Elon senior, alumnus delve into disaster as part of News21 reporting investigation 

Senior Anton Delgado and Elon graduate Alex Simon ’17, an Arizona State master’s student, joined 35 student journalists from across the country to examine how the federal government has responded to natural disasters ranging from hurricanes to wildfires.

How did Anton Delgado ’20 end up on a helicopter this summer high above Shingletown, California, one of the state’s most wildfire-vulnerable communities? The News21 Fellow simply wasn’t afraid to ask.

Anton Delgado ’20 (left) and Alex Simon ’17 reunited this summer during the 2019 Carnegie-Knight News21 reporting initiative, titled “State of Emergency.” During the fellowship, the duo teamed with other top journalism students to investigate how the federal government has handled natural disasters, both historically, and as they are happening. Photo courtesy of Simon

​“When our one source mentioned that he had a friend in charge of a helicopter tour agency, and that he used to fly with him, I asked, ‘Is there any chance we could take a flight?’” recalled Delgado. Tom Twist, deputy chief of the Shingletown Fire Safe Council, responded with, “How’s Friday at 9?’”

Thanks to his chutzpah, the journalism and international & global studies major took to the air with Twist, a former combat pilot, for nearly an hour to photograph the densely forested region 175 miles north of Sacramento. Accompanying Delgado was Dustin Patar, another News21 Fellow, taking video – albeit unsteady video because of the tight conditions and constant motion.

“This was something I never thought I would get a chance to do,” Delgado said of the flight. “But we were having a hard time contextualizing the area, and Tom offered to help. We had other images, but they didn’t really tell the story. This allowed us to show that Shingletown is really buried in the woods.”

The chance to gather aerial footage to support their wildfire news coverage excited both Delgado and Patar. These boots on the ground ­­­­– err, boots in the air – opportunities were why the duo embarked on a 15-day reporting trip up and down the West Coast in June. In all, they conducted 17 interviews with politicians, first responders, activists, residents and others affected by wildfires.

In June, Delgado photographed areas burned by the Woodbury Fire with other news media near a strike camp outside of Roosevelt, Arizona. (Photo courtesy of Delgado)

​Their final written product is a 2,000-word piece, titled “Wildfire-vulnerable communities search for ways to live with growing threat,” published on Aug. 13 with the unveiling of the 2019 Carnegie-Knight News21 expansive reporting initiative, “State of Emergency.” Established by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the 10-week investigative reporting assignment is headquartered at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and provides a platform for college students to produce in-depth multimedia projects on a national scale.

As one of the most prestigious student journalism internships in the country, News21 attracts the nation’s leading student journalists. This year was no different with Delgado working alongside 36 other top journalism students from 19 universities in the U.S., Canada and Ireland to investigate how the federal government has handled natural disasters.

Among those joining Delgado was a familiar face in Alex Simon ’17, an Elon alumnus studying in ASU’s M.A. in Sports Journalism graduate program.

This year’s News21 cohort was both driven and selfless, Delgado explained.

“It’s very rare that you see 37 ambitious journalists, most likely vying for similar positions in the field, working so cohesively and selflessly,” Delgado said. “That is what I’m most proud of. We not only did great reporting, we worked well together as a team.”

Bleeding blue

As coolant trickled out of Patar’s SUV, all over the darkened parking lot of their Motel 6, Delgado didn’t know exactly what caused the leak. It could have been a rock, tree stump or a downed tree limb.

The News21 traveling companions had been “off-roading” with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, when a pipe was punctured. “We just bled blue the rest of the day,” Delgado said.

Unfortunately, their quick fix lasted less than a day. On the bright side, Patar’s Mitsubishi Montero made it to their next stop, a helicopter hangar, where a few friendly engineers helped create a more permanent solution.

Delgado takes a picture of an Unmanned Aerial System and two drone operations specialists who monitored the Woodbury Fire in the desert outside of Roosevelt, Arizona. Photo courtesy of Brigette Waltermire/News21 

​Welcome to life on the road.

Delgado said his two weeks traveling across California regularly included 12- to 14-hour days, 100-plus degree heat, and several late-night Denny’s runs — mostly because it was the only eatery open late.

“Dustin and I weren’t feeling at the top of our game physically, but that’s OK,” Delgado said. “We were doing great journalism. That’s what counts.”

While their schedule was hectic, the two reporters were relentless, driving more than 2,300 miles and securing all of their planned interviews, including a sit-down with the aptly named California Assemblyman Jim Wood, who worked on a wildfire hardening bill. They also compiled nearly 9,000 images and dozens of hours of video.

Yet, Delgado’s time on the road wasn’t over. Upon his return to Phoenix, Delgado was then redeployed to cover the Woodbury Fire in Arizona, which consumed close to 124,000 acres. It stands as the fifth largest wildfire in state history.

“That is what News21 is like,” Delgado said. “People were always willing to say yes and always willing to do the work.”

At Woodbury, Delgado got close to the action. So close that when visiting a fire line, he could feel the heat.

