Knight Center
Knight Center

JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

'There are very few things that can shut the media down more efficiently than a hurricane': The Caribbean faces Irma and Maria



They got to work securing transmitter antenna and covering the windows of their newsrooms with plywood. Enough food and water were purchased to last for several days. Volunteers were called in to relieve exhausted employees when the time came that they couldn’t stay awake any longer, or had to attend to their own families and homes.

A photo from the Eye on the Storm collaboration between AMC, CMC and CDEMA shows the destruction in Mahaut in Dominica. (Courtesy)

In less than two weeks, journalists and media workers in the Caribbean weathered two hurricanes with monster winds and rain that knocked many off the air and locked others indoors. To complicate matters, many had to prepare for Hurricane Maria as it barreled through the region right on the heels of Irma.

“Because we experience this every year, most of the countries are very well-prepared for a certain level,” Wesley Gibbings, president of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM), told the Knight Center. “But this intensity and more than one…well, maybe the experts might remember sometime in the distant past, but in living memory, nobody has ever experienced this.”

Now, in the aftermath of these storms, stories are emerging about how journalists and media workers in the Caribbean fared and what is needed for them to get back on their feet.

There’s the small team of five that stayed behind at Radio Anguilla 95.5 FM and ensured it was the only station to remain on air in Anguilla, as well as French and Dutch St. Maarten, through the storm. When they lost their main antenna at the height of the hurricane, they rigged another, smaller one so they could return to the air, as journalist Keithstone Greaves recounted to Wesley Gibbings.

Some stations, like Abundant Life Radio and The Barbuda Channel, located on the island of the same name, took in residents as the storm raged outside.

People started to run out on the street asking for ‘help, help, help,’ and if there’s any room so we had to start taking in persons through the window and then I ran down the road trying to help folks,” Pastor Clifton Francois, owner and operator of the station, told journalist Anika Kentish.

Offices of The Daily Herald in Sint Maarten became a refuge not only for staff members who lost their houses, but also colleagues from other outlets who could no longer report from their newsrooms.

Wesley Gibbings, president of ACM (Knight Center)

“You have these really nice stories of collaboration between competitors,” said Gibbings, who was hearing these kinds of stories thanks to the ACM’s communication network. That’s when he decided to collect these accounts – including those mentioned above – in a single series to show the sacrifices made by journalists during natural disasters.

The Eye on the Storm series – a collaboration between ACM and the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) – recounts how journalists from Anguilla to Sint Maarten prepared for and endured the recent hurricanes.

According to Gibbings, journalists are one of the professional disciplines most ignored following emergencies despite the fact that the public depends on them for alerts and advice before and after a crisis.

“Very little attention is paid to the fact that many journalists spend 24-7 monitoring and reporting and trying to keep their communities informed,” he emphasized, adding that the stories will eventually be compiled into a publication.

“To help remind people that journalists play this kind of role in disasters all the time,” Gibbings said. “They remain resilient. Some of them, they suffer huge personal loss and continue to do their work.”

At the same time that ACM is collecting these stories, representatives of the organization are traveling between the islands to assess the needs of individual affected journalists and media workers.

Since non-essential visitors are prohibited from entering the islands affected by hurricanes Irma and Maria, CMC and ACM are working with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) to get their journalists into places like Dominica and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands (BVI).

The ACM representatives are hearing how some employees had to confront losing their homes and their means of making a living. Water and wind destroyed antennae, speakers, computers, documents and other tools of the trade.

Angela Burns, a broadcaster in Tortola, lost her home and online radio gospel station in one fell swoop.

Broadcaster Angela Burns talks to Onel Belle about how Hurricane Irma affected her station in Tortola, BVI. (Video screenshot)

“Everything has just been soaked and damaged. So, we lost our radio station. We lost everything in our house,” Burns told Onel Belle. “Everything just flew away. Inside right now is like a swimming pool.”

As part of his role with the Global Forum for Media Development, Gibbings said he’s lobbied for the recognition of natural disasters as threats to media development.

“So often, globally, we pay attention to the political circumstances that contribute to quashing or to diminishing press freedom and the work of media and it seems as if the press freedom community, worldwide, is focused on essentially the political developments,” Gibbings said. “Our experience in the Caribbean, and I’m sure the people in the Pacific will tell you the same story, is that we face natural disaster on a regular basis and there are very few things that can shut the media down more efficiently than a hurricane or an earthquake or some natural disaster.”

He urged the global media development community to heed this fact so that media can be more resilient and withstand these disasters. The journalist also highlighted the need to consider the smaller islands outside of the Greater Antilles when thinking of the Caribbean.



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