Even before Hurricane Maria touched down in Puerto Rico in September 2017, many feared the damage would be enormous. When the storm reached landfall, those fears were confirmed, and it was obvious that people’s lives on the island would be changed forever.
Seeing the devastation firsthand, our NBC News teams knew that covering the story piecemeal from afar wasn’t going to be enough — the story was too big and too important. As we do whenever major news stories hit, we embedded ourselves on the ground to help audiences understand what was happening on an island literally in the dark.
Lester Holt, Anchor of NBC Nightly News, was the first major news anchor to report live from Puerto Rico, calling it “the equivalent of a war zone.” Within days, we had opened a full-time news bureau in the capital, San Juan, to house our correspondents and crews. We also collaborated with our Spanish-language network, Telemundo, which has roots in San Juan and sent its own team of correspondents to cover the crisis.
Reporting from the scene helped us learn how Puerto Ricans were coping moment to moment, identify experts who could put the scale of the tragedy into perspective, and earn the trust of residents and local government officials.
This personal, up-close reporting is critical for stories like Hurricane Maria because it brings to life the human impact of a tragedy in a way that studio reporting cannot. It’s why journalists from NBC, Telemundo, and The Weather Channel were among the first on scene during many of the most significant disasters of 2017. Together, they brought stories of devastation and hope to the world, inspiring viewers to persevere and aid in recovery efforts — during not only Maria but also Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Harvey, and the California wildfires.
“We sometimes speak about natural disasters in numbers,” says Holt, an anchor who’s known for reporting on location whenever possible. “But it makes us better reporters to talk directly with the people affected. Being on the ground, we can touch it, we can feel it, and we can infuse our reporting with personal experience. Coupled with our technology, we can help our audience understand what’s really happening.”
NBC News correspondents frequently forgo the news desk for front lines and front yards, where they act as eyes and ears for viewers. In 2017, our correspondents reported live from calamities such as Hurricane Harvey in Houston, the California wildfires, and the Mexico City earthquake. Some stories revealed themselves in heartbreaking ways.
“I was talking to a firefighter during the California wildfires,” Holt says. “As he was out saving homes, he learned over the radio that his own home was destroyed. He was still doing his job without knowing the whereabouts of his family. Immediately, this was no longer a story about ‘X hundred people homeless,’ but a story of a hero, a family, and a brotherhood of co-workers.”
We couldn’t have told the story of Hurricane Maria without standing in the wreckage of homes or traveling heavily damaged highways to reach communities cut off from power, food, and water.
“The important thing is to remind people why they should care,” Holt says of the value of reporting on the ground. “Ideally, they’ll ask themselves, ‘How would I handle that? What would my family be doing?’ We try to give that perspective to viewers.”