Medill National Security MSJ students take Harvey by storm

EVANSTON, Ill. – As Hurricane Harvey tore through southern Texas, the Politics and National Security Journalism Initiative at the Medill School of Journalism worked with the U.S. Army to arrange two embed opportunities for Medill students to cover the storm’s aftermath. Their work was published by the Houston Chronicle and U.S. News & World Report.

MSJ students Kate Cimini and Jinitzail Hernandez learned of the opportunity from Bob Rowley, co-director of the initiative. The embed idea grew out of an event the program sponsored for students as part of their first quarter in Chicago.

During a lunch presentation to PNSJ students at the Medill Chicago newsroom in August, Lt. Col. Matthew Gregory, the Army’s director of public affairs in the Midwest, gave the group a great presentation on the working relationship between the military and the media. He also made an open-ended offer to help them embed with Army units in the future for news events, stories and learning about the military.

Then on Sept. 1, as Harvey left a trail of destruction and humanitarian needs in its wake, Gregory called Rowley to alert him embeds were available in San Antonio. Rowley passed along the opportunity to his national security mentee, Cimini, and asked her to pass it along to Hernandez. Cimini reached out to Gregory, who sent the Pentagon’s Aug. 31 alert <SEE BELOW>.

Then the students sprang into action to make it happen. They reached out separately to the Army, gathered essentials, made plans and paid their way to Texas, where they linked up with Army and National Guard units to cover the storm in several cities in southeastern Texas from Houston to Beaumont. 

By Sept. 5, they were reporting, writing and filing stories from the region as well as flying on military aircraft and riding in tactical vehicles in the disaster zone, thanks to U.S. military officials who offered them embeds.

Cimini worked with Army and National Guard units and flew on Chinook helicopters in and out of the flooded zones bringing relief to victims—one day’s mission even helping farmers by dropping hay bales to stranded cattle. Hernandez called it “definitely a crash course” in covering disasters as she rode in military light medium tactical vehicles (LMTVs) and worked with officials from the Army National Guard, FEMA and the Incident Management Team of federal specialists called in to help.

They returned safely to their homes on Sept. 7 with more stories in their notebooks to write, along with photos and video, after interviewing survivors and military rescuers, managing the difficult logistics of a disaster area, pitching freelance stories and learning about the broader military airlift, relief and recovery operations.

Rowley and PNSJ co-director Ellen Shearer helped Cimini and Hernandez line up freelance opportunities, and the students reached out on their own to news outlets. Medill Associate Professor Peter Slevin also contributed freelance media outlet suggestions.

With editing, guidance and logistics help from the directors, Cimini was able to publish her stories and photos in the Houston Chronicle and Hernandez published her work in U.S. News and World Report.