JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It was certainly one of the most tumultuous years of my long broadcast journalism career, and where else to start than with Hurricane Irma? It was a historic storm that will, or should, affect emergency management protocols here and throughout Florida.
When we all hunkered down as the storm blew over us and rattled the station (it looked like a dorm on the second floor, with all the exhausted people strewn all over) -- little did we realize that was just the beginning. The worst flooding in Jacksonville history was the result of a perfect storm of conditions: the nor’easter that hit the week before, pushing water into the St Johns River during a full moon, water that didn’t have time to drain back into the ocean; Irma’s storm surge; and the 15 to 20 inches of rain it brought.
That morning, as crews were showing our viewers just how catastrophic the flooding was, our building was being sandbagged as the tide kept rising, finally receding in the early afternoon. By that time WJXT/WCWJ was an island, with most of the roads in San Marco impassable. The only way in and out was in a high-clearance SUV, through the parking garage and then a bank parking lot to get to I-95.
The impacts from Irma were felt all over Northeast Florida, from the beaches, where houses fell into the ocean, to Black Creek in Clay County, which hit an all-time flood crest. Boat rescues went on for hours. In addition to San Marco, Downtown and Riverside, Julington Creek and other neighborhoods -- some not even in flood zones -- were also under water.
Everyone knew someone who had storm damage, and that included co-workers. So, yes, we were able to say with certainty to frustrated and angry viewers that we knew what it was like.
I’ve always said Jacksonville is a proving ground for people who choose broadcast news for their career. Matthew was a test last year. But remember, for as much damage done, it missed us. Irma punched us in the nose, doing something that hadn’t happened since Hurricane Dora struck the First Coast in 1964. Going through two hurricanes in 11 months has made this newsroom stronger, from the organizational level down to the personal level.
While Irma was the story of the year, that wasn’t the only wild weather we had to deal with. It’s ironic that in March, April and May, we had to deal with a fire season that kicked off with a massive wildfire that spread out of the Okefenokee to force the evacuation of Folkston, and a second that displaced many in Bryceville and burned three homes. It started to rain in late May, and it kept raining through June and July, dropping more than 2 feet of rain in that period, which produced localized flood events on many afternoons.
Throughout all the weather, there was a recurring story to cover: Corrine Brown. The fall from grace of the former congresswoman got national attention. Before and after her June trial, many days saw new developments in the story. More to come in 2018.
Of the other major stories of 2017, one big one right off the bat was in January: Kamiyah Mobley was found living under a different name in South Carolina, almost two decades after she was kidnaped as a baby from what’s now UF Health.
The NTSB and the Coast Guard released a final report on the wreck of El Faro. It reinforced what had become clear during the investigation: The captain, relying on outdated information on the location and strength of a hurricane, refused suggestions from junior officers to change the course of the old vessel with maintenance issues that neither he nor the crew might have known. The transcript of the communications from the bridge’s final minutes, that was recovered from the voyage data recorder will be impossible to forget.
Another tragic constant in 2017 was the relentless number of homicides. This will be the most violent year since 2008 in Jacksonville, but two of the more troubling cases came from the beach: the arrest of Ronnie Hyde in Jacksonville Beach for the 1993 cold case murder of a teen whose remains were found in Lake City; and Logan Mott's arrest in Buffalo, New York, in the murder of his grandmother in Neptune Beach.
Not all news was bad, though. We gladly reported the return to relevance – and to the playoffs -- of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Sundays were fun again and, hopefully, they’ll make some noise in the postseason.
The year will also be remembered for the rise of, gulp, fake news. Let’s face it: Trust in media was never high. But now, doubting everything has become a national pastime. It’s a phenomenon that has prompted us, and others in media, to take a look at the way we report stories. And in some ways, that’s a good thing. We work in a business that evolves rapidly.
This is where I get on my soapbox. We sometimes will literally go in harm’s way to tell stories that are important to our viewers. Our critics do not know now how hard we work for the community, nor the sacrifices we make to do our jobs.
In a year in which we were criticized and castigated as purveyors of fake news and for having an agenda, one shining moment stood out that exemplifies that truth: Photojournalist John Finley put down his camera and risked his life to save a woman trapped in a car in rising flood waters.
Sometimes, this business is more like public service. That was a lot of the time in 2017.
Here’s to staying strong in 2018.