Thunderdome News Team Weathers Sandy: Bonds In First Real Trial

Editor thought she'd left hurricanes in her Southern past. She was wrong.

Robyn Tomlin/Digital First MediaThe Thunderdome newsroom bunked in a corner of the Associated Press offices in midtown Manhattan to cover Election Night.
By Robyn Tomlin

A hurricane is just a storm. Wet. Noisy. Inconvenient. At least that had been my experience with hurricanes while working as a journalist at newspapers in both Florida and coastal North Carolina.

They make the front page for a day or so and move on. Life is interrupted for a moment, and then power is restored. Life goes on.

I've worked through days and nights with only generators and junk food powering our efforts to keep a community informed. My office in Wilmington, N.C., was a certified storm shelter. People brought in family members for one hurricane while we typed and talked on the phone to bring the hurricane news double-wrapped in plastic to soaking doorsteps across the area.

When I traded my waterfront townhouse just outside of Wilmington for a tenth floor apartment in lower Manhattan, I was sure I was leaving hurricanes behind. I was even pretty sure that if a hurricane wanted to flood me out of my high-up perch, I could tough it out, stand my ground and laugh it off.

I was wrong.

I moved to New York City just a few months before the storm to start a new venture for the second largest newspaper in the country. Digital First Media owns and/or operates 75 daily newspapers and more than 200 non-daily newspapers in 15 states. As the editor of Project Thunderdome, I was charged with building a team to deliver quality national digital content to websites across this diverse network of community news sites.

We had moved into a 25th floor office just a few blocks from the hustle and bustle of Wall Street in August 2012. By October, we were about 25 strong and had filled just under half of the open positions. We were just beginning to develop our operational infrastructure.

National elections loomed
Our primary focus had been on preparing for Nov. 4 national elections when we were forced to shift gears. Since the storm hit overnight, the journalists on our team worked from their homes and stayed in constant communication using Skype instant messaging groups and email as the storm battered communities throughout the region.

Thankfully, a handful of team members worked remotely from other areas of the country. As those of us in New York lost power, cell service and Wi-Fi; others were able to keep going.

When the storm passed, we were thankful to find that everyone was safe and sound. A lingering problem was that our office was in the area that had been badly affected, and we had no idea how long it would take before we could go back.

I was one of the homeless/officeless people forced to seek refuge in a hotel after my apartment building was evacuated. The basement and first floor of our building had filled with millions of gallons of salt water, destroying the electrical systems and forcing my family to stay elsewhere for nearly a month after the storm.

Our office building was one of the few in the downtown neighborhood that avoided serious damage, but the power and heat were out and it would take about 10 days before we were able to return.

Gypsies with a mission
So, in the meantime, we worked whenever and wherever we could. Gypsies with a mission, we put aside our personal travails and plowed on through workdays that were stitched together with a little power here and a little newfound shelter there.

Thankfully, our generous friends at the Associated Press offered temporary working space for those who needed it. On the day of the national election, we took over a corner of their office and set up our own outpost for team members there.

A few days later, we were able to return to our offices. For months afterward, nearby buildings remained closed with pumps and fans snaking in and out of subterranean crevices. Restaurants and stores resorted to taking only cash or using iPhones with electronic credit card receivers to take payments.

It was much worse than anything I had ever personally experienced. I think that's mainly because people in hurricane-battered communities are used to hurricanes. So, even if the storms are worse, they are better prepared to deal with them.

Hurricane Sandy took hundreds of lives and cost millions of dollars in damage, so we were blessed to just have been inconvenienced for a few weeks.

Sandy taught our newly formed work team how to join together under extraordinary circumstances as it marked our first real trial together. It gave us an opportunity to show others in the company what we were capable of accomplishing.

Storms sever lines. They can break communication. They can topple cell towers.

They can also build a sense of community among those who are forced to weather the challenges thrust upon them together.

Robyn Tomlin is the editor of Digital First Media's Project Thunderdome in New York City.

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