David Von Drehle is … the master of disaster.

Media criticism.
June 6 2006 5:58 PM

The Master of Disaster

David Von Drehle vs. the catastrophe clichés.

Last light visible image of Hurricane Hugo. Click image to expand.
Hugo approaching South Carolina, Sept. 21, 1989

The obvious enemy of good writing is the cliché. As I argued last week in a column that echoed the findings of an ancient Alexander Cockburn piece, disasters have a tendency to cripple the mind of even the sturdiest reporter. It's as if hurricanes, earthquakes, airline crashes, and floods block the neurotransmitters that carry the mots justes.

Some reporters blame deadline pressures and others the limited lexicon of disaster for their clichés. Others plead ignorance: If a reporter has never covered an avalanche before or read enough bad avalanche stories, he might not know his story is rolling down a paved road rather than cutting a new path.

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But Miami Herald reporters, even the rookies, can't claim they don't know from a hurricane. Joel Achenbach, a former Herald reporter who now works at the Washington Post, says the Herald covers hurricanes the way the Post covers government or the Wall Street Journal covers stocks and bonds, and its best reporters study the form.

"You're not a real Herald reporter until you've lashed yourself to a palm tree and stared down Nature's fury," says Joel, who is also a friend of mine, via e-mail. "I guess that's why I was never a real Herald reporter."

The realest of the real Herald reporters, says Joel, is our mutual friend David Von Drehle, who now works at the Washington Post Magazine. Joel practically worship's David's 1989 piece about Hurricane Hugo.

"For years, back in the 1980s, the Herald wanted to get someone into the eye of a hurricane—the assignment editors would tell the reporter, 'Get out there and die'—and the paper finally succeeded when David Von Drehle and photographer Jon Kral managed to ride out Hugo on Folly Beach, S.C. Dave's story was the best hurricane story I ever saw and maybe the best story period."

The only version of Von Drehle's alleged masterpiece I could find on Nexis was a truncated one printed in the Chicago Tribune, so I asked David for the unexpurgated. Yesterday he came through.

I'm happy to report that "Shaken Survivors Witness Pure Fury" from Page One of the Sept. 23, 1989, Miami Heraldis one of those rare breaking-news stories that reads well 17 years after the fact.

Von Drehle navigates around clichés as swiftly as a slalom skier. His hurricane doesn't batter the coast or flatten buildings. Stop signs don't shimmy in the wind as if possessed by the devil. No homeowner or businessman nails glass-saving plywood to the front of his building. When the time comes for the obligatory "the hurricane sounds like a passing train" reference, Von Drehle shakes his head uh-uh and writes:

It sounds like the harsh intake of a dentist's suction tube, greatly amplified and always increasing. Or the roar of a seashell a billion times over. Or Niagara, if only Niagara cranked up its volume each time your ears got adjusted to it.

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