In addition to the “Wildfire-vulnerable communities …” article, Delgado provided himself a capable multimedia journalist at News21. He authored two blogposts – here and here – recorded his first-ever podcast segment, contributed five images to a pictorial gallery titled “The Faces of Disaster,” and even earned a producer credit in a documentary Patar directed.

But Delgado had one additional contribution to News21, which had an Elon connection.

The ‘Power of Power’

This summer, Alex Simon traded the press box for the power grid.

Anyone who knows the Elon alumnus and ASU grad student understands sports reporting is his calling. Yet, Simon enjoyed flexing his journalistic muscles this summer, investigating how natural disasters impact the country’s power supply.

“One of the most important issues post-disaster is restoring power,” Simon said. “Most people can put up with no power for six or seven hours, but what about three, four or five days? People may not know what to do. When things get to a point where you are uncomfortable, that’s what we wanted to find and report on.”

Admittedly, Simon called the topic “completely foreign to me” at the beginning of his investigation. But through time-consuming data analysis, Simon educated himself, identifying the most pressing power-related obstacles following a disaster, as well as locations facing what he called “systemic issues.”

Simon (right) talks with Kaleb Kinder, a worker with West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, as they walk across a bridge from WV VOAD’s Bridge Project in Clendenin, West Virginia. Photo courtesy of Briana Castan~o´n/News21 

​Internally, Simon and reporting partner Molly Duerig, another an ASU grad student, were called the “Power of Power” team.

While Duerig focused much of her attention on Puerto Rico and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Simon’s reporting took him to the Midwest and Ohio River Valley.

After flying to Chicago, Simon and Briana Castañón, a News21 photographer, racked up more than 2,000 miles traversing through Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia over the course of nine days. The trip yielded numerous compelling story angles, including a News21 blog entry authored by Simon titled “How one pet shop became a fish sanctuary after ice storm.”

“What we found is that some of the best stuff you are going to get, you won’t find until you to go that place,” Simon said. “The one thing I took away is you can’t necessary report on something on the phone. You wouldn’t get the full understanding of the story unless you get on the ground.”

After returning to Arizona, Simon and Duerig took on support to wrap up their lengthy investigation, enlisting the help of … Delgado.

The trio published an in-depth piece, titled “No clear solutions as weather keeps plunging U.S. into darkness,” which delves into the complexity of the power grid. “It’s getting more complex as time goes on,” Simon said. “And we, as a society, are facing a lot of tough choices on how much we want to spend on it and how much it takes to be prepared to fight power outages.

“It is a very complicated story, and we tried to make it as conversational as possible.”

Simon, who overlapped with Delgado at Elon News Network during the 2016-17 academic year, called working with the Elon senior “absolutely phenomenal.”

“Anton is probably the best co-writer I have ever worked with in my life,” Simon said.

For Delgado, his Elon reporting experience has come full circle. Simon was Delgado’s first sports editor and, during his freshman year, even taught him where to put the battery into a video camera.

In addition to his own reporting, Simon also oversaw content on the News21 blog, a massive undertaking with regular updates throughout June and July.

“I definitely think a lot of what I did this summer overlaps with sports,” Simon said. “Sports is so inherently statistics based, investigative based. Much of what I learned can be applied to sports, from different reporting techniques to different ways to tell stories.

“Plus, through publishing the blog, I have found that being an editor is a career path I might want to go down someday.”

The Elon family

Airbnb might not have an alternative Elon app, but it might need one.

Delgado and Patar bunked with Elon alumna Stephanie Hays ’18 three separate times during their travels in Northern California. When their accommodations fell through outside of San Francisco, the duo also spent the night at the home of Angie and Michael Simon, Alex Simon’s parents.

Likewise, on Simon’s travels through Michigan and Ohio, he bunked with Elon alumnus Andrew Feather ’17, as well as with Maureen and Thomas Hamzik, parents of Tommy Hamzik ’17.

Cal Fire Capt. Greg Babcock was one of five individuals Delgado photographed for News21’s “The Faces of Disaster” photo gallery. Babcock led a team of 26 firefighters as they cleared areas that burned during the 2018 Carr Fire near Redding, California. Photo courtesy of Delgado

​“In all honesty, our News21 reporting trips would not have been possible without the welcoming Elon community,” Simon said. “To me, this definitely showed how strong the Elon community is.”

Hays’ generosity was a lifesaver, Delgado pointed out. “Staying with Stephanie allowed us to get off the road and spend more time with our sources,” Delgado said. “She was so hospitable and always woke us up with a cup of coffee.

“The Elon California family really showed up for our trip.”

Simon and Delgado also praised the unwavering support they received from the News21 leadership team, led by Executive Editor Jacquee Petchel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Likewise, the duo expressed appreciation for their fellow News21 participants, especially those they built bonds with while on the road.

Delgado profusely thanked Patar, his Northern California companion, for the many miles he drove through the Golden State.

Originally from the Philippines, Delgado was relegated to attentive co-pilot and DJ because he doesn’t have a U.S. driver’s license. Yep, he didn’t drive a single mile of the duo’s 2,300-mile trek.

​“Dustin had to drive the whole time, and I felt terrible about it,” Delgado said. “But I promised him that anytime he’s in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand or the Philippines, driving’s on me.”