KING 5 reporter Alison Morrow and photojournalist Ryan Coe went to Florida to cover Hurricane Irma, but they ended up basically being amateur first responders in Tampa.
“In a weird way, that’s what reporters are sometimes,” she said. “Sometimes we’re the first to know.”
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She and photojournalist Ryan Coe helped a New Port Richey woman, Jane Gambrel, who’d been left behind at her mobile home.
“She didn’t have anybody to get her out of there,” Morrow explained. “Her family never showed up and EMS crews were overloaded, even though they were working as hard as they could to get people.”
Morrow said they were concerned Gambrel wouldn’t be able to evacuate without their help.
“So we just stayed with her, flagged down sheriff’s deputies, called 911, and were there nine hours until she was carted out in an ambulance and taken to a special needs shelter,” she said.
Morrow said she took away a lesson of how socioeconomic status can impact one’s safety during a disaster.
“There are people who don’t necessarily choose to stay,” she said. “We learned that it’s not always as easy of a choice as just ‘I’m staying or going.’”
The following is a reporter notebook written by Alison Morrow.
We see it all the time. Someone dies in a mobile home during a Florida storm. Perhaps we sigh and say, "Wow, that's too bad," or just scratch our heads and move on without much thought, because, well, he or she didn't evacuate when authorities warned.
And so wasn't it his or her choice?
But we learned as Irma approached that evacuating isn't always so simple. Photojournalist Ryan Coe and I interviewed a kind couple leaving their mobile home near the Anclote River on Friday.
They waited to do so because of their neighbor, Jane Gambrel, a 70-year old, wheelchair-bound woman who requires oxygen to breathe which means she also needs electricity.
"We don't want to leave her," Mandy Clark told me. "But her family said they're coming to get her."
We exchanged numbers so she could update me on her trip to seek shelter in Mississippi.
Except, the next update I got was about Jane.
"Can you please send an EMS to my neighbor? She hasn't gotten out," the text read.
I called Jane. Sure enough, she was still in her mobile home in the mandatory evacuation zone where flooding is so bad, a man died in 2012 on her very street.
I called the Pasco EOC and alerted them. Ryan and I decided to head her way to see if we could help.
I'm glad we did because the hard truth is that when a storm of Irma's magnitude hits, so do panic and chaos. People get scared and busy. For some reason, Jane's family couldn't get her. We never heard back from the EOC. Crews are spread thin trying to do the best they can. Jane was completely at the mercy of others. She can barely walk. She has no car. If her oxygen tank loses power, it lasts just one hour, and she dies. Jane was waiting for people to come get her but they never did.
"I'll be OK," Jane told us. "God will provide."
The hours passed with no word. So, when I saw a Pasco County Sheriff's vehicle drive by, I raced after it and flagged them down.
Cpl. Chris Bukowiecki and his partner immediately offered to help, calling for an emergency pick-up. They walked inside Jane's mobile home and took notes on her health condition so she'd go to an appropriate shelter. Their willingness to stop and help save the day.
We shared the animal crackers and almond butter that Ryan and I bought for our storm coverage. We laughed and told stories and waited.
Within three hours, EMS crews showed up and wheeled Jane out of her home. She will spend the next few days in a shelter for people with medical needs.
"I have your phone number!" she shouted, promising to call us later to let us know she made it.
Friends, and that's what we should aim to be during a time like this, don't wait for someone else to ask, "Are you OK?" Let's all be the one who asks. We can do this together.
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