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.

The story ain't perfect, mind you. For my tastes he approaches the purple from the magenta side a couple of times and exceeds his simile quota by a factor of two. But could I write a better hurricane story on deadline? Hell, I couldn't write a better piece if given a month, five naked research assistants, and a crate of whippets.

The Miami Herald has kindly permitted me to repost the piece in its entirety (thanks, Tom!) so I can stop extolling it and let you judge for yourself. One last point: Unusual for a news story, it's written in first-person, which David believes gives it the immediacy lacking from so many pieces filed from the front lines.

"I sometimes use this experience to talk about what I see as a great flaw in American journalistic practice," he writes via e-mail. "We are supposed to be trained and experienced observers. But then when news happens in front of our eyes, the conventions of style induce us to turn to people nearby and ask: 'What just happened?' We filter our own data through a scrim of [a] third-person witness, which gains us nothing in terms of accuracy but costs a lot in terms of immediacy."

He is the master of disaster.

FROM THE MIAMI HERALD

Shaken Survivors Witness Pure Fury

By David Von Drehle

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Sept. 23, 1989)—It's noon on Thursday at Folly Beach, a stretch of sand raised a few inches above the surrounding tidal marsh and sprinkled with undistinguished bungalows and weathered seafood shacks.

It's gray, lightly sprinkling. Not unusual for a September afternoon. But big breakers are sending foam over the sea wall and the houses are deserted. The town has the eerie feeling of an unnaturally empty place—like a dusty street in a dime Western just before the bad guys arrive.

Hurricane Hugo is 12 hours away.

Tension grows through the afternoon. Every little gust of air, every spit of rain, every new shade of gray cloud is searched for meaning. With each new breeze, people speed their pace, tighten their jaws.

The streets empty. Traffic jams the roads out of town. Forecasters said gale-force winds might arrive by 3 p.m., but at 5, the palms and elms and oaks are still swaying gently.

At 5:30, as journalists and other thrill-seekers tour the Battery in a gentle rain, visibility drops suddenly. The famous sights from the harbor's edge—like Fort Moultrie, of Revolutionary War fame, and Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began—vanish in the fog.

Then rain comes, warm and straight and thick. The gale arrives next, driving the warm rain ahead of it. A statue honoring the Confederate war dead, a bronze nude brandishing a broadsword, confronts the storm wearing nothing but a fig leaf.

False alarm. The wind and rain die down. But they will be back.

From the television comes the news that Hugo is gaining speed and fury. This will be one of the rare Category 4 storms to hit the United States. Hugo is six hours away.

Sundown, and gray drains from the sky, leaving only black. The tension rises another notch. In the gloaming, the trees ball and buck in the rising winds.

By 9 p.m., the gale is gusting so hard you have to lean into it to make headway, like a street mime.

Outages Black Out Area

Miami Herald photographer Jon Kral and I hope to make it to hotel rooms near the Charleston airport, 10 miles inland. As we leave downtown, a main power station gives out, and the streets become darker, more menacing.

Water swirls and snakes across the highway as we drive. The rain falls almost horizontally. Broken branches and loose garbage skid over the pavement, and the gusts are now high enough to rock the car as it creeps across Charleston's high bridges.

It's dark in all directions—power failures spread black like it was paint. The failures come quickly and rhythmically, almost as if someone were flipping a row of switches.

The manmade glow is replaced by startling eruptions of muffled light—huge lightning storms showing through the furious shroud.

A rock-and-roll station pledges to stay with us through the hurricane—"Your Hurricane Hugo station!" the DJ cries. Then he announces that the eye of the storm is just two hours away, headed straight for us—"so whatever you do, don't drive!"

Within a few minutes, the station is off the air. The storm becomes too much.

Winds Shift Into Overdrive

The hotel turns out to be unprepared, but Kral produces a roll of duct tape from his bag and we strip asterisks onto each pane. At 10:30, the room lights go brown, then die, struggle back, then fail for good.

Outside, the air is screaming at the same pitch that wind reaches through a cracked window on an interstate highway. The howl is strangely pleasant, because we make the mistake of thinking that this is about as bad as it will get.

The noise halts briefly, just for a second or two, then comes back at a much higher, much more urgent pitch. After five minutes of that, Hugo clutches and shifts again to an even higher level. The winds step up like a sports car going through the gears—except that Hugo has many more gears.

With each new step, the barometric pressure drops, and we can feel the changes in our ears. At 11:30, we dress to go out into the storm, but quickly change our minds when Hugo jumps three gears in five minutes.

From somewhere inside the shrieking noise come the muffled reports of snapping trees, popping windshields, and sand hitting the windows like pellets.

Water in the toilet bowl rocks and swirls as Hugo howls through the city's sewers. Wind gusts from the light fixtures. The panes pull at their window frames.

