Adjunct instructor Nancy Eve Cohen teaches Reporting and Writing for Radio and Podcasting at UMass.
Nancy is also the environmental reporter for WNPR, Connecticut Public Radio and the Managing Editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub, a collaboration of 20 public radio stations.
She’s been covering the aftermath of the Springfield tornado, producing several pieces including:
* This report on tornado survivors for WBUR
I recently caught up with her to get her thoughts on covering the tornado and its aftermath.
1. Where were you when the tornado hit Springfield? What did you do?
I drove into Springfield the night of the tornado, a few hours later. There was a torrential rainstorm… every exit off the highway to Springfield was blocked so i wasn’t able to see much, but it prepared me for the next morning. I knew it might be difficult to get where I needed to be when daylight came…
2. Were you surprised by the amount of devastation in Springfield?
Shocked. I’ve been working in this business for a long time…even worked in a war zone… Sarajevo in 1992, but to see my own community ripped apart stunned me. The sheer force of the tornado was humbling
3. Describe what you did during coverage on Wednesday and Thursday?
I managed to be in the right place at the right time on Thursday. Some of that was planning, some was assertiveness, some was dumb luck.
I got to one of the Red Cross shelters at 5:00 AM and snagged the last legal parking place. You couldn’t drive anywhere so it was key to stage oneself as close as possible.
When I walked into the shelter people were sleeping. I heard snoring, a few people were crying quietly. A baby was whimpering. A few people walked around wrapped in blankets, smoking.
One young woman said she had just paid her landlord before the tornado hit. Now she had no money and no place to live. A man in a wheelchair described waking up that morning in the shelter and realizing where he was and what had happened. His building was destroyed and he was worried his apartment would be looted. But he had no way to get there and little hope of finding another accessible apartment.
Many of the people had little to begin with and now they had even less.
After interviewing several of the survivors I went outside and walked south until I hit a police block. I talked to the police and they pointed out a man getting out of the car who turned out to be Senator Scott Brown. I had the chance to talk with him for a while. Then Governor Deval Patrick showed up along with Senator Kerry and the mayors of Springfield and Westfield. I interviewed each of them and then, along with a gaggle of press, followed the politicians as they surveyed the damage on foot.
After the officials left a photographer friend and I talked our way past the police to some of the worst hit places.
I got some incredible interviews with two people who lived through the tornado…one took shelter in a closet inside, but the wind was blowing so hard the door almost blew away. Another saw a roof flying through the air “like the Wizard of Oz” A building inspector examining the damage said it was a miracle not more people were killed “God Looked over the city and protected the people.”
Today, Friday I went to a new shelter that had been set up. I spoke with a family who were from Somalia. They had come to Springfield a year ago after spending 12 years in a refugee camp. The 25 year old mother of four told me her new situation– homeless after the tornado— reminded her of being in the camp. ”It’s like when we fled from our country … We feeling like refugee all over again. We don’t have nothing now.”
One woman told me she had broke down crying the night before. ” I finally realized. like this is serious. I can’t go back to my home. Like this is it for us.”
I left the shelter and drove to a suburban neighborhood that was also hit. There was an army of utility trucks installing new telephone poles that had been snapped in half. There were damaged trees everywhere. Big ones. One house had several huge trees broken and splayed across the roof.
4. Describe the role of social media in your reporting.
None. This was old fashioned, on foot, on-the-ground from early morning until my deadline loomed.
5. What has surprised you most about the coverage of the tornadoes?
I haven’t had time to see a lot of other people’s work yet. I haven’t really stopped, but I’m about to.