Flood watch: How CTV Calgary covered catastrophe

Days after devastating floods ripped through Calgary, some parts of the city are still in a state of emergency. Here on J-Source, CTV Calgary's Karen Owen shares her story of what it was like to produce hours of breaking, live, television news coverage as the drama unfolded.

Days after devastating floods ripped through Calgary, some parts of the city are still in a state of emergency. Here on J-Source, CTV Calgary's Karen Owen shares her story of what it was like to produce hours of breaking, live, television news coverage as the drama unfolded.

Most people have seen the videos and pictures from the flooding in Calgary and Southern Alberta — what most didn’t see were the newsrooms, and all the crews behind the scenes. “WOW” – that was the subject line of more than a few emails from my colleagues as they sent in pictures from their locations…WOW indeed. 

Friday – 6:30 a.m.:

I wake up ready to get into the station early; I’m producing the noon show. I know it will be busy. The flooding started Thursday, but I have no idea just how bad it is — overnight the rivers went mad. I grab two cups of coffee, a lunch (I packed the night before), my bag with clothes and boots (you never know if you’ll be sent out on the road) and head out. I have to cross the river to get to the station. Bridges are closed. I keep driving, stopping to tweet and email into the station to warn others and find out which route co-workers are using to get in. The 20-minute drive takes over an hour. I see one of our shooters in the parking lot: he’s headed out. I give him the heads up to take the back way — one of the main roads heading up to the station is now jammed.

8 a.m.:

When I get in the newsroom is buzzing; the morning show crew have been on the air since 5:30 a.m. I start working on the hour-long noon show when I find out the morning show is extended until 10 a.m. One of the noon anchors has arrived. We chat and start planning and filling the show. 

From here on in, the time frame gets hazy. Everyone is writing, editing, coordinating live hits, assigning crews, talking on the phone, emailing, taking in viewer video and photographs, but at some point the morning show is extended another hour. We will go to 11 a.m. with flood coverage.

The noon show is taking shape. The other anchor has managed to make it in. More people jump in and offer to help write the noon.

10:30 a.m.’ish:

The morning show is extended to noon, at which time the noon show crew will take over. It is continuous flood coverage. The newsroom is full of people, coffee, donuts, loud boisterous conversations, concern, worry, and excitement.

11:37 a.m.‘ish:  

I say I’m heading into the control room. I want to get a handle on where live locations are coming from, how it’s working in there.

11:40 a.m.:

I walk into the control room and it’s controlled chaos. I check in the with the morning producer and ask her how it’s going:

”Fine, but my house was evacuated — it’s flooded.”

She has a husband and three young children; they are staying with a friend. That friend is another CTV Calgary reporter, who also has young children…but that reporter is stuck, literally trapped in Canmore. The husbands and children are hanging out together – they understand the newswomen have to/want to work. 

11:55 a.m.:

We’re closing in on the start of the noon show. The morning crew — the on-air talent, the director, the production assistant, the live coordinator, the floor director, the switcher, the teleprompter operator, the graphics whiz — have all been going since 5:30 a.m. It’s time for the crew to switch out.

12 p.m.:

The noon show begins. The timing is wonky; we went in 10 minutes light. I know we’ll fill it, but didn’t know how much time we’d actually have to fill.

12:15, 12:30, 12:37 p.m?:

When did it happen? The boss walks in and says the show is extended. We’re going until 2 p.m. We have to fill two hours, not one.  Why didn’t I see that coming?

12:37 p.m.:  

The beautiful noon show lineup is now out the window. We just keep filling.

1:01 p.m?:   

The boss walks into the control room. We’re going to 3 p.m. We have to keep filling.

1–6 p.m.:

Now it’s all really hazy. Top and bottom of the clock are now somewhat irrelevant — this is continuous coverage. At some point I’m told we will just keep going and going…it’s the noon show that never ends.

