Hurricane Bonnie Fiasco
kangaroo court

Hurricane Bonnie, 1998


Hurricane Bonnie, 1998 provided another interesting occurrence.  Two CBS Sixty Minutes crews were accompanying  us to produce a piece for their show.  Being “investigative reporters” by nature, but not so, we thought, on this specific assignment, they seemed more interested in knowing how we were able, over the years. to get through the official roadblocks to the evacuated barrier islands, when their crews were often denied access.  We hid our civil defense badges from them, told them it was a trade secret, but knew eventually they would “find out” when we got them through the roadblocks to the NC coast to Wrightsville Beach, east of Wilmington. 

I am quite certain the focus of the story was supposed to mostly observe and present the work of us rare few hurricane photographers that had been supplying their network lead-story footage for years now.

Andy Dressler, a some-time chaser, was driving my car at the time we went through the roadblock.  The policewoman manning the roadblock came over to our car and asked why we wanted to go onto the dangerous evacuated barrier island.  Andy presented his Florida Emergency Management Badge through the cracked window to the police lady standing outside in 80 mph winds and blasting rain squalls stinging her face.  

“OK” go on out there, but be careful,” she screamed over the howling hurricane gusts.

The two cars-full of 60 Minute producers and camera men and three and us (Andy, Jim, and myself) proceeded to the far end of the island and set up for filming on the third floor of a parking garage, on the edge of the peninsula.  110+  mph gusts blasted though, the tidal surge covered the roads to two feet deep and more in some places, and the CBS guys filmed us doing our thing.

During the calm eye one of the crews decided (unwisely) to go back to the mainland to file a story for the Bryant Gumble show for later that evening.  20 minutes later a producer still with us gets a cell phone call from that other crew advising him that they had been arrested at the roadblock and the cops were coming out to arrest us as well for violating the 24 hour curfew and for other charges as well. 

Sure enough, a deputy in a P/U got to the parking garage and ordered all of us scoundrels and “Yankee” newsmen to follow him back through the flood, in the calm eye, back to the mainland.
Once there, they set up a makeshift court in a bank building, called the local magistrate at his home, and insisted he come to administer the court hearing; as the second half of the hurricane was now coming ashore.  Absurdity gone wild.   

Apparently, the crew that went back through the roadblock opened a fat mouth to the newer policeman now manning the roadblock and got him angry with their arrogance. Probably.   Nonetheless the hurricane is roaring outside and many network crews who were not allowed through the roadblocks were filming this court hearing through the glass doors of the bank/courtroom, hurricane winds whipping their backs.  

The police lady, apparently was only supposed to let LOCAL Emergency Management officials and FEMA through the roadblock.  She must have lied to her superiors and stated we told her we were from FEMA.  Our badges said F (Florida) E (emergency) M (management) A (authority) and that is what we presented to her.

We were chastised by the local police captain / prosecutor during the hearing, and finally fined for breaking curfew and presenting ourselves as “officers”;  and told we had to come back to a court hearing several weeks later.  They formally ARRESTED Andy for driving the car and presenting his “false”  (which they were not) credentials that got us through the roadblock.  In the end it cost most of us several hundred dollar fines.

The next morning Jim and I were asked to do a live interview about the hurricane and present footage on Good Morning America.  Lo and behold, they knew about the arrest and court hearing, and were more interested in that.  We agreed to do the interview, but only if they did not ask about that part of our hurricane Bonnie experience.  The interview went fine.