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As floods rise, journos struggle to get the story out

Reporters and editors are working hard to get the paper out in the areas worst affected by the latest Queensland floods.

Christina Ongley, editor of the Bundaberg News-Mail, is covering what could well be the biggest story of her career. But she’s stranded at her roadblocked home in Childers, 40 minutes out of town. Meanwhile, her reporters and photographers have had to evacuate their office; some have had to flee their homes.

As Ongley speaks to Crikey, she’s updating the News-Mail’s live blog on the unfolding emergency. The numbers she’s posting are staggering: 7500 people displaced, up to 3000 homes have been evacuated, 1000 people rescued by choppers in the past 24 hours. The Burnett River has already reached 9.4 metres.

According to Ongley, who has edited the paper since 2009, putting out the paper has been much more difficult than during the 2011 floods: “The power lapses and road closures have been much worse … It’s very difficult to manage a group of reporters when you’re not there. I’m on the phone all day. It’s been quite an extraordinary set of circumstances.”

Despite the strain, she sounds extraordinarily calm.

Since evacuating the office on Sunday, her eight reporters and three photographers have become nomads, working wherever they can. The council donated office space but the internet connection there was so patchy they had to move. When things were no better at the local racecourse they had to move again.

One photographer spent yesterday in a boat, filing photos while helping his neighbours evacuate. One reporter, whose electricity is down, has been charging her phone in her car. The paper’s staffers have been working early mornings, late nights — up to 1.30am — and have been coming in to help while on holidays or on rostered days off.

The Daily-News, which has had to fly papers into Bundaberg, has reduced its print run by half and is making digital versions available online for free so locals can stay up-to-date. The paper has been using Facebook and Twitter far more than in 2011 to upload stories and photos. Social media, Ongley says, is particularly important because people can still use their phones despite lost internet connections and power outages.

She hopes to get into the office this afternoon to see if the servers and computer equipment can be salvaged.

As a rule, the floods have not been as severe in Ipswich as they were in 2011. But Stuart Sherwin, editor of local paper The Queensland Times, says covering the story has been far tougher this time.

His staff battled IT difficulties on Sunday to get an edition out, only to discover the road from their Toowoomba printing plant had been completely cut off by floods and a landslide. No copies of the Times made it into Ipswich proper yesterday. “It was extremely frustrating, I have to say,” Sherwin told Crikey. “Normal transmission has been resumed.”

Gary Worrall, editor of the Gatton Star, a weekly paper servicing the Lockyer Valley and surrounding areas, says his staff gained access to the paper’s office this morning after being blocked by flood water. “There was a lake in the middle of the road,” Worrall said.

The Star’s staff now have a day to put together 40 pages. “I’ve got a coffee machine on my desk,” Worrall said.

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  • 1
    Steve Grant
    Posted Tuesday, 29 January 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Staggering? Really? “Torrential rain starting on 23 Jun 2012 resulted in floods and landslides, killing 139 people and causing the destruction of homesteads and significantly affecting ten districts in the northern and south-eastern parts of Bangladesh. More than 5 million people were affected by the floods, which damaged over 360,000 houses and 230,000 areas of crops. A total of 50,778 people were evacuated to 246 shelters.” (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Nov 15, 2012). Keep it real, Crikey

  • 2
    scot mcphee
    Posted Tuesday, 29 January 2013 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    IS that the reason why Abbott got away with a two-minute sandbag fill for the cameras?

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