An Island Incommunicado: Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria

  • Bruno Takahashi, Ph.D.
  • Associate Professor, School of Journalism
  • Research Director, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism
  • College of Communication Arts and Sciences

Project Overview

  • This study examines how journalists may be called on to fulfill multiple roles during and after a disaster, such as Hurricane Maria, in addition to their responsibilities as reporters.
  • It also looks at how communications might be improved during and immediately after a large-scale emergency.

Why This Work Matters

  • Support for journalists could mediate stress caused by conflict among their roles as family members, first responders, and reporters.
  • Better emergency planning could facilitate community recovery from disasters.

Products/Outcomes

  • Research on ways to bridge the gap between scholarly knowledge and practitioner knowledge about both emergency planning and environmental issues
  • Training and workshops for professionals in the field
  • Development of games that show the public what to do, when to do it, where to call, and where to get reliable information

External Partners

  • Mariazell Velez, Executive Director, Overseas Press Club of Puerto Rico
  • Yadira Nieves-Pizarro, Assistant Professor, Universidad Interamericana, Bayamón, Puerto Rico
  • Luis Rosario Albert, Assistant Professor, Universidad Ana G. Méndez, Gurabo Campus, Puerto Rico
  • Federico Subervi, Independent Research Consultant, Puerto Rico
  • Israel Rodriguez Sanchez, El Nuevo Dia and Universidad de Puerto Rico
  • Eliseo Colon-Zayas, Universidad de Puerto Rico

MSU Collaborators

  • Manuel Chavez (Co-PI), Associate Professor, School of Journalism; Director, Information and Media Ph.D. Program; Associate Director, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies
  • Robert Gould, Broadcast Journalist in Residence, School of Journalism
  • Luis Graciano-Velazquez, Doctoral Student, Information and Media Program
  • Qucheng "Chris" Zhang, Doctoral Student, Information and Media Program

Form(s) of Engagement

  • Community-Engaged Research
    • Community-based, participatory research
Documenting community impacts in the field. This family lost their entire house and were in the process of rebuilding. Bruno Takahashi is on the right and Bob Gould is filming.

Documenting community impacts in the field: This family lost their entire house and were in the process of rebuilding. Bruno Takahashi is on the right and Bob Gould is filming.

It's one thing to be a foreign correspondent for a major TV station or newspaper, flying off into danger to report on wars and natural disasters from Syria, China, Egypt, or other faraway places. While the danger is nothing to minimize,1 still, it's very different when the disaster is right in your own backyard.

Bruno Takahashi, associate professor of journalism and research director of MSU's Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, and his team are studying some of the unexpected roles that journalists found themselves playing after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20th, 2017. They are talking to both journalists and their audiences who survived the storm about journalistic functions during a disaster and how audiences use the information they receive. It's a two-year project funded by the National Science Foundation.

Partners in Puerto Rico include Mariazell Velez of the Overseas Press Club–Puerto Rico (an association of journalists); Yadira Nieves-Pizarro at the Universidad Interamericana, Bayamón; Luis Rosario-Albert at the Universidad Ana G. Méndez, Gurabo Campus; independent research consultant Federico Subervi; facilitators Israel Rodriguez Sanchez (El Nuevo Dia and Universidad de Puerto Rico) and Eliseo Colon-Zayas (Universidad de Puerto Rico); and community, state government, and telecommunications industry members who participated in focus groups and interviews.

Context Matters

"What we're trying to do," said Takahashi, "is study disasters and hurricane systems by looking at them one case at a time. This is my second big project. The first one was Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, in 2013—the strongest typhoon on record, around the world."

But, he said, "They didn't lose power the way they did in Puerto Rico. The Philippines is an archipelago; it's a slightly different context. Puerto Rico has a problem with infrastructure. The energy grid is in bad shape and that's why it collapsed. We would probably not see that type of problem in other places. But I'm interested in developing-country contexts that resemble a little bit what we see in Puerto Rico, the weak infrastructure."

"Collapsed," in this case, means thousands of people were left homeless. The island's infrastructure was severely damaged by heavy winds and catastrophic flooding. Electricity and Internet communications were almost totally lost all across the island, although a few telephone land-lines remained open.2

Surveying the Damage

Takahashi and his research team, including MSU School of Journalism colleagues Manuel Chavez (who is co-PI on the grant) and Robert Gould (Broadcast Journalist in Residence), and Information and Media doctoral student Luis Graciano, visited Puerto Rico in February 2019 to talk to local journalists and their audiences about their experiences during the hurricane. They had planned a follow-up trip for 2020, during the hurricane season in summer/early fall—roughly June to November—but this may be delayed due to a different type of disaster, the coronavirus.

