Journos share lessons from covering disasters: Preparedness is vital for safe coverage

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews /16 July) — Caraga region, which lies in the northern part of Mindanao, has been hit by natural disasters such as earthquakes and flooding due to typhoons in the past few years. 

In February 2017, a powerful Magnitude 6.7 quake jolted Surigao City, the capital of Surigao del Norte, totally destroying at least 131 houses and partially destroying hundreds of others. The temblor also damaged the runway of the city’s airport and other public infrastructure like schools

The rotunda of San Francisco, Agusan del Sur had never experienced flooding until Friday, December 18, 2020 Photo by RICHARD GRANDE

Last December, Tropical Depression “Vicky” triggered a 10-hour heavy downpour that triggered massive flooding in parts of Agusan del Sur, the worst since 2014. In Rosario town, the flooding submerged some houses in the población area up to the roof.

Caraga is composed of the provinces of Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur, Dinagat Islands,  Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Sur.

For Alexis Cabardo, news chief in Agusan del Sur of the state-owned PTV-4, the Magnitude 6.7 quake in Surigao City that he covered left him with a lesson he would always look back on.

As it was an instant assignment from their desk in Manila because it was a big story, he left without much preparation and rushed to Surigao City, about four hours from their base in Prosperidad town.

“Even if I’m not familiar with the area, I volunteered to be a one-man army. I would be the reporter and the cameraman,” he recalled.

“When I arrived in Surigao City, I wasn’t able to find a hotel to sleep in because some hotels were closed due to the damage from the powerful earthquake. Those that were open, they were occupied,” he added.

He eventually found a place to sleep, on the third floor of the Department of Health building where the response team from Agusan del Sur stayed.

Cabardo recalled that there were many aftershocks, depriving him and the others of a good night’s sleep. Over 100 aftershocks were recorded after the main quake, according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

In the morning, he wasn’t able to produce a good story because of lack of sleep, according to him.

“There would be problems if you go to the area without proper preparations, such as finding a safe place to rest. You also need to sort out ahead the apparatus that you really need for such coverage,” Cabardo said.

Another Agusan del Sur journalist, Richard Grande, station manager of 106 FM Banat Patrol in San Francisco town, also shared a hard lesson in covering natural disasters.

“I became a victim myself while covering a major flooding in my flood-prone province. I did not notice that the floodwater was rising. When I was rescued at dusk some distance away from my boarding house where I was covering the disaster, I realized that I was not wearing pants but just a boxer’s shorts,” he said.

Grande recalled that their belongings in the boarding house were washed up by the rising floodwater, prompting him to leave for safer grounds where he was rescued.

He also stressed the need for journalists to be prepared when covering disasters than to be sorry when things or events turn unpredictable.

If you are not prepared in covering natural disasters, such as bringing your own food that will sustain you for days, you will be in trouble, Grande said.

Cabardo and Grande were among the two dozen journalists from Caraga and Davao regions who attended the “Safety Training in Covering Disasters” in a virtual Zoom meeting on Friday, 16 July.

Red Batario, executive director of the Center for Community Journalism and Development, handled the session where he strongly reminded participants that safety should be a paramount concern for journalists covering actual and post-disaster events.

“Before going on assignment, do a rapid risk assessment. It Is important to assess the risks to make our coverage safer,” stressed Batario, also the coordinator for Southeast Asia of the International News Safety Institute.

When on assignment in disaster-hit areas, he said journalists must be self-sufficient by bringing with them essential items such as food, water, light, hygiene kit, medicines and power banks for charging gadgets, among others.

He emphasized the need to prepare a ready “go-bag,” which contains essential items such as stated above, that can be easily grabbed especially in cases of a rapid or rush deployment.

The training is part of the “Strengthening Safety of Journalists and Professional Journalistic Standards in the Philippines,” a project of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) -Jakarta supported by the Netherlands Funds-in-Trust, in partnership with the Mindanao Institute of Journalism, the publisher of MindaNews.

The other components of the training for Mindanawon journalists are the “Safety Training in Covering the COVID-19 Pandemic,” “Digital Safety of Journalists” and “Covering Peace and Conflict in Mindanao.”

The training series started in June and will conclude in September. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)