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Tornado Coverage First-Hand Experience

Hello everyone.  For those that may not know me, I am T.J. Carson and I am the News Director at WSPL-AM in Streator.

For those that may or may not (most likely may) know, tornadoes ravaged through Elmwood, Magnolia, Streator, and Dwight on Saturday evening.  And since our station is based in one of those towns, along with two other towns in our coverage area, I wanted to share some of my experiences in covering the storms.

First off, when I received word about the tornado, I was way out of town, Chicago to be exact.  I was at a housewarming party up in the big city.  On a side note, I was not originally planning on staying in Chicago that evening, but was invited to said party so I took up the offer.  Despite that, I kept getting these bad feelings that afternoon and evening that something bad would happen (I originally thought my apartment would be broken into, but turns out it was the tornadoes).

Around 9:00, my boss calls me and informs me of a possible tornado touchdown in Streator.  I immediately tell my friend that I must leave town, and I do so.  It took me an hour to get out of the city, and arrived in Streator at around 11:45.  I grabbed my equipment, went to my apartment to change, check on my place and cats to see if they were OK (they were), and headed to City Hall.  During the ride back, I made arrangements to try and get people to the station, but that proved difficult as most everyone was out of town and could not get back in.  The only reason I was able to get into town was because I came in from the north, the unaffected side of town.

At midnight, I was able to get an impromptu press conference from the City Manager (although I was told I had just missed one with him).  After that, I tried to get more information from city officials, and at around 1:00 I believe, went on a tour with a City Council member to try and see the damage.

About 1:30 came around and our morning show girl informed me that she was struggling to get into town.  I departed from the tour soon after to get to our station and anchor live coverage after that.  The coverage included information from the City Manager, the National Weather Service site, and phone calls of phone telling stories of their experiences.  Personally, I'm still kicking myself over the fact that we couldn't get on the air until about 5 hours after the tornado hit, even with the circumstances at hand of everyone's location.

WGN-AM had also called me at around 1:45 A.M. Sunday for some information in Streator, and they used my information for their on the air story.  This would happen again later in the day, where the anchor called me at 7:45 asking to relay information from a morning press conference to them.  On a side note, the anchor was a former college professor of mine, and also learned that a WGN-TV cameraman who showed up to film in Streator was a former classmate...small world.

At 2:30 A.M., when I realized I wasn't getting anymore information until an 8:00 A.M. press conference, I went back to my station to write a story for that morning, and did not get back to my apartment until 3:00 A.M.  Knowing that the morning press conference could have happened at any time, I stayed up the entire evening to await word.  I used the time to inform my wife vacationing England that I was okay.

At 5:30, I went back into the station to update the story, and prepare for the press conference.  The 8:00 A.M. press conference happened, and then downtime before an 11:00 A.M. news conference.  After that one, I and other media members took a tour to Hall St., one of the worst hit areas.  The damage seen down there was remarkable in the fact that something like that could happen so close to home.  My only regret was not having a camera, which the wife took to England.

After the tour, I was given the option to cover a press conference in McNabb at 2:00, but decided to stay in town and rest up.  I went back in at 4:30 to await word from the Dwight City Administrator about damage in his town the previous evening.  Once I completed that, I wrote a few stories for the next day and retired for the long, long, long day at 6:00 that evening.  I eventually crashed out for the night at 8:45, some 34+ hours being awake.

Monday was just as hectic with planned events.  First it was going around the city for various stories about the storm, followed by an 11:00 press conference by the city (which is pretty much daily now), and then followed by a road trip west to Dwight where Gov. Quinn made his disaster declaration.  The press conference was held in front of the trailer park in Dwight that received the worst damage.  It was almost speechless to see how mobile homes and vehicles could be tossed around by Mother Nature.

Monday's day started at 5:00 A.M. and didn't end until around 6:00 P.M., with a lunch break in between.  Tuesday showed some signs of winding down, but still a long day with more stories to hunt for, the 11:00 A.M. press conference, and a 1:00 P.M. press conference by Robin Kelly about low-interest loans.

If you read this whole thing, I thank you and thank you for putting up with my musings.  I hoped to share some of my experiences in covering a devasting tornado with my fellow press members across the state.