What they found, nearly two years after the hurricane, was an island still in chaos. The death toll had continued to rise as a result of inadequate disaster planning. Thousands of residents were still sleeping under blue tarps. Roads, bridges, and damage caused by landslides remained unrepaired. FEMA's slow response, widespread poverty, weak local capacity, and extreme logistical obstacles were all still playing a part.

The team worked with the Overseas Press Club to set up interviews with journalists, media producers, and local university partners for the focus groups with residents of the island. The Press Club's involvement was key, said Takahashi, because "we realized when we got the grant and we started making all of these connections—we are outsiders. My colleague, Manuel Chavez, and I are both native Spanish speakers. So we can navigate that aspect with no problem, but we are not as familiar with the cultural nuances of Puerto Rico. In order for us to build some trust with the people there, we needed those local connections and partnerships."

They asked reporters questions about journalistic norms (which were severely disrupted by the hurricane), roles, use of sources, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They asked audiences how they got information when virtually all the traditional ways of information seeking and gathering were lost.

New Norms and Roles for Journalists

Manuel Chavez (fourth from left) with community members who had just finished a focus group interview.

Manuel Chavez (fourth from left) with community members who had just finished a focus group interview.

Journalists struggled to balance their professional responsibilities with several new roles that were thrust upon them during the storm.

For example: Normally a reporter's job is to deliver the news to the newspaper, not the newspaper itself to its readers. But, said Takahashi, "the way that newspapers dispatched their reporters was based on where the reporter was originally from, under the assumption that someone who knew the place would cover it better. So they drove back to the places where their parents and their families were, and they brought newspapers with them. These were distributed on the way." Travel was nearly impossible; the reporters often had to wait a few days for rains to stop and roads to clear. So by the time people received the paper, it was three-day-old news, "but people were so isolated, and so craving information, they didn't care. Which is interesting in the time we live today, where information has to be right now. Basically the island returned to the pre-Internet era," he said.

Having to use antique technology didn't help. With no electricity, reporters were using flash drives. Instead of filing a story from their cell phone, they now had to write it on their computer, put it on a flash drive, take the flash drive to the newspaper, and have the editor download the story and then print it. "It was like going back to the 1990s," said Takahashi. "They didn't know how to use a dialup modem or a fax machine."

Other responsibilities taken on by journalists required more serious adaptation.

"We are looking at the intersection of being a victim—I have an article called journalists as victims, because they have families, they have property that gets flooded or material belongings that get damaged or lost—but also their professional responsibility of being a journalist, because they are considered almost in the same way as other first responders—firefighters, police officers, medical personnel. They are one of the first to be at the scene of a disaster," said Takahashi.

There is very little information available about PTSD and the well-being of journalists. The research team interviewed 24 journalists, producers, weathercasters, and editors, and asked them how they felt during and immediately after the hurricane. "They said things like, 'I was extremely stressed out. I sometimes would come back to the newsroom and just break down and cry. I was concerned about my family and friends because I didn't know what was going on,'" said Takahashi.

"Then we asked—and we also asked the editors and in a couple of cases the owners of the newspapers—what was put in place to help that situation: 'Did you seek out any type of help? Like counseling or psychological assistance?' Not a single person said they did. The newspapers didn't think it was important, because the journalists didn't demand it. But it was clear that it had affected them directly."

Reporters also struggled to balance their journalistic ethics with the extreme circumstances. Normally no ethical journalist will publish a story unless it can be verified by reliable sources. However, with communications down across the island, this prime directive was difficult at best, and often impossible, to follow. Somewhat surprisingly, audiences gave the news outlets a fairly high level of trust anyway, recognizing that they had to go with what they had.

"Something that we saw in Puerto Rico is that the magnitude of the damages brought the best of the community to help each other, to reach for each other, and to learn that they lived next to others. We are also documenting from our focus groups with the several communities across Puerto Rico how they started new webs of social cohesion that did not exist before Maria.

