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A view of the Morning Edition 'Rundown Board' for Tuesday, October 30, the day after the brunt of the storm hit. (NPR)

Inside NPR During Superstorm Sandy

Nov 22, 2012

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Margaret Low Smith

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Here's a peek behind the curtain to show you a bit of what is was like in the NPR Newsroom during Superstorm Sandy.

A little less than a month ago, when we began to really grasp the size and power of Sandy, a small team of news staff and others from across NPR gathered to plan how we were going to cover the storm and also make sure our people and operations could stay up and running at our Washington, D.C. headquarters, as Sandy was headed our way.

All Hands on Deck
Behind the scenes, our team went to work booking hotels renting SUV's (NPR executives were among those behind the wheel carpooling staffers to and from work), and equipment was checked and deployed. We housed and fed those who needed to stay at our headquarters throughout the storm to make sure we could get on the air and stay on the air. It was all hands on deck. We dispatched reporters from every desk and beat. Even a moonlighting foreign correspondent jumped into the fray, putting on her virtual waders and heading into the storm.

Covering All Angles
The news was fast breaking and we needed to provide a sense of the scale and impact of the storm. There were so many threads of coverage we needed to follow. First, the storm itself. Where was Sandy headed and why was the storm so big? Then, the floods. The lack of power. The loss of human life. The story of the economic devastation. The first responders. The political story - what did this mean for the election? And the story of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his sudden bro-mance with President Obama. Bloomberg and the marathon that was and then wasn't. The city hospitals that had to empty out. The insurance. The gas lines. Climate change - both a science story and a political story. High-powered, and now very tweaky, New Yorkers with no internet. And the lines at Starbucks and post offices to recharge iPhones.

Hardly a Glamorous Gig
What often doesn't (and shouldn't) get revealed during our coverage is that the reporters covering this story are also dealing with storm challenges at home. Correspondent Quil Lawrence, who recently returned to the States after many years reporting in Afghanistan, was without power at home while covering Sandy. (Though he admitted it was still easier than being in Kabul.)

For many of our reporters, transportation was the hardest part of getting to the story. National Desk Reporter Jeff Brady, who was in New Jersey for much of the storm, said he was driving in the kind of rain that wipers at full-speed can't match. On the 30-mile trip to his hotel he saw only three cars.

New York-Based Correspondent Robert Smith said over and over he would park his car, get out to interview someone, then turn around to see his Jeep surrounded by water. He'd wade back, only to drive to the next stop and repeat the process. Finally, he had to abandon his car and walk to his last story because he was nearly out of gas and finding gas was near impossible.

As for Joel Rose, one of our National Desk reporters, the New York subway was not an option, so he rode his bike into the city from Brooklyn an hour each way. Along the way, he rode through a nearly deserted Lower Manhattan with no traffic lights and barely a person in sight. Pretty creepy, he said. Then Joel had a rough time finding a hotel that was open Monday night. He found one place with vacancies, but the manager would only let them stay there if Joel promised to pay an arm and a leg, and also mention the hotel's name every time he went on the air. I'm happy to report they declined that offer, despite a desperate need for sleep. When they finally found a hotel, the minute they checked in, the power went out.

You get the idea. Not exactly a glamorous gig, but the dedication to getting the story is stunning.

One Story Wains; Another Begins
Before our coverage of the storm could subside, we had to pivot to the other big story. And so many of these troopers took off their rain boots and hopped on airplanes to cover the 2012 election. Our batteries were a bit low as we slammed into Election Day but the energy and the enthusiasm never waned. All in a day's work.


Margaret Low Smith is the Senior Vice President for NPR News. This essay is an excerpt from remarks she shared with the NPR Board of Directors and Foundation Trustees.

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