- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 27, 2006

Serendipity

Some stories seem to be scratched out of stone, with every fact and quote being acquired only through laborious research. Others just seem to be waiting to be written, with sources, statistics and telling details offering themselves up before we think to look for them.

So it was with last Monday’s front-page centerpiece on the steps being taken in Florida and the Gulf Coast states to prepare for this year’s hurricane season.

Around the beginning of the month, it was suggested at an editors’ planning meeting that we should explore the country’s state of readiness for the approaching 2006 hurricane season. Everyone in the room agreed it was a story worth doing and doing quickly, before it appeared on a competitor’s front page.

The National Desk reporters who covered last year’s devastating storms were tied up with other projects, so the assignment was given to the Foreign Desk’s Tom Carter, whose groundbreaking stories in the field of international medicine and disease control have proven his ability to write knowledgeably on technical scientific issues.

It turned out to be a felicitous choice. Mr. Carter told us his brother is a volunteer hurricane “first responder” in Pensacola, Fla., who had been deeply involved in bringing emergency food and supplies to nearby Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

“I called him, and he told me everybody down there was getting ready, buying generators and so forth,” Mr. Carter said. “Just two or three days before, he had been involved in a big drill to plan for the hurricane season.”

The brother immediately put Mr. Carter in touch with a range of hurricane officials in Florida and the neighboring states. When he started making the calls, Mr. Carter learned that everyone he needed to talk to would be conveniently gathered at a major hurricane conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the following week.

Blue tarpaulins

Mr. Carter was soon on a flight to Fort Lauderdale, where he got another break, finding himself seated next to Boca Raton tax lawyer Rick Josepher and his wife, Lois.

He introduced himself and struck up a conversation with the couple, who soon were telling him all about their own preparations for the hurricane season. When Mr. Carter asked to visit their house with a photographer, the Josephers quickly agreed.

The couple, it turned out, were about as ready as anyone could be, and their story provided a telling lead anecdote for Mr. Carter’s story: Laid out in their garage and kitchen, our reporter and photographer found, were a dozen propane-gas bottles, a camping stove, walkie-talkies, Coleman lanterns, fans, ice coolers, about 20 flashlights of various sizes and shapes, plastic tarpaulins, a gas-powered generator, a rack of 10-gallon water bottles, extension cords and piles of canned goods.

Another element of Mr. Carter’s story also presented itself before he landed. During the airplane’s descent, he was struck by the number of homes still covered in blue tarpaulins because damage from last year’s hurricanes had not yet been repaired.

Mr. Carter mentioned his interest in talking to some roofers to a delegate at the hurricane conference.

“Oh my sister is having her roof done right now,” the woman responded, offering directions. “The roofers are all over the neighborhood.” Mr. Carter quickly secured his interviews with the roofers.

Before he left Washington, Mr. Carter had called the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration offices in Bethesda and learned that the group’s National Hurricane Center in Miami would release its annual forecast on Monday, May 22, the first day of what it was billing as Hurricane Preparedness Week. We had the perfect publication date.

Everything had fallen into place. At that point, all Mr. Carter had to do was condense his reams of research and interviews into a compelling and readable story. We believe he did.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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