When Lindsay Manning left Chattanooga for a news reporting job at WFTS-ABC Action News in Tampa, Fla., she was expecting a lot of hot, sunny days.
All that changed when Hurricane Irma was predicted to hit the city. With less than six months’ experience at her job, the UTC communication graduate did what she was trained to do: Tell the story and report the news.
“The last time Tampa saw a major hurricane was on the outskirts 10 years ago. Everyone panicked when we heard it was coming directly at us,” she said. “Even veteran Floridians who laugh at hurricanes were hesitant on this one.”
Visiting grocery stores before the storm hit was surreal, she recalled.
“You know when the forecast calls for flurries in Chattanooga and there’s nothing on the shelves? It’s like that only on a much bigger scale because the panic was not ‘Oh no, we’re going to be without power,’ the panic was like, ‘We might die and, if we survive, we’ll be without power for weeks.’ The entire state felt like it was vibrating with fear.
“The whole area was in survival mode. People were fighting over bottles of water like it was Black Friday. Shelves of water, Gatorade, bread and canned goods—all empty. Flashlights, batteries, duct tape—all gone. There was nothing.”
“We just didn’t know.”
Though Manning has worked as a photojournalist for nearly a decade, she has never reported during a hurricane.
“All the meteorologists were saying, ‘This is a beast. This is something we haven’t seen in a long, long time.’ The size of it was wider than the whole state and wind gusts were record breaking at 220 mph.
“I started having anxiety and asking tons of questions at work like, ‘I’m working out in the field, but where?’ and ‘What wind speeds are too much to drive the live truck?’ People kept saying, ‘stay safe,’ but I didn’t have the experience to know what that meant. I felt unprepared, inexperienced and terrified.
“Nobody wanted to say it, but we didn’t know if we were going to come home. We just didn’t know. Nobody knows when you go out into a storm like that,” she continued.
Going live with Irma
As the storm drew closer, Manning and the news crew headed to the Hillsborough County Emergency Operations Center. She worked for nearly three days straight, sleeping just a few hours on a concrete floor. She stayed in contact with family and friends by broadcasting live on Facebook, giving updates on her whereabouts and Irma’s progression. She gave viewers a behind-the-scenes look at a live news broadcast and, in a moment of levity, rescuing a turtle from the middle of the street.
“It was days of exhausting uncertainty, like living in prolonged fight or flight,” she said. “Experts around the world couldn’t figure out where Irma would go, who would be affected most, who to warn or how much it would damage it would cause. So you just had to be ready. That was the scariest part. You just don’t know where it’s going to hit until the last minute.”
As Irma neared Manning’s location, the storm shifted toward the middle of the state, sparing the Tampa area from the worst of the damage.
“Everyone thought we were going to be underwater, but there was a negative storm surge,” Manning said. “There were zero tornado warnings in the entire viewing area.
“We were really lucky.”
All in a day’s work
For Manning, this experience strengthened her love for her profession.
“I would have loved to just work an eight-hour shift and go home to my family. I really wanted to be together for our first hurricane, but It’s our duty as journalists to bring information and images to the public, especially in times of disaster. News field crews accept that when we accept this job. While most are hunkering down, we will be out there.
“Something like this just proves you have to be in it for your heart. Because nobody gets paid enough to go out in the middle of a hurricane. But you do get paid enough in gratitude from your viewers when you’re keeping them safe,” she continued. “When the little old ladies who are alone and scared at home can watch our newscast and feel comforted, that’s priceless.”
And, in a way, Irma helped Manning feel a little more home in Florida, too.
“Irma was a hazing. I feel like I’ve been through initiation,” she said. “After this, I’m officially calling myself a Floridian. And I’m prepared for the next hurricane.”
Watch the video below to hear Manning talk more about her experience with Irma.