From the editor: Alumni covering recent disasters

October 30, 2017

In what the academy sometimes labels “the real world,” it’s been quite a calamitous season. Hurricanes. Shootings. Fires. As it happens, some Duke alumni have played key roles in covering and contextualizing the whole range of seemingly apocalyptic events.

“Covering a disaster where you live means watching your friends and neighbors suffer,” says Andrew Kragie ’15, who reported on Hurricane Harvey for The Houston Chronicle. “It means wondering who is affected, who is okay, who needs help. It makes it less voyeuristic, less impersonal, harder to forget and move on to the next assignment.”

With the arrival of Harvey, the roads around Kragie’s apartment had three to five feet of water. His editor dispatched him to a local medical complex, which ranks as the world’s largest. “I rode my bike through the streets—like pedaling a slightly- better-than-stationary bike in a swimming pool, but with all sorts of contaminants you’d like to ignore.”

Along the way, Kragie ran into a homeless man. “He was out of food and water, so I gave him my granola bars and split my water. He didn’t have a cell phone to call for help if the waters kept rising. I imagine he was fine and was able to leave the next day. But I have no idea.”

Kragie returned to the field to write about what flooded homeowners saved or salvaged from the water. “Family photos mean a lot to people, especially the old ones we never think about digitizing until it’s too late. Pets, of course. One woman’s many handmade quilts. A woman’s Christmas ornaments, made for her children by her mother.”

Seeking out such personal details behind extraordinary events is also the work of Elizabeth Van Brocklin ’11, a former Felker Fellow for Duke Magazine. She’s now a reporter for The Trace, a website that covers gun violence and gun issues.

“The week of the Las Vegas shooting was busy and upsetting for the reasons one might expect,” says Van Brocklin. “Horrendous as they are, high-profile mass shootings are just the tip of the iceberg. Tens of thousands of people are shot every year in America, many of them in urban neighborhoods where resources are already thin.”

Roughly ninety people die from firearms injuries each day. More than double that number are shot and survive their injuries. “Some of them leave the hospital only to face physical disability, a shattered psyche, and huge medical bills—and there’s no coordinated system of support to help them through.” One fellow reporter described this daily violence to Van Brocklin as “a mass shooting in slow motion.”

The massive wild fires were in familiar territory for San Francisco-based New York Times photographer Jim Wilson ’74. On the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Oakland Hills fire, which destroyed nearly 3,000 structures and took twenty-five lives, Wilson observes, “Sadly, I’ve been down this road previously.” That was his first wild fire as a photographer. “It touched me personally. The home I’d just bought was in an area that was on standby to evacuate; a very fortunate change in the wind direction meant that my neighborhood was spared.”

On this assignment, Wilson headed to the wine country village of Glen Ellen, where a mental- health-care facility was endangered. He documented several crews as they fought fires on “fully engaged homes” and ended up in Santa Rosa, where the destruction stretched to a mobile-home park, apartment complexes, and a couple of hotels.

“The full impact of the fire didn’t actually hit me until I drove a few miles west into the Coffey Park neighborhood, where there was nothing left, just piles of smoking ashes where homes had once stood,” he recalls. On many lots, the only thing that was recognizable was the shell of a washer or a dryer or an occasional vehicle parked in a driveway—though often the vehicle was just a pile of molten metal and glass.

“What struck me most was that these neighborhoods were in the heart of Santa Rosa, a vibrant city of tidy subdivisions,” Wilson says. “There were areas where no one would have ever imagined that a wild fire could burn through as this one had. The residents had only minutes to collect whatever they could and flee. Now, they are returning, trying to figure out how they will start over.”

  • As editor, Bliwise has overall responsibility for editorial direction and content and for representing the magazine to its various constituencies. He also teaches a seminar in magazine journalism through Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.