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Monday, July 28, 2014, 10:06 a.m.
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Reporter carries on, but fazed by tragedy

By Tammy Keith

This article was published May 4, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

Here’s what I learned in my journalism classes in college: Reporters shouldn’t get personally involved in their stories.

Here’s what I learned in real life: Sometimes reporters cry, too.

I’ve covered tornadoes many times in my career — my first one was almost 30 years ago, and I still remember standing in the person’s home looking at the sky where the roof should be. I went to Botkinburg and Walnut Grove in April 2013 and saw some terrible damage.

The tornado that hit Faulkner County a week ago today was the worst I’ve seen.

I remember the shock when a tornado hit Vilonia in 2011 and five people died.

It was sad, and it was terrible to see the destroyed homes, but most of the businesses and houses in Vilonia survived. The tornado only skimmed Mayflower.

This time the storm exploded through both communities, killing 11 people — at this writing, but more are hospitalized. Homes were just wiped off their foundations. Vehicles were smashed like Godzilla had stomped through the town.

I went into neighborhoods the day after the storm, and people were dazed. Numb. Sometimes they laughed nervously when suddenly they couldn’t recall their address or a name they should know. They were in shock.

One older woman sat watching as her relatives talked to an insurance agent and tried to salvage her belongings. She was hard of hearing, and I leaned in to talk to her, and as I did, I patted her velvety hand. I have a soft place in my heart for elderly people. If touching her hand makes me a bad reporter, so be it.

When they mentioned they didn’t even have boxes to pack in, I remembered a small one in my vehicle, and I walked across the street to get it. When I gave it to the woman’s daughter, she acted so appreciative it embarrassed me. It was just a cardboard box.

Was that getting involved? I don’t care.

Reporters are regarded with suspicion sometimes, but we have a job to do, too, just like the agencies that swooped in to help. It’s our job to get the word out about where to donate, the names that go on your prayer lists, the amazing acts of bravery and survival. And yes, stories of death.

It’s a competitive business, though. As I walked through a devastated neighborhood, a television reporter was with a man I wanted to interview. I didn’t realize he hadn’t filmed it yet, and I asked the guy a question. The reporter told me, not rudely, that he was interviewing the guy. I apologized, and they moved away so I couldn’t hear.

The thought crossed my mind that we were kind of like dogs growling at each other over a food bowl.

When a first responder told me, “They’re guarding a body over there,” and asked me not to quote him in the story using his name, I didn’t.

I talked and talked to people and heard stories and descriptions of how afraid they were. I started thinking about it all, and all the families who are planning funerals and don’t even have a home to be in while they figure it out.

I saw grown men cry — tough guys, former military men, husbands and fathers who had to be strong for their families. Sometimes all it took was a phone call from their mothers, a friend or finally seeing their loved ones’ faces.

It’s hardest when children are hurt or killed. I keep seeing the sweet little faces of the brothers, 9 and 7, who died in Vilonia.

One morning as I was getting ready for work, I thought about them and the people who’ve lost everything. I stood there and cried as I got ready.

It broke my heart when people who were standing on a slab that used to be their home, picking through pieces of their lives, apologized to me — to me — when they couldn’t talk or had to take a phone call.

At one interview, surrounded by the tortured landscape of destruction, we talked about recovery, cleanup and rebuilding. “People are basically good,” one man said.

We all agreed.

Teachers and students and people from other communities walked the roads handing out food and water.

This storm is part of our history now. It won’t be the last time I report sad stories and talk to devastated people.

And, I’ll cry again.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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