Covering Ike in Galveston
October 2008

Jason Witmer (left)
Johnny Hanson (right)

(This dispatch was co-written from Witmer's
point of view and contains Hanson's images.)

Hurricanes are unpredictable. As a journalist you never know if they will bang or fizzle or where they will land. You just have to be as prepared as you can.

I had recently started working at the Houston Chronicle as a video journalist and had been sent to two storms that had fizzled. I was cynical; I thought Ike would be the same.

© Johnny Hanson / 2008 Houston Chronicle
Stuart Robinson with Cyclone Research Group gets a look at the seawall as winds and rain from Hurricane Ike blew on Galveston Island, Saturday morning, Sept. 13, 2008.
But a day before the storm was projected to hit we realized that not only was it strengthening, it was tracking east directly toward Galveston. Photographer Johnny Hanson was already there and had his hands full shooting pre-hurricane stills and video. Our editors decided to make a temporary Galveston bureau that would eventually consist of Johnny, two other photographers, four reporters and myself. That evening the desk told me to head for the one hotel room that we would share over the coming days. The San Luis was already packed with emergency response workers and journalists from all over the country.

This was the first big hurricane Johnny and I would cover from start to finish and we woke before dawn with adrenaline in our veins. As the sun rose across the Gulf we found waves crashing over the Galveston seawall. With me shooting video, Johnny was free to take photos of 10-foot waves battering a statue that honors victims of the deadly 1900 storm. One of these was the lead in the print edition the next day. Editing on my laptop in my SUV I produced a video illustrating the flooding that was already happening.

© Johnny Hanson / 2008 Houston Chronicle
Waves crashing into the seawall reaching over a memorial to the hurricane of 1900 as Hurricane Ike began to hit Galveston, Texas, Sept. 12, 2008.
We stayed in touch by cell phone. Johnny and reporter Lindsay Wise came across one of the first boat rescues of the storm as the streets began to flood. I was quickly on the scene to shoot video. We worked furiously to capture it well and stay out of each other's way. We split up after that and met back at the hotel.

Just as everyone was beginning to send in work we heard that the marina was on fire. Photographer Brett Coomer, reporter Dale Lezon and I drove to the scene while Johnny sent images to the office.

By evening the storm was bearing down on Galveston and wind was intensifying. We hauled our gear down to the third-floor ballroom where dozens of people had already bunkered down. The lights died at around 9 p.m. We spent the next few hours walking around with glow sticks hoping we were ready for what was to come.

© Johnny Hanson / 2008 Houston Chronicle
On the corner of 61st and R Streets., Frank Urbina walks down the street where flood waters reached waist-deep on Galveston Island as Hurricane Ike approached, Sept. 12, 2008. He was hoping to evacuate with his mother and father who were being sent to Austin after they were rescued from their home. He was denied the chance to ride along and had to stay behind.
Thankfully, several of the reporters and photographers had more hurricane experience than Johnny and I. On their advice we had parked our vehicles at different locations hoping that at least one would have a clear path out in the morning. We had brought rain gear, bottled water and cans of gasoline. We had stockpiled granola bars, cheesy crackers and the military Meals-Ready-to-Eat rations that I would grow to cherish in the coming weeks. I had also stowed a back-up video camera that would prove to be an invaluable precaution. But as we all would say later, you're never fully prepared when the storm lives up to the hype.

We woke the next morning at around 4 a.m. The ballroom was shaking, wind was howling, something was banging. The eye had passed but this was the worst of the storm, the "dirty" side. Hotel officials wouldn't let anyone out because opening the doors could have damaged the hotel and risked safety. At 5:30 a.m. one reporter tried to open a door. It almost flew off the hinge and the reporter was nearly tackled by hotel staff. We paced anxiously in the dark and waited.

At 8 a.m. I ventured out with my video camera. I stood on a partially enclosed stairway in back of the hotel, wind and rain beating against my cheeks and bare arms. I set up my tripod and turned the camera on. Error message. Damn. Too much humidity had produced condensation in the gears--it had happened before. I raced back to my room, tripped over people in the dark and fumbled for my cheap back-up camera. This time I found a spot in the parking garage and shot palm trees bent over from the wind, and flooded cars.

© Johnny Hanson / 2008 Houston Chronicle
John Ned Rose, 66, assesses the damage in front of his home near the corner of 53rd and M Streets on Galveston Island after Hurricane Ike hit on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008. Rose said he had water up to his waist in his home. "I've never seen it like this," the lifelong resident said.
It was then that I made perhaps my biggest mistake of the storm: rather than spend a half hour uploading this footage, I decided I needed to get out to see what real damage had been done. I headed out in my SUV with Dale and Brett but many streets were impassable and the Internet connection was agonizingly slow. Though I got better material, it was nearly noon before I could upload a video. Meanwhile, back at the office editors were desperate for any footage from Galveston because they had no way to know if the Island was even above water. Our cell phone reception was down so I received their frustrated voicemails days later.

