Media lessons from the derecho

By Joe Coffey | The Fifth Estate

When you study each generation’s “where were you when” stories, like the JFK assassination or 9/11, you’ll notice that media technology is a main character. The platforms that delivered those big moments also shaped our memories of them.

The same is true in local retellings of the Aug. 10 derecho that blew a trail of destruction across Iowa. Everyone has different preferred outlets, technologies and service providers, so the stories are very different from person to person.

The warnings

The derecho didn’t give meteorologists much time to warn us. A cell phone notification from KCRG’s First Alert weather app caught my attention before local emergency management services utilized the Alert Iowa statewide messaging system.

I initially questioned the KCRG warning to dive into my basement. I think many of us have heard that warning enough times with nary a patio chair blown over and have developed an unhealthy skepticism about the need to take cover. I thought the detail about “potential winds nearing 75 miles per hour” was a typo. That didn’t seem possible unless the word “tornado” was in the message. I’m not kidding when I suggest that including the phrase “No, we’re not kidding” in the message would’ve helped idiots like me get in the basement faster.

The moment of impact

I went from shooting my own shock-and-awe phone photos and video of a 75-foot red oak tree bending in the wind to grabbing flashlights and diving into the basement. Like a fool, I kept popping up to check on things. A tree crashed into a bedroom. Another one fell across the porch. I was frantically texting to check in on kids and tell them I was OK.

Panic turned to weather app checking (green blob) to news website checking (dire warnings) to sending photos to kids and friends (porch tree, bending oak). Then I lost cell service.

The aftermath

It’s a strange thing to crawl out of one’s home to find hurricane-type destruction. I could make a few calls and text a bit here and there, but my Verizon signal kept dropping out. My friends on AT&T went a week before their phones were more than a paperweight.

I was hungry for information after 24 hours. Scanning the dial on a battery-powered radio was aggravating. Local stations weren’t coming in or were playing music, of all things. I’d occasionally catch a station break, only to be frustrated by a quick mention of the storm and mere bullet-length info about the 100,000-plus people who had no power.

Media entities don’t get the call often, but sometimes they’re expected to flip a switch and go into emergency help-your-local-audience mode. I assumed the local TV stations were trying to do that, I just wasn’t able to watch TV or access their websites.

It made me think about when radio stations had several reporters doing their own reporting, rather than just a morning DJ re-wording snippets from other news sources. For a week, I sat by my fire pit at night and thought about how primal my life was in terms of media consumption. I was eventually able to tune in Iowa Public Radio and piece together what was happening. It matched the word-of-mouth info that neighbors were sharing.

My cell signal was eventually consistent enough to give me glimpses of friends’ situations via Facebook. I signed up for text notifications from the city of Cedar Rapids. City council member Dale Todd was a beacon of aggregated city service information. Local entrepreneur Steve Shriver was on Facebook Live directing people to neighborhoods needing food and supplies.

Here’s what I didn’t expect: By the time I was ready and able to consume daily doses of news, my media appetite had changed. I didn’t want a 30-minute newscast, a daily newspaper of yesterday’s news or a frustrating experience navigating a website with forced ads before each video. I didn’t want to tiptoe through my friends’ misinformed political rants on Facebook to get to the nuggets of relevant local info.

This may sound like a homer plug since this column appears in the CBJ, but it’s true – the CBJ’s email newsletters became my new go-to for no-nonsense quick hits of what’s important locally. They hit my inbox reliably and the experience is no fuss, no muss.

I suspect I’ll slide back into my previous local media habits eventually. It’s interesting to think about how the media sources I lost access to weren’t there to shape my impression of the derecho or make me miss their daily offerings once I had learned to cope without them. Local weather apps, however, will be taken more seriously. •

Joe Coffey has 20 years of experience as a journalist, educator and marketer in the Corridor.