” Officer Freddie Howard and I spent an hour cruising the deserted, howling streets. He was jammed in with a couple hundred other police in the small municipal offices and expected to be on duty for about two straight days. By the end, we admitted to each other how much fun this was.

At about 7:30 p.m. Saturday, the winds topped 50 mph and the police pulled their patrols off the streets. Post photographer Ricky Carioti (who got knocked out and sliced up during Rita when a sheet of glass hit him in the head) and I headed down to the south end of town, where the inlet to the bay is and the flooding was most likely. The water was up midway on the wheels of his rented Tahoe, and the waves were coming over the wall of the boardwalk a bit. The wind was beginning to feel like something otherworldly. It was hard to remain upright in the gusts, and it drove the rain right through the fibers of my waterproof pants. But still we were beginning to get the sense that this was not going to be a catastrophic blow. In all honesty, that produces mixed feelings in reporters. You don’t wish a disaster on any community. But, gosh, you sure like to be there when one strikes.

By 1 in the morning, though, it was howling magnificently. I could lean over like a downhill skier on the flat street outside the Hilton.

At 4:30 a.m., it was significantly lessened, and I drove out to check on things. I didn’t see anyone out. The thin layer of sand that coated the boardwalk was unmarked by footprints. The water that had been feared in the lower blocks had already receded. The “Second Chance,” a boat where I had interviewed a guy the night before who was determined to stay aboard, was riding easy at its dock. Most of the island seemed to have power.

About an hour later, police patrols resumed. I was stopped about every 10 or 15 minutes as they worked to make sure no looters were about. They let me drive on when the saw the PRESS stickers, but not before we had a chance to note the obvious: Irene had not laid a finger on Ocean City.

By  |  01:40 PM ET, 08/29/2011

 
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