Jenise Fernandez earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism with a minor in psychology in 2010. The alumna says that since the age of 12 she knew she wanted to work in news and that FIU and professor Neil Reisner created the foundation for her career. She adds that Reisner made sure everyone in his class got “real” experience by going into the community to report on stories from outside their comfort zones. That training came in handy in September when Fernandez reported live from the Bahamas as Hurricane Dorian bore down on the Abaco Islands.
Now a reporter and anchor (in the noon and 3 p.m. slots) for WPLG Local 10 News in Miami, Fernandez has earned two Emmy awards over the years. She advises current broadcast students to “Stay hungry. This career will test you, not just professionally, but emotionally as well. This is hard work and not for the faint of heart. If you want it, go for it, but don’t be afraid to move to a different city or start off small.”
You rode out the storm in Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco, the island most heavily hit by the Hurricane. What was the general feeling on the island leading up to the storm?
The people of Marsh Harbour, and the Abacos, in general, do not mess around when it comes to storms. When I first arrived in Marsh Harbour on August 30, Hurricane Dorian was a Cat 2 storm. People were preparing, but they weren’t in a panic. A lot of Bahamians are used to storms and they do prepare appropriately. The grocery stores were packed, but everyone was polite and there was nothing chaotic going on. It wasn’t until Dorian increased to a Cat 5 that people really started to worry.
During the storm, you talked about it being one of the most terrifying experiences in your life. What made you characterize the storm that way?
This storm was a monster. There’s no other way to describe it. Not only did I ride out a Cat 5 storm, but I was in the eye of the storm. My photographer, Brian Ely, and I were in what we believed was a stable structure at the Abaco Beach Resort. As the eyewall moved through, we saw a roof from the building next to us blow off, doors blown off their hinges. The railings on the balcony were picked up like paper and blown away, and even shutters and hurricane impact windows were no match for Dorian. Not to mention the storm surge that kept rising and rising.
It looked like a rushing river and many people were caught in it and had to be rescued. I was terrified because I wasn’t sure our hotel would be left standing after the eyewall came through, and I was worried about being trapped or severely injured. There was one incident where I was in the bathroom hiding and the ceiling started to crack open. I ran out just in time before the drywall fell. Looking now at all the destruction left behind, I am still in shock that we made out unscathed.
You have reported live on other hurricanes. What leads you to do such on-scene reporting, and what do you hope people get out of your reporting?
I was dispatched to the Bahamas by the managers at the station. My managers know I am always ready to go anywhere. I have a “go-bag” with me at all times that has clothes and toiletries and my passport. It’s part of the job. Sometimes we find ourselves in dangerous situations, but we do our best to stay safe. During a hurricane, it is vital to be reporting and sending out the information as quickly as possible. People depend on us to let them know what is going on and what to expect. I had many Bahamians come up to me after the storm passed saying thank you because they followed my coverage and it kept them informed and it kept them safe. That’s the most important thing we can do as journalists. I am always 100 percent committed to telling the story, no matter the circumstances involved.
Following the storm, what was the feeling on the island?
Like many people, we were stuck in Marsh Harbour for days. The storm rolled through Sunday morning and lasted until Tuesday. There was a blackout period where I couldn’t reach anyone back at the station because it wasn’t safe to use the satellite phone my station had given us before we left. To use the phone, you have to stand outside to get a clear signal. Our last call to the station was Sunday at 2 p.m., and then for 15 hours it was impossible to make a call because we were dealing with 185 mph sustained winds and gusts up to 220 mph. Everyone back home was very worried for us. Finally, we were able to reach the station and report live through the phone. My managers then started working behind the scenes to get us off the island.
We ended up consolidating with the national ABC news crew in their condo. We were the only TV crews who covered the storm. In the condo, there were only two room that weren’t damaged and a total of five people ended up cramming together and sharing food and water we bought before the storm. It’s a good thing we all got along very well! We would leave the condo in pairs and shoot video and interview people. The overall feeling was shock and desperation. Many people lost everything and had nowhere to go. They were desperate for food and water and cellular service because all the cell towers were down. It was hard to see people walking barefoot through flooded streets, holding their children and pets, trying to find shelter. The roads were impassable for days because of water and debris. Even the police force was walking on foot to try and get to the hardest-hit areas.
It wasn’t until late Tuesday afternoon when my station sent a helicopter to evacuate us to Nassau. When we landed in Nassau, we went live on air right away and were able to show a video of the damage on the island. It was the first time many people actually saw images of the devastation because no one was able to reach anyone from the island. It was a big moment for me as a journalist to know that we were able to get the video and information out there to help speed up the recovery process for the Bahamas.
What is the best way people can help? What are people actually on the ground in need of?
Right now, people need everything. From food to baby supplies to even pet supplies. If you’ve seen the images, you know that people literally lost everything. Most people who evacuated left the island with whatever they had on their backs. For many, they have no idea what will come next. You can help by donating through a reputable organization like the Red Cross, but many companies and non-profits are also helping out.
The absolute best way you can help, though? Go visit the Bahamas. The Bahamas rely on tourism and the Abacos and Grand Bahama are the second and third most visited islands in the Bahamas and contributed many tourist dollars to the economy. Nassau was not damaged at all during the storm and the Tourism Ministry is pushing for people to go visit. Also, Exuma and Eleuthera were untouched and are great places to visit. As money goes into the economy, all of that will help in the rebuilding process. It’s a great way to help out and also enjoy the beautiful Bahamas. Trust me when I say that the Bahamians are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. They’re resilient and I know they will rebuild and be stronger than ever.