Back in the 1970’s, TV news coverage was far more aggressive – believe it or not – than it is today in terms of covering death and mayhem. This was especially true for the San Antonio market, where my TV career launched in January of 1970. I was hired as a news photographer/reporter, but my eyes (and they knew this) were always on squeezing into sports.
By August I was still shooting and reporting, and enjoying it. We shot 16mm film. There were no live shots via satellite, no cell phones to help communicate, no Twitter of Facebook, and I often shot a story, processed the film, and when it dried, edited my story to hopefully match my script.
Ch4 (NBC), WOAI-TV was blood and guts thirsty. Incredible. We had reporters running for the door if a shooting or some other disaster came over the police radio. One of the stipulations was to get there before the bodies were loaded into the ambulance, and because it helped their advertising, it occasionally happened that the medical team would wait for us to film. The bodies weren’t going anywhere after all.
I saw some horrific things during those first few months, from plane crashes to shootings to car crashes, and for years I occasionally had explicit nightmares. When you’re walking through the debris of a crash site and they tell you to be careful where you step, well, you get the idea.
Still, nothing prepared me for Hurricane Celia.
Gene Lively was my news director, and my mentor in a way. He was a young, aggressive guy who anchored the weekends and reported during the week. Bob Lunquist, who had hired me in January, had since retired.
Gene decided I’d be the photog to drive down to Corpus Christie, on the Gulf of Mexico about 130 miles southeast of San Antonio. Hurricane Celia was big, but we didn’t realize how BIG it was going to be, as the Category 3 hurricane suddenly changed directions after Gene and I had already checked into a hotel. We wanted to be there BEFORE the storm and hit the ground running to cover it with a head start over most other sane journalists.
The winds were pretty strong just before noon on Monday, August 3rd 1970, and it was exciting to get shots of the palm trees waving and the Gulf becoming increasingly choppy. Little did either of us know this was just the appetizer. The main course began early afternoon, and before long both of us were on the floor against a wall as the winds howled and pieces of buildings and trees and anything loose went flying by. Part of the roof of our hotel actually blew off, and it sounded like an explosion.
Celia hit as a Cat 4, with winds gusting 130-140 mph, and one gust hit 180 mph! By 5 p.m., there was no power anywhere, but the winds had started to die down at least.
With no electricity and no cell phones, we had no way to communicate with our TV news room. No doubt they thought we’d be returning in body bags, and for a couple hours I kinda had those thoughts myself.
Because it was dark and dangerous, we just stayed in our rooms and tried to sleep, because we’d be filming at the crack of dawn.
Awful. Unbelievable. The devastation was shocking, and our car, although still drivable, had most the windows blown out and dents everywhere.
Human nature is unpredictable. Natural disasters bring out the best in people – and the worst.
It didn’t take long for us to notice long lines forming at the gas stations, where prices were tripled at least. Ditto for supermarkets and grocery stores, and that was especially true for ice.
As the day wore on, and I was going through reels and reels of film, we finally were able to tell our station we were ok, and we managed to get the U.S. Coast Guard to give us an aerial view. Scary but fun, as I was strapped into the helicopter, with my legs dangling over the edge of an open door as I filmed away, making sure I didn’t drop the camera.
That part went well, because eventually we drove back to San Antonio, processed the film and started editing. That story was my first “award” of any kind: Sigma Delta Chi (Journalism organization) named my story “Best TV News Photography for 1970”. Kinda neat I thought.
The media coverage is so different now, obviously. The live shots, the explosion of video outlets from all over the world including social media etc. The competition to “get the story”, and make it exciting to get the ratings or clicks. I’m still a defender of journalism in general, but outlets both left and right often sensationalize, and often don’t even realize they’re doing it.
Someday, I hope to revisit Corpus Christie Texas. It’s probably a bit different today.
Editor’s babble: Hanging out of a helicopter to get the great shots? Umm, not me. We are so grateful for Ed Kilgore’s contributions to our blog. You can also find Ed on Twitter @Kilgore2Ed and be sure to check out the Ed Kilgore podcast wherever you find your podcasts.