On Sept. 4, with Hurricane Irma headed toward Florida, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency. Later, hundreds of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate, the largest such event in the state’s history. But during the storm that left 10,000 people homeless, not everyone left. Some stayed in their homes because they didn’t want to leave, some stayed because they were first responders and others stayed because there was a story to be covered. In television news alone, Klein College had plenty of alumni who stuck around.
If being thrown in the deep end is the best way to learn to swim, then Simone Cuccurullo’s experience may have been the most educational. After graduating from Temple in 2015, her first job was as anchor and reporter at a station in Erie, Pennsylvania. Then, the week of the hurricane, she got her current job as a reporter for NBC 2 Fort Myers.
“Honestly, ridiculous was the only word to describe it,” Cuccurullo said. “I was definitely overwhelmed. I moved away from home, tried to get acclimated to a new place and on top of all that, there was a giant hurricane.”
She worked 11 days straight, dealing with emotionally heavy scenes, watching people use power boats to travel through residential areas. She was very proud to help give a generator, donated by a viewer, to an assisted living facility. She accomplished that with the help of fellow Temple grad Andrew McDevitt, KLN ‘15.
McDevitt works for ABC 7 Fort Myers, normally serving as its weekend sports anchor. But when sporting events were canceled or postponed for the hurricane, he was assigned to take photos and accompany Simone, whom he already knew from Temple. While an interesting task, he felt somewhat out of his element.
“For me, it’s not even close to the same as what I normally do.” McDevitt said. “I don’t do anything sports-related so it’s been kind of a bummer.”
But he stepped up to the challenge, even sleeping at the station when necessary. Before the storm, he recalls seeing shelters with lines that were seven hours long. Afterward, one of those shelters he visited was damaged, with an inch of water inside.
“It’s terrible to see people leave a shelter, trying to go home but not sure what they’re going home to,” he said.
Cuccurullo was also lucky to be working with another familiar face, Kate Reilly, KLN ‘17, who was her producer at NBC 2. The two are also roommates. Reilly had only been working there about three months before the hurricane hit.
“When Simone first moved in, we were lightly talking about it, saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be crazy if we got with Irma now,” Reilly recalled.
When the storm hit—in some areas with 155 mile per hour winds—it called for a lot of journalists to “learn on the fly.” As a producer, she recalls having to pick up things much quicker than usual.
“It was crazy to say the least,” Reilly said. “I probably learned more this past week and a half than I have my entire time in journalism.”
A big part of it, she says, was keeping her cool. If the producer gets nervous, the on-air talent does too. So she had to make sure that when three reporting teams in a row were unable to do their reports due to various technical issues (which, yes, really happened), she didn’t freak out and kept things going.
But Temple alumni coverage went beyond Fort Myers. News producer Stephanie Craig, KLN ‘14, and assignment editor Kaitryn Wetzel, KLN ‘13, both work for CBS 12 West Palm Beach. The two got their start together as producers at Temple Update. This, of course, was much different than anything they had previously experienced.
“We saw some very scary and interesting situations,” Wetzel said. “You don’t realize how dangerous it can be.”
In one situation, a transformer exploded near a car and lit a number of other cars on fire. It was a reminder that it was part of Wetzel’s job to keep her people safe, even at the expense of getting the story. She said she was successful, partially because had cautious reporters who were constantly updating her on their location and paying attention to safety.
Because of a lack of power in the surrounding areas, the station made sure they were broadcast not only on television and the internet but the radio as well. The station received many grateful calls afterwards from viewers and listeners.
“It puts in perspective how important what you do is,” Craig said. “Especially in a situation like this, they definitely need people like us to be the voice of reason.”
Craig and Wetzel were joined by an alumnus from an unlikely source. Phil Dupont, KLN ‘16, a photojournalist from WBFF in Baltimore, Maryland, was sent down to West Palm Beach by his station’s parent company, Sinclair Broadcast Group, to join them. Dupont, also formerly a member of Kate Reilly’s newsroom back at Temple, was sent down Sinclair needed someone in Florida to stream the footage to be used by the rest of its stations.
It all happened rather quickly. The Wednesday before the storm, Dupont was informed he was going to be traveling. He then left Thursday and the airports closed on Friday. Although much of the shooting was done from the balcony of his hotel room, he could still feel the hurricane’s intensity.
“It really puts the fear of God in you and I didn’t even get the full front of it,” he said. “The people in Fort Myers got it way worse than we did.”
He also had to learn to go with the flow, waterproofing his equipment and, when the hotel’s power went out, siphoning his battery to save energy.
All of the alumni agreed that their Temple education help prepare them for their difficult but exciting assignments.
“The education we got Temple got us thinking about the presence and urgency it takes to get someone live in a newscast,” Wetzel said.
Cuccurullo, after being thrown into action so quickly, discussed how reporters covering a natural disaster like this aren’t just assigned to their community, they’re a part of it.
“I plan on contributing back to my new community,” she said. “That’s another thing Temple taught me, the importance of giving back.”