Thursday, December 18, 2008

The eye of the storm

The power went out just past 11 p.m. one week ago today. 

It wasn't until about Tuesday that things began to get back to normal after over 300,000 residents in New Hampshire sat in the dark and the cold and wondered just how much would they would have to burn to keep the pipes from freezing. 

Out on the road Friday morning trying to navigate roads lined with down wires, tree limbs and other debris, fathoming the damage of the storm remained nearly impossible. Rockingham County had been hit hard; you could tell that just from the size of the trees that had been pulled out of the ground by the ice storm the night before. 

Cellular service remained largely weak that morning and without Internet capabilities or a land line phone that meant hitting the road to find out what was going on. Passing under blank traffic signal after blank traffic signal - emergency generators had at that point not been set up at critical intersections - created an eery Mad Max effect. Only the near continuous howl of sirens in the background added to the mood. 

Otherwise it was a perfectly normal winter day in New England. 

Salem firefighter Dave O'Brien called it the most chaotic he'd seen his department in his 20 years of service to the community. Four days later, when the call volumes had dropped back to a level of normalcy, he told me the entire department had let out a sigh of relief. 

While the duration of the power outage will surely end up raging into a public firestorm directed at someone - likely the utility companies like PSNH - those in public service became the shining bright spot in the whole mess. Most of the senior emergency management teams I met throughout the weekend and into this week worked days on end, only taking breaks to go home and make sure their families without power were okay. As Windham's Assistant Fire Chief Robert Leuci put it "We're out straight."

Still they remained cavalier at most times, joking with me when I showed up knocking on their door for more information. 

"Are you out of power too?" I asked one firefighter as he took me to the Chief's office. 

"Oh I'm fucked," he said. "No power at home, no heat, no running water. I'm just fucked."

The storm did not spare anyone and the nature of the subsequent crisis left the entire playing field level. No one had power and everyone wanted power. Windham's state representative spent several days after the storm staying in one of the Red Cross shelters set up in Salem, Londonderry and Nashua. 

On Sunday I watched half of the Jets game at the Salem emergency relief shelter while I charged up my laptop and cellphone. In a town where at that point over 5,000 remained without power, only a handful had chosen to come to the shelter. The rest left town or stocked up on wood. 

By Monday some sense of normalcy had returned to the southern portion of Rockingham County. While residents in nearby Derry still described their town as "a warzone," officials in Windham and Salem were reporting roads as cleared, whole neighborhoods back on the grid and the number of emergency calls returning to normal. 

Still, there were some dark times. 

On Tuesday a 77-year-old Salem resident succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. His was the fourth storm-related death since Thursday. Sadly, he died after power had been restored. His boiler malfunctioned and without working carbon monoxide or smoke detectors he never had a chance, Salem's fire marshal told me. 

Misuse of generators or other alternative heating appliances resulted in dozens of hospitalizations across the state and were involved in at least one other death following the storm. In Windham two individuals were placed in a hyperbaric chamber to remove the carbon monoxide from their system. Salem's Chief Kevin Breen told me that going door to door his firefighters had found dozens of improperly used generators. 

Ironically, though the storm had passed by Friday morning the worst was yet to come.

Now, seven days later things are still not back to normal. While Salem and Pelham are only reporting a few score of houses still without power, Windham has as many as 1,400 (myself included) and in Atkinson 20 percent of the town is in the dark. 

And there's more winter weather on the way...

Thursday, December 4, 2008

On the beat

Beat reporters are the foundation of print journalism. 

Or at least a vital part of the final product. Without beat reporters developing articles, contacts and storylines becomes a more daunting task, especially in a climate where people just don't trust reporters anymore. 

It's something I've come across over and over again since entering the real world and taking hold of a beat of my own. Granted, it's not a senior political position with the Washington Post or the New York Times, but it's my own little slice of New Hampshire where I'm expected to know everything and everybody, understand the issues and capture life on a daily basis.

There were obvious challenges at first and some I still come across. People were hesitant to talk to a  new reporter, especially a cub reporter. In some cases it would take days for people to give me a call back as I struggled to file stories on the deadlines I had been assigned. Over time that issue faded as I developed and then cultivated relationships within the communities I cover. Rare are the folks in Salem who won't give me at least a call back these days and more and more frequently I have people coming to me first, with news and information they would like to see put out. 

Some of those early challenges remain, of course. There are the town administrators who still don't feel the need to talk to a reporter from the Union Leader or the occasional selectmen here or there who doesn't trust a kid from Massachusetts not to rip their words out of context.

Reporters now fall under that suspicious category of people who are just waiting to take the words out of your mouth and throw it into a slanderous article that might have far-reaching consequences. We slander, libel and muck-rake our way to the top, tear down governments and exhibit and increasingly partisan bias. Worse than that, with the Internet, anything you may go on the record about will undoubtable become an object of scrutiny for some future employer. 

That is the hurdle that fresh reporters, new reporters must overcome. You don't stand aloof above the beat, be it a community, police station, business, etc., but join with it. People talk to me because they know who I am, they've seen my name in the paper and they know I'm not out to make a name for myself by producing hyperbole. 

Which is what gets me back to my original point and that is that the relationships I have established with so many different people in Salem, Windham and Pelham - from the superintendents to the members of the planning board all the way to the town manager who calls me "reporter-man" whenever he sees me lounging around town hall - makes it that much easier to do my job. 

Which is to know everything. 

But only in Salem, Windham and Pelham.