The biggest lesson Graeme Bruce learned covering slow-moving flood waters in Manitoba’s southwestern region? Have a sharper plan.
By Julie McCann, Field Notes Editor
It was a Friday at noon in early July 2014 and Brandon Sun reporter Graeme Bruce needed a club sandwich and a place to collect his thoughts. He was on day three of a tour of the flood-damaged communities of southwestern Manitoba for a feature series. A coffee shop in Deloraine, about 100 km south of Brandon, Man., seemed like just the place.
Bruce had been with the Sun since January 2013 and had got his toes wet covering flooding in roughly the same area last year. And although he was born and received his journalism diploma in Ottawa, he had previous experiences reporting in smaller communities such as Hay River, N.W.T., and Grand Prairie, Alta. But the scope and magnitude of this situation was new to him. “I knew about flooding and its impact, but it’s something to see it first hand,” he said.
In the restaurant that day he grabbed a seat beside three men. He overheard them talking about the flood—the only topic of conversation in the region—so he introduced himself and asked one of them about the area they were discussing. The man’s reply: “Oh, I’m the reeve, this is the fire chief and this is a councillor. Would you like to go on a tour of some of the harder-hit areas?”
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Bruce chuckled when he remembered the serendipitous moment, but it’s also typical of what he learned on his trip: Manitobans in this part of the province are grateful to share their stories. “Generally, people are happy for you to be there,” he said of the media’s arrival. “People are happy to talk. They often feel like they don’t have a voice.”
Gathering the facts about the event and sharing their stories, Bruce said, acknowledged the significance of what had just happened to them. “The flood is going to be a topic of conversation at the coffee shops for the next 20 years.”
Team time: Although Brandon itself was only moderately affected by the flooding, the damage to the surrounding areas was significant. Thus, the crisis owned the Sun’s newsroom. “Every reporter was on the flood beat,” he said. “We all pitched in.” It’s a tight newsroom, Bruce said, and reporters Jillian Austin, Ian Hitchen, Lindsey Enns, Charles Tweed and intern Megan Lane each hived off a chunk of the coverage. Grant Hamilton, the web coordinator, and photographers Tim Smith, Colin Corneau and Bruce Bumstead rounded out the team. The paper also dropped its paywall while the flood was at its peak.
The three-day tour: Bruce was assigned to the see first hand how the flooding was affecting life in the region’s smaller communities. His plan? He identified a few areas of interest and hopped in a car. From there he followed a formula in each new town: he’d visit the regional municipality office for news of closed bridges, evacuations and damage, and then ask officials about their main concerns. Then he’d seek out farmers, business owners and residents.
In the Field
A rocky start: Bruce’s first stop was Virden. Aside from the fact that it had substantial flooding and some residents had been evacuated, it was also at the heart of Manitoba’s oil country. The problem? Bruce wasn’t the only journalist to know there was a story here, but he was the late arrival. Reporters from CTV, Global and CBC were on the scene before him. “By the time I got there, no one wanted to talk with me,” he said of the flood-weary residents. The story he pulled together with fellow reporter Ian Hitchen updated Virden’s status using official voices only.
Lows and highs: Day two of the road trip brought him to the RM of Edward. The municipality is in the southwestern corner of the province and had been in a state of emergency since early June. He knew this was a part of Manitoba where residents often feel ignored by the media so he was eager to tell their stories. Bruce’s reporting snag this time? The flood had made the area a kind of island, thus you required an escort to get in. Bruce, unfortunately, inadvertently missed his meet-up time.
He had befriended a flying club the year before while on the flood beat and they’d agreed to fly him over the Edward region. At his rendezvous time, he was up on the air with photographer Bruce Bumstead gathering aerial shots. So, he had to make do with phone calls to residents after his flight from the outside for his story. The bright side was that the photographs they snapped clearly illustrated what residents were up against.
— Graeme Bruce (@grjbruce) July 3, 2014
— Graeme Bruce (@grjbruce) July 3, 2014
Tough choices: Although it was difficult to choose which communities to visit when so many were dealing with water troubles, day three of Bruce’s trip brought him to four of them: Deloraine, Hartney, Souris and Melita. It was meant to be a “let’s check up on everyone and see how they’re doing” piece. The latter community, Melita, was still in rough shape. The region had floodwaters flowing its way on three fronts, the peak had yet to arrive and they were still diking. As a reporter, Bruce’s struggle here—and with all of his flood coverage in general—was trying to strike a balance between gathering information about what was happening, why it was happening and what the impact was. “I spent a lot of time trying to understand why this thing [the flood] was going on,” he said. But while the details, statistics and the science were fascinating, his effort to capture them meant he spoke a lot with regional officials. If he had to do it all again, he said, he’d spend more time gathering the human stories from regular residents. As his experience in the Deloraine coffee shop demonstrated to him after all, even in tough times people can take comfort in helping a stranger understand their story.
Filing on the move: Cell service throughout the week was terrible, except when he was in the air flying over the RM of Edward, which made filing a struggle. For Bruce’s final story, for instance, he wrote and filed from a Melita Subway shop using its WiFi. The photos, with deadline looming, took more than an hour to upload.
In hindsight: If he had to do the week again, he would have done more planning before hitting the road. “A flood isn’t a fire,” he said. “It really isn’t going anywhere.” This said, he’s proud of the editorial team’s flood coverage in general. “Everyone rose to the occasion,” he said.
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