One important finding during our research is that people had different information and had some basic notion of what to do when facing hurricanes, but many times that information was incorrect, incomplete, or simply false. So, completely different from our original goals and objectives is the preparation of a strategy of gamification facing natural disasters. Based on serious game production, we plan to prepare games that show the population what to do, when to do it, who to call, and more importantly where to get reliable information. This, I believe, will be a major contribution that we did not anticipate for the project. As we, as a nation, are currently facing another crisis with COVID-19, some of the lessons will be absolutely helpful and we will be ready to enhance our strategies for the news media to provide reliable information to all citizens."

Manuel Chavez
Co-Investigator

Better Emergency Planning Is Needed

According to Takahashi, most of the newspapers, radio stations, and TV channels have emergency plans in place—they're just woefully inadequate. They're usually about material resources—having a stock of bottled water, processed and packaged food—but nothing addresses the mental health of the newsroom or the reporters, which has much longer-range consequences beyond the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

As noted above, paying attention to PTSD issues might help journalists to balance the multiple demands placed on them during a disaster and stay focused on doing their job rather than getting caught up in the first-responder role.

One radio producer who was interviewed by the research team got a desperate call from some people near a flooded area who needed all kinds of first-responder help—firefighters, medical assistance, evacuation assistance—but only a few land lines were operating and they couldn't get through to the emergency helpline.

"So he grabbed his keys," said Takahashi, "and said, 'I'm gonna go help them.' His wife was there and she told him, 'Are you crazy? You have no idea where they are, you have a tiny compact car, the streets are flooded, you are going to die.' But he kept saying, 'I gotta go, I gotta go,' because he had heard the desperation in the caller's voice. It took quite a bit of convincing from his wife to make sure he didn't do that. She was the one who told him: 'Your job is to provide information, not to go out and help people when you don't have that training.'

"That kind of discussion I think is missing in a lot of newsrooms, and not only in Puerto Rico. As humans we want to do something because it's in our nature, but in these instances the rational thing to do is stick to what you know how to do best and not risk your life unnecessarily. Which too many journalists did."

Working Toward Long-Term Change

Takahashi also expressed a hope that more people are paying attention to environmental issues since the rash of disasters over the past few years. He believes there has been some change here in the U.S., citing a yearly survey about attitudes to climate change by George Mason and Yale universities. That study, which has been going on for about 10 years, reported last year that more people believe now that climate change is real than a decade ago and that humans are responsible for it.3

"Academic information about the telecommunications and media industries in Puerto Rico is a real need for English speaking publics, particularly for the government, the private industry and the academy," said Rosario-Albert. "Our research on emergency communications addresses how the telecommunications industry in Puerto Rico, in a crisis scenario, was able to reestablish telecommunications services that facilitated communications with first responders, among media and journalism organizations and citizens in general—a complex process that was guided by regulatory policies and self-regulatory practices.

"This is the 'engaged scholar' part of me," said Takahashi. "What I'm trying to do with the research is to bridge the gap between the practitioner and the scholarly outlook. For most of the social sciences, we publish our articles in prestigious academic journals4 but nobody reads them outside of our own colleagues. I think it's especially salient in journalism that journalists and news media don't pay attention to journalism research."

The Knight Center is doing its best to help. It offers workshops and other training on environmental issues to professionals in the field. "We try to reach out to professionals," said Takahashi. "It's difficult because even if we pay for their transportation and time and lodging, they don't have time to spend even a half day at a workshop. But that's what we try to do, is take this research and put it out there for journalists to be aware that there are resources available. Our articles should be rigorous. But if we want to have a real impact we have to go beyond just publishing in a journal. So we're going to be doing that."

Sources

  1. In the past decade, at least 554 journalists have been killed worldwide (Washington Post, December 30, 2019). Back to article
  2. Nieves-Pizarro, Y., Takahashi, B., & Chavez, M. (2019). When everything else fails: Radio journalism during Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Journalism Practice, 13, 799-816. https://doi.org/10.1080/17512786.2019.1567272 Back to article
  3. Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Rosenthal, S., Kotcher, J., Bergquist, P., Ballew, M., Goldberg, M., & Gustafson, A. (2019). Climate change in the American mind: November 2019. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Available from: https://climatecommunication.yale.edu or https://www.climatechangecommunication.org Back to article
  4. Most recently: Takahashi, B., Zhang, Q., & Chavez, M. (2019). Preparing for the worst: Lessons for news media after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Journalism Practice, 1-19. Back to article
  • Written by Linda Chapel Jackson, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of Bruno Takahashi

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