Johnny had fared better than I. He was able to get outside from a back staircase and shoot photos of a group of British storm chasers along the seawall. He and a print reporter drove along the debris-covered street where small boulders had been tossed by the storm surge. Power lines were down; small boats were in the streets. Homes were flooded and people were slowly beginning to step outside. They waded through floodwater to document the damage and tell vivid stories of the night before.

Johnny would say later that having a team of reporters, including me focusing on video, was critical. It was difficult for him to carry all the equipment he needed to work in more than one medium. With me there he could focus on producing quality photographs.

After I finished my first video I trudged into waist deep floodwater in Galveston's historic Strand district. I redeemed myself by producing two videos from this excursion. One featured kayakers paddling under stoplights. Another included reporter Dale Lezon, who was doing a stand-up in front of a shrimp boat that had crashed in front of a trolley stop. By day's end I also produced a piece on an elderly woman who rode out the storm alone amidst rising floodwater, using several photos that photographer Brett Coomer had shot. And I edited Johnny's footage of several important Galveston buildings that were destroyed.

© Johnny Hanson / 2008 Houston Chronicle
Workers with Pacesetter Personal Service clean up the Rosenberg Library, home to the Galveston and Texas History Center, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in Galveston, Sept. 20, 2008. Water damage and mold have caused the library to lose many documents and books that were kept in the library's lower floors.
I worked on these last two in my SUV in the dark with my laptop plugged into my power inverter that, in turn, was plugged into my cigarette lighter. Seven of us worked this way in four vehicles in the hotel parking lot with Brett manning transmission of our work via satellite phone because the Verizon network was down. This would become an evening ritual with Brett as our deity because he was the only one who knew how to operate the sensitive satellite contraption. He was generous enough to let several reporters from other newspapers transmit their work this way as well.

The next day brought more challenges. Communication was impossible because cell phones and Internet were still down. We scattered across the city in pairs finding stories of loss and uncertainty in ravaged neighborhoods and at a school that had been converted to a shelter. No print reporter was at the school so that night I worked with one to write a dispatch. Johnny was off with the National Guard on the fabled west end of the island where no media had been by ground. When he returned we collaborated on a story that used his photos and my narration to tell stories of people being rescued. I can't remember if it was that night or the next that I was finally able to get a weak Internet connection by perching on top of my Ford Explorer in what seemed to be the perfect spot. Two other laptops soon joined me.

In addition to all that was happening in Galveston, Houston had its own problems. We relied on an instant messaging system and the satellite phone to communicate with our office. Johnny and Brett sent a note to the photo editors asking them to call the photojournalists' wives to let them know they were all right, not realizing that phones were down in Houston as well.

© Johnny Hanson / 2008 Houston Chronicle
Jamaica Beach resident Terri Landry looks at debris in her side lot as Jamaica Beach residents were able to return on a look-and-leave basis to inspect their property in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike on Galveston Island, Sept. 20, 2008. "This is the stuff you see happen to other people on TV," Landry said. Many of the homes in Jamaica Beach survived without damage to residents' living areas because building codes require the homes to be raised on pilings.
Over the coming weeks we would work long hours amidst stories of heartbreak and heroism. We would work without power, hot food or, in my case, a favorite video camera. We would make lists of what we would bring next time, like a second satellite phone, more socks and instant coffee. But it was how a storm that didn't fizzle brought people together that would stand out the most. It was true for us whether it was sharing information or finding new ways to collaborate. Without any one of us, our work would have suffered.

From atop my SUV I glanced at our group of journalists – the Galveston bureau – with their muddy boots and soggy clothing, huddling together transmitting stories they had worked together to tell. I smiled for a second realizing that it had been three days since any of us had a shower, then slapped at a mosquito and returned to my laptop.

See for a piece on the Galveston storm of 1900.

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© Jason Witmer / Johnny Hanson

Jason Witmer works as a video journalist for the Houston Chronicle. He recently graduated from U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He has produced videos, photos, print articles and radio stories for publications including The Washington Post, The Oregonian and NPR's "All Things Considered." He is no longer cynical about hurricanes.

Contact Jason Witmer at and

Johnny Hanson is a photo/video journalist with the Houston Chronicle and made the images within this dispatch. After finishing his degree in print journalism from the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana in 1996, Hanson began a freelance career working with numerous agencies, newspapers and corporate clients. Moving to Denver in 2000 he became the photo editor for Hanson received an M.A. in visual communication from Ohio University and joined the Houston Chronicle in 2006. He is grateful the Chronicle allowed him to attend The Platypus Workshop that gave him the skills to juggle stills and video. Hanson and his wife Megan are proud parents of a 3-month-old son, Jack Henry.

Contact Johnny Hanson at

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