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Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Shelter

I might step on some toes today.  So be it.  Some things need to be said.

I'm normally off on Wednesdays, but I was called in to help with Sandy coverage.  I didn't mind.  "Big stories" is one of the reasons you get in to the business.  I'll take an extra day off next week to help recharge the battery.  Compared to the suffering of storm victims, working an extra day is no big deal.

As I noted here last week, news is a collaboration.  Producer Thomas, anchors Tom and Mindi, and I sat down to decide where I should be for Newswatch 16 This Morning on WNEP and WNEP2.  The answer was clear.  Monroe County got hit hard.  There was a co-called "mega shelter" set up at East Stroudsburg University.  It was inside the Koehler Field House.  Apologies for the mispronunciation Wednesday.  It's really pronounced "Keeler" but an ESU employee says everyone says it differently.  We want to be correct.

Anyway, the shelter was set up by the American Red Cross and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.  There were media rules:  no camera in the sleeping area, no one inside goes on TV without their permission.  I was okay with that.  The sleeping area is the equivalent of a bedroom.  I don't want a camera in my bedroom, and storm victims already had enough misery in their lives.

We had a few people willing to share their stories, and I thanked them.  I've always been amazed when people who have a lot on their plates are willing to talk.

Here's where the problems are.

I'll back up a day.  Stroudsburg has one AM and one FM station with offices downtown.  Both were off the air last Tuesday.  An emergency services worker made it a point to seek me out to complain about the lack of information available to the public via home town radio.  Not everyone can afford a smart phone or laptop.  Radios are inexpensive, and can be a marvelous resource.

Government ineptitude never ceases to amaze me.  I approached a PEMA worker for some information.  In response, I was given a phone number in Harrisburg to call.  No.  I don't want that.  Tell me what's going on HERE and NOW.  HERE and NOW is the story-- not in some warm and cushy government office, miles away, staffed by the political "in" crowd..  Always remember, public relations people are not in the "giving" information business.  Their job is to "control" information.  Big difference.

The Red Cross people, as always, were very nice.  We were offered hot drinks, which I politely declined.  I'm a diet soda guy-- even when it's cold and wet outside.

I received some basic info from the Red Cross, but not really enough.  It's a difficult situation.  The Red Cross relies on donations, so you should see where your money goes.  You should learn how that money is being used.  Showing an efficient and well run shelter might even spur more donations, and the Red Cross always needs money.  The lack of cooperation surprised, and disappointed me.  It was out of character and I hope it's not a sign of things to come.  Another WNEP crew, at another shelter, related a similar experience.

Once again, you learn so much by just walking around.  I had a few minutes to explore the campus while photographer Mark was editing our noon story.  The stalls in the men's room at ESU's University Center were filthy.  Keep in mind, this bathroom was far away from the overworked facilities at the Koehler Field House shelter.   Students deserve more for their big tuition.  Students also need to be considerate when using the facilities.

I had a nice little talk with a professor. The topic was the ongoing and contentious contract negotiations with the state.  This is a developing story, and keep an eye on this one.

It was interesting to see how the business and education at ESU continued-- even with the shelter on campus, even with employees running in to the gym to shower because they had no electricity at home.  It was almost like the field house and shelter were on a different planet.  Just steps away from the shelter, life went on.

I was impressed by the overnight and early morning ESU security force.  They kept an eye on the students, the shelter, and even us.  The officers were friendly and were the best public relations ambassadors I encountered Wednesday.  Everyone felt safe, and that's huge when you're out of your home and in strange surroundings.  These people can't be thanked enough.
We satellited a story for our noon broadcast, handed off the story to Raegan Medgie and photographer Dan Turansky, and headed home.

Our van is a magnet for people who want to talk.  It's like a live version of Talkback.  Several people walked up to say every power line should be underground and every tree near every power line should be cut down.  Are you kidding me?  Cost prohibitive, and there wouldn't be any trees left.

One visitor to the van broke my heart.  Just before I went on at noon, she told me that her power company warned the outage would last another week.  The woman was nearly in tears.  Think no electricity is no big deal?  Try it for a while.

As I've noted here in police and court cases, there is no such thing as a perfect investigation.  There's also no such thing as a perfect response to a disaster.  A lot of things before, during, and after Sandy were done extremely well.  BUT, there is a lot of room for improvement and just plain common sense.