The Digital Journalist
Hell's Half-Acre
September 2004

by Chip Litherland

The highway was littered with trees, debris, and toppled street signs making a sort of slalom course of destruction. After Hurricane Charley made landfall Friday evening, all the cell phone towers were gone, so I listened to choppy local radio to find out where to go in my assigned neighborhoods. As night approached, I finally made my through all of the debris into downtown Punta Gorda and this is where I met the first of many people whose lives were completely transformed in a few minutes by Hurricane Charley.

Business trashed: Sandy Agabedis, The Blossom Shop

Chip Litherland/Sarasota Herald-Tribune
I pulled over to find Sandy Agabedis completely in shock over what stood before here. The Blossom Shop, a forty year-old business that she ran for the last ten years downtown, was reduced to a pile of bricks destroying over $30,000 worth of flowers along with it. I shot three frames of the scene as she brought her hand to her face in disbelief. It was almost nightfall, so with a longer exposure at a high ISO I was able to show the building behind her as three flashes pierced the darkening sky. I returned the next morning with a copy of the paper, which she truly appreciated.

Over the next day or two, I found myself overwhelmed with the realization that I could shoot a news photo of every building there. I began passing up "mere" destruction and stopped only when I saw a person affected by the storm.

Church gone: Pastor Ron Guzman

Chip Litherland/Sarasota Herald-Tribune
I stopped at what appeared to be another business that looked like it had exploded. Upon walking up to the building I saw pews sticking up from the rubble and soaked and torn Bibles and hymnals strewn about. I introduced myself to a man who identified himself as Pastor Ron Guzman of the Peace River Church of Christ. He had come to open the doors to his church in case his 25 member congregation needed shelter if their homes were destroyed, not knowing the church was no longer standing. "It's the people, not the steeple," he said as he picked up a fallen lectern from the aisle. He is unsure if he will rebuild.

Trailer destroyed: Mike and Patti Haecker

Chip Litherland/Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Covering the Hurricane has been stressful to say the least. The devastation is mind-boggling. The grief you see on some of the faces of people you meet makes you want to do something. I see our part as getting information to them and showing them that they are not alone by relaying information and being a sympathetic ear. I keep a case of bottled water in my car along with a stack of newspapers to hand out to people I meet, and that has been an amazing stepping stone for access.

I always introduce myself before before photographing and make sure they accept my being there, otherwise, it seems to me that they're just a compositional element. I want to be a human first, and a photographer second. I haven't had one person tell me to take hike, most people are very happy to see another face.

I was sleeping on a piece of foam on the newsroom floor this weekend. I survived on cookies and water while shooting. Cell phones don't work and don't even think about street signs - they're all long gone. You will get a flat tire.

After talking with a few photojournalists here are some things to pack when covering disasters:

water, water, water
food (crackers, cookies, granola bars)
clothing for two weeks (lots of socks)
bug spray
rain gear for camera
rain gear for yourself
waders and boots
hard soled shoes (nails and debris everywhere)
pencils (pens bleed)
first aid kit
fix-a-flat (nails everywhere)
media credential from emergency management
local media contacts for transmitting (make friends with us locals)
SAT phone

Chip Litherland/Sarasota Herald-Tribune

© Chip Litherland

Chip Litherland is a staff photographer at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in Florida. He has been honored by both Pictures of the Year and Best of Photojournalism. His work can be seen at or For more Hurricane Charley galleries from other photojournalists at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune please visit the website at

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