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Prepping For Rita

How do you prepare to cover a hurricane like Rita? No one's sure where it's going to hit land, how strong it'll be, or where it's going to do the most damage. You don't want to have your news crew stuck in, say, Dallas, when the big story is in Galveston. So what do you do? According to CBS National Editor Bill Felling, you position teams to the north, east and west of where you think the storm will hit – and make sure they're ready to slide up and down the coast at a moment's notice.

"Last night it looked like it was jogging south, so I was getting ready to send a team to Corpus Christi," says Felling. "But this morning it went back north," so he kept the team in Houston, along with a helicopter. When a major storm like Rita is approaching, Felling stays glued to the National Hurricane Center website, which constantly updates the storm's position, and moves his three teams accordingly.

There's a kind of hierarchy of coverage when it comes to hurricanes. Ideally, a network wants to provide high quality video of a correspondent reporting from the storm. Barring that, grainy video phone coverage will do. A level below video phone coverage is a correspondent reporting via a plain old telephone – essentially, radio-type coverage on TV. And last is a network being unable to broadcast.

Weather conditions and their impact obviously dictate which level of coverage a network can offer, but what finds its way to viewers also has a lot to do with timing. Felling says it's far better, from a news perspective, for a storm to hit land at midnight than at 6 in the morning, when CBS' coverage is about to start. That's because in winds higher than 85 miles per hour, it's nearly impossible to open satellite dishes and transmit images – which means reporters can be reduced to reporting over the phone. News teams do try to find protection from the wind so that the dishes can open – L shaped buildings offer some protection – but it's difficult to predict wind patterns in a hurricane. The best teams can do before the storm, says Felling, is get into what seems like a good position and hope for the best. "It's a game of the art of the possible," he says.

All the coverage, it's worth noting, is expensive – "extremely expensive," in the words of Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage. McGinnis says stories like Rita cost so much to cover that they can push costs above what is available in the news budget. But Felling says that's not something they worry about while covering the story. "The financial issues," he says, "come home to roost later on."