NEW YORK (AP) — The urgency of hurricane coverage with its colorful satellite maps and reporters standing in the wind is a television staple, but devastation in Hurricane Michael's wake was so severe that it made images of some of the hardest-hit areas in Florida trickle out Thursday as slowly as if from a distant, third-world nation.
Broadcast news organizations faced a challenge in getting reporters to Mexico Beach, 40 miles east of the more populated Panama City, where wind and storm surge left behind a moonscape of damage. Roads were impassable and some reporters had been pulled out of the town in advance of the storm because of safety fears.
"We knew that was a bad place and our mission was to try to get there today," said Michael Bass, CNN's executive vice president of programming. A source's cell phone footage of water rushing through the town, picking up houses and cars along the way, and an official's anguished cell phone call on Wednesday gave hints about the damage.
Thursday's coverage illustrated that there are still limits to technology and reportorial ingenuity in the face of a massive disaster. For several hours, television viewers following the story had the ominous sense that something was missing. Cable networks filled time with other stories, but even the sight of Kanye West meeting in the Oval Office with President Donald Trump seemed like a distraction.
By arranging a helicopter ride, CNN's Brooke Baldwin broke through. The network aired aerial shots of the town and, shortly before noon, Baldwin landed to deliver reports. "When I tell you that all of Mexico Beach has been leveled, this is the truth," Baldwin said, standing before a mound of debris.
With cell phone towers blown down, CNN had to use a satellite transmitter to get pictures out. It made for some blotchy pictures and malfunctions, and at one point she said she had to stand in one place to make sure the signal wasn't lost.
CNN was also trying to get a reporter to Mexico Beach by boat. Another CNN reporter, Brian Todd, made it in by ground by Thursday afternoon.
"These are very brave people that we send out to do these things," Bass said. "There's a lot of danger to this area."
Baldwin's helicopter arrival made CNN's rivals look flat-footed for a few hours. In one report MSNBC's Kerry Sanders, standing in Panama City, pointed above him to a helicopter flying to more damaged areas.
"Mexico Beach is going to be the place that a lot of people talk about," Sanders said.
ABC News' Ginger Zee, who was in Mexico Beach during the storm on Wednesday, transmitted pictures and video of water rushing under the condominium building where she was staying. She stepped on a balcony a few hours later to show the aftermath. "It's really wild to see," she said.
The Weather Channel's Stephanie Abrams was stationed 10 miles from Mexico Beach before the storm but reported that with what she was seeing on the satellite images, she didn't think the house she was in would withstand the wind, said Nora Zimmet, the network's programming chief. Abrams was told to get out of town. With a police escort, she tried beginning at 3 a.m. to get to Mexico Beach, but had to turn back. She finally made it later in the day.
"I applaud all of our media brethren for going out in the field and covering this," Zimmet said. "No story is worth risking your life. We take calculated risks."
Fox News Channel's Mike Tobin similarly struck out before dawn for Mexico Beach from the Pensacola area and made it by 9 a.m. The lack of cell service meant he had to leave town to transmit reports, he said.
"It was a little hairy," he said in an interview. "The biggest obstacle was all the power lines."
NBC News' Mariana Atencio filed a report on Instagram when she made it to Mexico Beach, describing what she had seen on the road in as like a war zone.
"There are chunks of the road which are completely gone," she said. "Boats, cars, pancaked on top of houses."
Drones proved to be the secret weapon of networks that could get them in place. They provided striking aerial footage of damage, in some cases sweeping inside damaged buildings. On his newscast, Fox's Shepard Smith used a drone's sweep over a canal in Mexico Beach and compared it to an earlier satellite image of the same area to show how many homes used to be there but no longer were. He described the pictures as "mind-altering."
Fox's Tobin said he's seen more powerful and larger hurricanes, but none that combined the two traits like Michael. "I haven't seen one with such miles and miles and miles of destruction as this one," he said.
"You don't want to lose track that so many lives have just been shattered," he said.