Sunday, September 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Storm of the Century

Stories from the Hurricane of the Century

Storm of the Century

On vacation last week enjoying my new grandson and a visit from my parents, I missed out on covering the earthquake and hurricane of the century (I did post a 5.8 Richter Scale joke Facebook photo - something I don't dare share here - of the fence in my suburban front yard shot with a slow shutter speed and the caption, "no white pickets were harmed during the photo re-creation of this event.")

Like most people, I watched the weather channel and local news stations to keep up on the approach and arrival of Irene. I also kept up on what my colleagues were up to - out in the eye of the storm - by checking their photos on philly.com.

As with other news events I've missed out on, I asked my co-workers about their coverage. Daily News staffer David Maialetti emailed me a terrific story, so I decided to share the whole thing here:

(The photos below are all David's, as well as the one on the Daily News front page above)

Filmmaker and director/producer of grand-prize winning fiction shorts and documentaries Ben Kalina, a former neighbor, calls me out of the blue Friday morning. He wonders if he needs a press pass to cover Hurricane Irene from Long Beach Island, where he is working on a documentary film called Shored Up.

With a weird serendipity, I had just been assigned to cover LBI and realized we could help each other. He had all the contacts on the island and I had the press credentials. Turns out that we really don’t need my ID's since we arrive before the checkpoints are activated - but Ben’s contacts prove invaluable as the storm approaches.

Driving to the shore, we talk about our plan to ride out Irene on the island since it has only one way off and a history of being split in half after major storms.

“Plan A” is to spend the night at the New Jersey Maritime Museum in Beach Haven. Ben knows the president, Deb Whitcraft, who has agreed to let us sleep on the floor of the museum. Ben warned me the walls were covered with historical photos and paintings of shipwrecks and disasters like the great storm of 1962. It's a little creepy but I'm game because my “Plan B” is to sleep in the truck.

As I toss and turn on the museum floor catching a glimpse of old shipwrecks and sea rescues, it becomes harder to rationalize staying on the island. Another factor is the museum being a lifeline toss from the bay. I'd have a better chance of making the news than reporting it.

In the morning, we need a new plan. Call it “This is Crazy, Get Off the Island Plan.”

We talk with a lot of people on the island and everyone has their own theory and memory of past storms. An old-timer remembers the 1944 hurricane. It was so long ago that he says they didn’t give them names back then. He recalled people swimming up to have a drink at his parent’s bar, The Gateway. That sounded like fun. Who would want to miss a giant pool party? Others warn that the whole island would be under seven-feet of water.  Ben and I are both under six-feet tall. New plan: we need to find a boat fast.

A guy pulls up in a SUV wearing a life vest. At first glance this freaks me out. Is it going to be that bad? It turns out he is riding the storm out in style and just having a little fun. Besides sporting a vest he is drinking a beer. It's 10 a.m.  We follow him to his place to see if he has a boat for us to borrow. He does. It's an inflatable one. We’ll have to pump it up. Okay, that becomes “Plan D.” If everything goes to hell, at least we’ll have a rubber boat. We can't find the oars.

Feeling sort of confident we drive off looking to make pictures of others ignoring the mandatory evacuation. More people. More theories. Irene is weakening, we're told by a clerk in an empty grocery store. Ben and I agree, if it is still a category 2 when it hits New Jersey we get off the island. Category 1 is still open for debate.

Things start to get a little shaky in the late afternoon on Saturday. Tropical depression… Category 1… no 2... What? Deb now thinks her place will be completely surrounded with water. I joke she wants to go down with the ship. Her windows aren’t boarded. Doors not even sand bagged. I have a bad feeling. I try to convince Ben we need to park the truck on high ground and ride it out there. He counters by suggesting a tidal surge could wash us away. Good point, but I’m still not going down with her ship.

I call my editor to tell him it might be a bad idea to stay. He listens and says, "take one for the team." Only kidding. He says if I feel unsafe I should leave. Ben and I agree to make one more effort to stay on the island. Deb knows the director of Beach Haven’s Emergency Operations and introduces us. He and his team are working out of the old Coast Guard station built to withstand a Category 5. Awesome… sort of. Until he informs us when it was built in the 1960’s it could battle a 5, but now he isn’t so sure. He says we could stay only after we promised not to pull a “Geraldo.” Neither one of us sport bad moustaches so we're a little confused by the request, but hey, whatever it takes. No Geraldo.

Saturday night turns to Sunday morning as the storm roars past. That’s it? We could have stayed in the museum, the truck, or retreated to the mainland and we would have been fine. Luckily for LBI the storm damage is minor. I think one tree fell. Flooding was also minor considering the place is surrounded by water. As for my purposes, being on the island yielded a few average pictures but no prizewinners. I’m fine with that. In the end, nobody has the perfect theory when it comes to predicting storms. Although I do come away with a better understanding that building on barrier islands might not be such a great plan.

--- David Maialetti

Closer to home, Inquirer staff photographer April Saul was amused by the difference between the post-storm headlines of the two newspapers at the top of this post.

She told me it confirmed that her own photographic approach to covering Irene was "the middle ground," something she experienced with editor's different reactions to her images of children "basically being children throughout the stormy weekend."

On Saturday, she found tons of kids celebrating the torrential rain in her neighborhood. With their parents help, they'd created a giant slip and slide and "were coming down the hill soaking wet with big grins on their faces."

One of the pictures was poised to run big in the paper when a editor intervened. Contending that the hurricane was too "serious" for such images, the picture was downgraded in size and placement.

On Sunday, April says, editors were so grateful for her photo of kids playing in a partly submerged swing set in Cooper River Park they "ran it nice and big."

"What's wrong with showing people enjoying the extreme weather?" she wondered about the pre-Irene photo, adding "we use photos of kids playing in snow and splashing in pools during blizzards and heat waves... (that kill many more people)."

Post script: if you missed it while YOU were away on vacation this summer, take a look at her recent story on a 9 year-old boy who was blinded by a stray bullet in his Camden neighborhood. April reported, wrote, photographed and filmed a touching video as doctors, family, and therapists help the youngster adjust to the aftermath.

Tom Gralish Inquirer Staff Photographer
About this blog

Tom Gralish is a general assignment photographer at The Inquirer, concentrating on local news and self-generated feature photos.

He has been at the paper since 1983, photographing everything from revolution in the Philippines to George W. Bush’s road to the White House to homeless people living on the street right outside his newspaper's front door. For his photo essay on Philadelphia’s homeless, he was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the Robert F. Kennedy Award.

His weekly newspaper column, "Scene Through the Lens," takes a look at Philadelphia's urban landscape.

Gralish, along with Inquirer colleague and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Vitez, spent a year visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art to capture the stories and photos of "Rocky runners" who come from all over the world to climb the steps - just as Sylvester Stallone did in the Academy Award winning film, Rocky. Their book, Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps, was published in November 2006.

Reach Tom at tgralish@phillynews.com.

Tom Gralish Inquirer Staff Photographer
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