Covering disasters is cooperative effort

Jim Plum embraces Dylan Cader, 10, while helping the Cader family sift through the remains of their home in San Diego's Rancho Bernardo neighborhood Oct. 25. At least 1,800 houses were lost to the wildfires in Southern California. (CNS/David Maung)To provide detailed coverage of natural disasters, CNS relies heavily on diocesan reporters who have the advantage of being much closer to the scene than those of us in Washington and Rome.

Our coverage of the wildfires in Southern California has been no exception with added input of reporters from The Tidings, archdiocesan newspaper of Los Angeles, and The Southern Cross, San Diego’s diocesan paper.

When Paula Doyle, reporter for The Tidings, got to work last Monday, the fires that had started the day before had already wreaked havoc on the region. She knew she “had to do a fire story,” but the problem was access — getting to the affected areas when most of the roads were blocked.

She told CNS that she approached the story, before she even knew what it was, by doing what she always does before writing — saying a prayer and quieting her mind.

During that process she happened to remember that her dentist’s wife, Suzanne Ricci, is a co-principal at Our Lady of Malibu School. As a school official, Ricci was given the OK by police to walk through school property on a closed-off road. She described the scene in detail to Doyle and even e-mailed her a picture of the fire scorched portable building used as the school’s computer lab. The description and photo were part of CNS coverage.

School loses computer lab in Malibu wildfireDoyle said that, through the school contact, The Tidings was able to run more details about the Our Lady of Malibu School than what was had been reported in the Los Angeles Times.

“Catholic journalism is all about contacts,” she said, pointing out that with Catholics comprising one-fourth of the population, “it’s not hard to know other Catholics.”

Father Gregory Le Blanc and Bishop Ronald Gilmore tour the site of St. Joseph Church days after the May 4 tornado.That’s certainly what has helped our coverage of other disasters, including the tornado in Greensburg, Kan., in May.

A friend of CNS knew someone in Kansas who in turn knew that a parish secretary survived the tornado that whipped through her home by clinging to her oxygen tank.

I spoke to the 70-year-old woman on her cell phone while she was stocking up on basic supplies at a local Wal-Mart later. She recounted her tornado experience of huddling in the hallway, closing her eyes and praying as loudly as she could, possibly louder, she said, than the tornado itself.

Although the contacts help in getting a Catholic angle to these kind of stories, as Peter Finney Jr., editor of the Clarion Herald, the archdiocesan newspaper in New Orleans, or Shirley Henderson, editor of Gulf Pine Catholic, diocesan newspaper of Biloxi, Miss., can most likely attest, sometimes the stories just come from just being at the right place at the right time.

That certainly happened for some of the stories CNS photographer Bob Roller and I covered in Mississippi right after Hurricane Katrina. After Bob took pictures of what had been a Biloxi neighborhood (completely blown away by hurricane winds) he spoke to some residents sorting through scattered debris and learned they were Catholic.

Their story, I found out when I visited them the next day, was one of loss and hope after finding their baby’s christening gown intact when all else was either gone or completely mud damaged from the storm.

Six months later, CNS visual media manager Nancy Wiechec and I revisited the same location for an update from the family. The area, filled then with FEMA trailers, looked completely different. This time, it wasn’t so much who we knew as much as plain good luck by knocking on the right trailer door when the owner just happened to be around.

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