In the newspaper business, every deadline is a crisis.
Before they were Pulitzer winners for coverage of the April 2011 tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Shweta Vora Gamble and Anthony Bratina cut their journalistic teeth as editors of UAB's student newspaper. They are pictured above at Alberta Gathering Place at Jaycee Park, which was rebuilt using tornado debris.But as the hours ticked by at the Tuscaloosa News on April 27, 2011, the paper’s staff found itself at the center of one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history. Working with limited electricity in the wake of a massive tornado that devastated the city and surrounding communities, the News staff provided real-time updates online through Twitter as well as in-depth coverage in the next day’s newspaper. One year later, the paper was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.
Shweta Vora Gamble and Anthony Bratina, veterans of UAB’s Kaleidoscope student newspaper who both graduated in 2000, were part of the team of journalists who staffed the newsroom that day and shared in the honor.
“Winning the Pulitzer was bittersweet,” says Gamble, a former editor-in-chief of the Kaleidoscope and a design editor at the News. “The prize announcement came so close to the one-year anniversary of the storm, so it was fresh on all our minds. There was some celebration, but we also were very aware that 52 people lost their lives. When we think back on our roles, most of us just feel that we were doing what we were supposed to be doing—covering the news of the day and getting the information out to people however we could.”
"I was at work when the sirens went off. We went to the basement and were watching the news when the power went out. After that, we didn't know what was going on.”
All Hands on Deck
There is nothing unusual about a late-April tornado touching down in Alabama. In fact, Bratina, a graphics editor at the News, had prepared an illustration for a previous Sunday paper showing the paths of the deadliest storms in the area. Still, Bratina and Gamble say they never anticipated the widespread destruction the April 27 tornadoes would bring. “I was at work when the sirens went off,” Gamble says. “We went to the basement and were watching the news when the power went out. After that, we didn’t know what was going on.”
As the storm tore through downtown Tuscaloosa, staffers began receiving text messages alerting them to some of the damage. As soon as the storm passed, reporters were sent out into the city, and soon the full story began to trickle in. “When they came back in, many of them were just devastated,” Gamble says. “The city had been ripped apart, people were dead and missing. It was chaos.”
In the midst of that chaos, staffers began assembling a plan to cover the storm as effectively as possible. All available hands were called in to assist in an effort that would see them putting together what had become an intensely personal story.
Schools were canceled in Tuscaloosa as a precaution, so Bratina was home with his children. “Once it had passed, I had to take them to work with me,” he says. “I knew roughly where the storm had gone, so I took a longer route to avoid driving them through the damaged areas.”
Once he got his sons settled in, Bratina was ready to go to work. But instead of creating maps or coordinating graphics, he found himself doing the much more basic work of creating an improvised command center for disaster coverage. “The power had been knocked out, so everyone was jumping in, moving computers and stringing extension cords to the few plugs that were connected to the emergency power. And of course, the phones were ringing off the hook.”
“Family members were coming up to the paper looking for information about loved ones,” Gamble says. “Initially the list of missing was more than 300 people, but cell phone towers were down and many of the roads were impassable, so the newspaper office became a central location for people to try to find information.”
"The newspaper office became a central location for people trying to find information.”
Neither Gamble nor Bratina had close friends or family in the path of the storm, but the damage done to the city of Tuscaloosa and the surrounding area still took a personal toll. “I worked in Orlando when Florida was hit by three consecutive hurricanes,” recalls Gamble. “The newsroom environment was similar in that we were covering an emergency, but it didn’t have the same personal connection for me. This time, a city I felt a deep connection to was literally torn apart.”
“As the reports of the damage came in, I was more worried about my kids’ friends than anything,” says Bratina. “We thought the death toll was going to be much higher, based on the immediate aftermath. All I could think about was how I would explain it to my kids if they lost friends or friends’ families. We were fortunate that didn’t happen to us, but there were parents all over the state who had to have that conversation.”
With no power to the building, the newspaper was printed out of town and trucked in, where it was then delivered to emergency shelters along with the traditional outlets. Perhaps just as important were the Twitter updates reporters sent out to provide information as it was gathered. “They say one of the things that helped win the Pulitzer was the real-time information, letting people know which roads were blocked and where major damage was,” Bratina says. “Later, when we put our coverage online, we produced an interactive map that allowed people to click on certain areas to see the damage in detail. Those are two of the ways that technology helped us cover the story in a way that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.”
Through that combination of new technology and old, Gamble says the Pulitzer recognition is an affirmation of sorts of the important role a daily newspaper plays. “It was interesting when we looked at what was slated to go in the paper,” she says. “There were community calendars and events that we knew would not take place. We got rid of all of that and changed the way we did things until we stopped covering the tornado. In the days that followed, subscribers were calling to complain because they weren’t getting their papers. When we checked on it, we found out that their houses had been blown away, but they still wanted their papers delivered. I think that says a lot.”
—Written by Grant Martin