In the front row of the control room there is the switcher and, beside him, the director who is telling everyone which camera to take, who’s talking next, which playback to run, which live camera we’ll use, the production assistant is counting us in and out and up and down.

In the second row, the live coordinator is determining which remote location is available, who still has power, has cell phone service, which crew has been forced to move locations.  Beside him, me — the producer — determining what content to use, keeping the lineup updated, talking to the director, and everyone who comes in and out with new information, answering the phone. At the end of the second row is the teleprompter operator, who tries to keep up. But how can she? The anchors aren’t always using a script, but they know what they’re talking about.

Every few minutes I ask the live coordinator who we can have next. Everyone else wants them too: CTV News Channel, NBC, BBC. We start replaying stuff, anchors ad lib, ad lib, and then ad-lib some more. 

2:30 p.m.'ish?:

Someone comes in with sandwiches and water — a production assistant who was supposed to take a break but is instead looking after everyone else left in the control room. 

A six-minute pre-taped interview rolls. I tell the anchors if they need a washroom break, now is the time! Not sure if they took it — bladders and nerves of steel. The director calmly keeps asking me, "what’s next?" Sometimes I don’t really know what’s next…that's when a commercial break is in order.


 I can’t see the newsroom, but new material and information keeps showing up for us to use. I drag it into the lineup, anchors are getting information via email and tweets as well. 

We continuously throw to the weather host at a moment’s notice. “How much time should I give him?" the PA asks. “As much as he wants….let him fill time,” I respond.

At some point, a news reporter shows up in the studio. She will now do traffic. Traffic is becoming a big issue in the city; there’s gridlock.  She’s good, very good, even gently and warmly tells viewers to stay at home. I think she must have done this before…I find out later, never before.

The anchors swap out at 4 p.m. for a break. A new fresh face shows up, equally adept at ad-lib and going with the flow.

5 p.m.:

The noon anchors swap back in after their break – when I say break – I mean they just switched to working in the newsroom. The director returns too. He was swapped out by another director for several hours. It’s all seamless. Everyone is pulling his or her weight. People are spelling each other off so we all can have a bathroom break…or you dash if there’s a two-minute package running. 

6 p.m.:

Another producer shows up (another evacuee who came to work) and one of the anchors swaps out. I get to leave the control room. The new producer takes over. I leave — somewhat reluctantly — but it’s time for a fresh set of eyes.

6:30 p.m.:

I’m back in the newsroom — I haven’t been there since noon. My turn to start writing and help feeding the beast. The non-stop action in the control room has been matched by the non-stop action outside of it.

I tweet a picture (shown at left) of a reporter carrying around his lizard/dragon as he works. He's another evacuee and has nowhere to keep the lizard warm and alive.  At some point a food truck shows up in our parking lot. The company’s catering gig was cancelled so they feed us. Nice huh?

8:10 p.m.‘ish:

The mayor of Calgary is live again with the latest update for the city and at that time our TV management team make the call. The continuous coverage will take a break. We’ll be back at 11 p.m.

8:30 p.m.‘ish:

I head home. I’m buzzing. When I arrive I kiss my family, and try to sleep. I have to be back at 5 a.m. for the next day’s morning-show.

Could the coverage have been better? Sure. There were a few, not many, but a few technical glitches. We didn’t always have the best pictures or storytelling. It was difficult to keep up with all the information. 

But live TV isn’t perfect. That’s the nature of the beast. It is, however, exciting, informative, heartbreaking, laughter filled, tense and team-building. We did our best to tell the viewers what was happening; to give them a sense of the enormity of the flood; give airtime to the officials so they could keep the community informed. We were eyewitnesses to history.

By the way, I chose not to name any of my co-workers, because frankly I don’t want to leave anyone out. No one faltered; everyone worked together; no one said, “I can’t do it, or it can’t be done.” We all got it done. WOW.

Karen Owen has been working at CTV Calgary for the past twenty years.