A Sound of Pure Fury

Frightened families leave their rooms and walk nervously down darkened stairwells to the leaking lobby. At the bottom of one stairwell, we watch as the sucking wind tries to wrench open a double-bolted fire door.

First the air yanks, then slips its fingers into the tiny gap between door and door frame, then strains at the heavy steel structure until the door actually bends.

Then the awful clutching silence, and the wind returns, up another impossible gear.

By midnight, as the worst of the fury roars nightmarishly over Charleston, the very walls tremble and quake.

The noise of a killer hurricane has been compared to a passing freight train so many times it has become a sort of journalists' joke. "Let me guess—did it sound like a train?"

But to me, this doesn't sound like a train. 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.

Most of all, it sounds like pure fury.

One of Kral's taped windows explodes minutes after we leave the room. When we come back, it's impossible to open the door, the wind is so strong. We have to wait for a pause between gears, then drive with our shoulders.

A Tempest In a Motel Room

Thick rain is blowing horizontally through the room. Thanks to the duct tape, the shattered glass is in a neat pile on the floor. We shout over the gale.

In the bathroom, the swirling winds have pulled the Sheetrock ceiling away from the walls. For the rest of the tempest, Hugo works on tearing the room apart. Gusts of 25 miles per hour come through the ceiling. The nails and screws groan at the strain.

The winds are much wilder, much more intense, than anything I have experienced before. The difference between 100-mph winds and 130-mph winds is so great that they ought to have different names.

At five minutes past midnight, the noise begins gearing down rapidly. By 12:15, it's almost still. Some of us venture outside and inspect the damage by flashlight.

A thick steel flagpole, barely anything to it to resist the wind, is bent at a 60-degree angle. An ancient Pontiac, finned and weighty, has been shoved several feet into a Saab. A Chrysler New Yorker is deposited on the sidewalk.

Along the windward side of the hotel, the windows of the cars are consistently shattered, as if by methodical vandals. "I'll sell this new Honda right now for $9,000," says a distraught owner.

Then he sees his girlfriend's matching car with matching wounds. "Two for $18,000," he says.

Complete Stillness

The ground is thick with tree limbs and glass and aluminum and shingles and bits of plastic signs. Bits of Sheraton, bits of McDonald's.

At 12:30, complete stillness. We're in the middle of Hugo's eye. It's still and silent and hot and humid on a landscape covered with debris. It feels like surfacing from a bomb shelter at the end of the world.

"I thought you were supposed to see stars when you're in the eye," someone says.

We all look up. No stars. Then we notice a highway sign, still attached to its pole, jutting up near an old Impala. The sign, we realize, must have been uprooted a quarter-mile away.

It has been driven, like a javelin, through the side of the car, and stuck there as firmly as Excalibur in the stone.

Five minutes pass. Then comes a tiny puff of breeze, so faint as to be imperceptible—except that we are waiting for it so intently. Within a few seconds, a faint drizzle follows. Half a minute after that, the breeze and drizzle are rattling shredded metal like spook-house ghosts.

Then, just as the wind resumes lifting and twirling debris, Orion's belt and a few stars peep through, low in the northern sky. Then disappear.

Wind Blows In the Opposite Way

Back inside, water pours through the lobby ceiling and sloshes on the floor. Now the wind blows the opposite way, drawing the curtains out through Kral's gaping windows. They snapped so hard against the adjacent panes we fear they will break, so we rip the curtains from the rods.

By 12:45, Hugo is back near peak fury. Kral points a light into the storm to illuminate the movements of the rain. It zings through the air, up, down, sideways, diagonally, sometimes downward. It whips and swirls, a true maelstrom.

Now a new row of cars catches the full fury, and new stands of trees. Windshields explode and trees crack like firecrackers. The noise is swallowed up in the roar of the storm.

Again, the ears are popping, as the barometric pressure returns. In this respect, Hugo is a lot like flying on a jet—on the outside.

The backside of the storm seems to gear up and fade more quickly than the leading edge, but in fact it does not. Time is speeding up. The storm pumped so much adrenaline, and sharpened the senses so acutely, that time slowed, and now it is resuming its normal pace.

The winds drop as Hugo recedes. Almost immediately, it is hard to recall how fiercely it blew. And almost impossible to believe.

Reprinted with permission from its copyright holder, the Miami Herald.

*******

Department of Clichés: Jerry Adler of Newsweek and Mike Lemonick of Time snared a disaster cliché I failed to bag in my previous column: The use of the word "temblor," a synonym for earthquake unused in conversation but embraced by reporters so they don't have to write "earthquake" again.  Also, thanks to all who responded to my request for back-issues of [More]. Instead of buying the complete set, I'm following the advice of several readers who suggested I purchase a used copy of the 1975 anthologyStop the Presses, I Want to Get Off: Inside Stories of the News Business From the Pages of [More]. Send additional advice, disaster tips, and recommendations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Correspondents writing from earthlink.net addresses will not receive a response unless they promise to turn off their anti-spam protection.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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