The Miami Herald newsroom the night of Hurricane Andrew. Doug Clifton with hands on hips; Doug Adrianson wearing the red shirt; Aaron Rubin far right next to the plant. The person sleeping on the couch remains a mystery.
Since we are fast approaching the 20-year anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, former Miami Herald executive editor Doug Clifton was kind enough to answer my questions about the Herald’s Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of the second costliest tropical cyclone in U.S history.
Andrew slammed into South Florida with a vengeance on Monday, August 24, 1992 with towns of Homestead, Florida City and Cutler Ridge near Miami absorbing the brunt of the storm. By the time it was over, Andrew left about 250, 000 people homeless, killed 26 people and caused more than $25 billion of damage in Florida and another billion in Louisiana.
In addition to being executive editor of the Miami Herald from 1991 through 1999, Mr. Clifton was editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland from 1999 until his retirement in 2007; and was inducted into the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame on Oct. 25, 2007. Under Clifton’s strong leadership, The Herald came away with four Pulitzer Prizes, including its 1999 investigation on voter fraud in Miami's mayoral election.
A Brooklyn, N.Y., native, Clifton graduated from Dowling College on Long Island with a degree in political science and served three years in the Army, including a year in Vietnam as an artillery officer. He lives in Weybridge Vermont with his wife Peg and is a member of The Vermont Journalism Trust, a nonprofit organization and director of the New England First Amendment Coalition.
Q. Did you have any idea how destructive the storm would be? It’s my understanding not many people paid much attention to the storm until Saturday morning August 21 when the storm was 800 miles east of Miami.
A. Hurricane forecasting 20 years ago was pretty good, but not as good as it is today. And in the best of times hurricanes are capable of producing surprises. We had no certainty where it would make landfall and at what intensity. So, yes, it wasn’t until that Saturday morning that we realized the potential for disaster was great.
Q.) It’s hard to believe not so long ago newsrooms didn’t have access to email, mobile phones, text messaging and Internet postings. Was the Herald hampered at all with communication meltdowns during your coverage, such as loss of electricity in your offices, lack of phone service, computer glitches?
A.) Clearly the job of covering a monster storm like Andrew was hampered by loss of power, cell phone service and, in some cases, landline failure. But an even bigger problem was getting around streets made impassable by fallen trees and discovering that so many of your staffers were themselves victims of the storm. Staff heroism proved to be the most powerful asset we had.
Q. Approximately how many Herald staff members were involved in covering the hurricane from reporters to photographers to desk editors?
A. At that time The Herald newsroom staff stood at about 500. It’s not an exaggeration to say that nearly every one of those 500 were involved in the coverage. Everyone was a city desk reporter. All the specialty staffs became general news reporters in the immediate aftermath of the storm. We were both victims and chroniclers. Suffering the perils of the storm gave our reporting unparalleled depth. Many of our people lived in neighborhoods that were among the hardest hit and we learned of exactly how hard because we suffered along with our readers.
Q. The Miami Herald came away with two Pulitzer’s in 1993, one of which was for Public Service for your coverage of the Hurricane. Given the limited staff challenges facing newspapers today, would such outstanding coverage be possible today if another such hurricane slammed into South Florida?
A. I’d like to think that even the much reduced Miami Herald of today would do a credible job of covering a storm of equal severity. Newsrooms seem to step up to whatever challenge they face. The New Orleans Times Picayune, with a staff a fraction of The Herald’s, did a superb job covering Katrina. Newspapers smaller than the Picayune in the Gulf region did a stellar job as well. When floods nearly drowned Grand Forks, the paper there, a paper with a newsroom staff of a couple of dozen, did Pulitzer level work. That’s what good newsroom do.
Q. After the hurricane hit, how did you begin organizing what kind of stories you wanted covered and who would be involved? Were the staff meetings, especially in the early stages, filled with chaos and confusion?
A. Although South Florida hadn’t lived through a big hurricane in decades we never stopped drafting contingency plans. And although we weren’t hit we chased storms throughout the region. So we had a staff with hurricane experience. Still, covering a storm in someone else’s neighborhood isn’t the same as covering it in your own. So there was a level of chaos but it was tempered by a newsroom that had some experience covering big stories. Naturally we faced coverage problems, all the ones one would expect - communication failures, access to sources, staffers immobilized by the storm. But compounding those problems were even bigger ones - like printing the newspaper, like distributing it if you could get it printed, like keeping the lights on. Two levels of meeting went on in the days following landfall - newsroom coverage meetings and paper-wide production/distribution meetings. They started out chaotic but settled into something approaching routine within a day or two. Initially we had no water and water is an integral part of the printing process, so the production folks needed to truck water in. Until they found a way to do that they jury rigged a water capturing system by tapping into the air conditioners, which were being powered by backup generators. It seemed that as soon as one disaster was avoided another one popped up and another creative solution was concocted to handle it. By comparison the newsroom had it easy. We just did what we were conditioned to do, albeit under restrictive conditions. One of the things we decided after about the second day was that we needed an investigative component of our coverage that would go on for as long as it took. The looming question was how did the South Florida Building code hold up to the high wind and deep water. Did all the new construction do better or worse than the old stuff. Were construction corners cut? Was the code enforced? Were inspections lax? Were they corrupted? We detached people on the I-Team to chase those angles. We also realized that insurance questions would loom large as folks emerged from the rubble. Business reporters became instant experts and shared their knowledge with readers. Each day presented a new set of problems that needed coverage so the plan was tweaked constantly.
Q. How prepared were the residents, local government, law enforcement officials, and shelters for Hurricane Andrew, given the last hurricane to hit South Florida with such destructive force was back in 1926?
A. Compared to a region that had no experience with natural disasters, Dade County was well prepared. When you live in the hurricane belt preparedness is required. But every storm is unique. This one was a doozie. No matter how good the plan, reality steps in and tweaks your nose. Andrew did that to all of us to one extent or another.
Q. Given an estimated 90,000 residents were forced to leave Dade and Broward counties by November 1992, what kind of effect did this have on the economy and the morale of South Florida?
A. Oddly, Dade County experienced an upward blip in the economy after Andrew. A third of the county lost nearly everything. Houses needed to be rebuilt. Appliances needed to be replaced. Landscaping needed to be restored. Roofs need to be patched. That proved to give the region a boost.
Q. Was the Herald’s coverage influential in changing how South Florida would prepare for hurricanes in the future, such as with building codes, warning systems, and evacuation provisions?
A. The Herald’s coverage of the building code and its enforcement resulted in reforms. Only another hurricane will reveal whether they were implemented.
Q. Were there any staff members, in particular, at the Herald who really earned their stripes with their scrupulous investigations, remarkable reporting or capturing vivid images of distraught victims?
A. It would be wrong to name MVPs on a staff that was full of them. That’s not a platitude. Everyone produced great work in the face of incredible obstacles - professional and personal. It was a real honor to have been there with them.
Q. Since there was no online news in 1992, did the Herald have any challenges distributing editions to resident’s or customers? Do you recall if the Herald sold a record number of issues at the newsstand?
A. The Herald carrier force was decimated by the storm. We assembled a substitute force that included people from every division including publisher and the editor. We distributed the paper free to any house that showed evidence that people lived there. It was the only time I was ever cheered for throwing a paper.
July 15, 2012