Kayakers take on the Chattahoochee River during Tropical Storm Irma
For almost 35 years, I have relied on the delete key.
As a journalist, it is the most important spot on my keyboard. You can delete a letter, a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph — or in some cases, an entire story.
I get a do-over before the reader ever knows I need one. It’s like walking on a golf course with a bag full of mulligans.
And I use the delete key often. At the end of the day, it is one of the things that separates me from the television reporters. On live TV — or its equivalent — you have no delete key. And I found that out the hard way this week.
I went live on Facebook multiple times Monday during the storm that blew through Columbus. About 4:30 p.m., I went live from the Chattahoochee River with Lauren Gorla, the Ledger-Enquirer’s digital producer, shooting it on her cell phone.
I was talking and Lauren was recording it.
Just like that, we were live on Facebook. The live video, which lasted more than 12 minutes, has had 28,000 views, more than the rest of the ones I did combined.
For what it’s worth, here was my mindset at the time.
What was left of Hurricane Irma was approaching Columbus and winds reached more than 50 miles per hour. I had been to other parts of Columbus and witnessed power poles snapped in Midtown, a large oak on top of a house in Overlook, and another large oak down less than a mile from the whitewater course in the Historic District.
There was bad weather in Columbus, to be sure, and I had seen the impact.
By the time I got down to the river, the winds were gusting to more than 30 mph, according to the National Weather Service. High winds flipped my umbrella inside out while I was doing Facebook Live.
There were four kayakers out in the Chattahoochee as we walked along the riverwalk on the Georgia side. They were playing in Cut Bait, a tricky little rapid. The problem, as I saw it then, was that the city was under a State of Emergency declared by Mayor Teresa Tomlinson.
The city’s public safety system was fully activated and responding to scattered calls across the community.
That video and my commentary on the four kayakers has drawn fire on social media. Taylor Stephens, one of the four kayakers on the river, has been especially critical. Stephens was concerned because he said I called them “idiots” and “morons.”
For the record, I did not use those two words. I called them “lunatics” and “rocket scientists.” Oh, and I said they were “nuts.” I know that is not much better; and I am not defending it.
Which brings us to the delete key. If I had been in front of my computer instead of on Facebook Live, I would have likely used the delete key on those words. It wasn’t appropriate and I want to publicly apologize to Stephens and his river buddies.
They are not lunatics, do not deserve to be facetiously called rocket scientists, and I would not classify them as nuts. Stephens and his friends Hunter Katich, Tom Bolle and Joseph Ball are all accomplished kayakers, and they were out there with the right equipment, including Coast Guard approved boats and personal flotation devices, throw ropes and the knowledge to handle difficult situations.
And though the weather in Columbus was threatening, the river flow was normal because Georgia Power had been releasing water in advance from the reservoirs in anticipation of the rain Irma would bring.
The flow at that time was 7,060 cubic feet per second, which is the low end of a normal high-water run on the Chattahoochee. During the Facebook Live, I said the flow appeared to be 10,000, 11,000, 12,000 cfs “or substantially more.”
I was wrong. That is another place I would have likely used the delete key.
One thing I did note, more than once, was the kayakers appeared to have the skill set to handle the flow. I could not have been more right about that. Katich is a world junior free style champion; Bolle is a two-time European junior champion; Ball teaches training course in swift-water rescue; and Stephens is an experienced river guide and kayaker.
They knew exactly what they were doing — and there are few, if any, in this community that can do it better.
At the end of the day, I am not sure if that comforts me or raises more questions.
Whitewater Express owner Dan Gilbert, who has spent five years operating the only approved outfitter on the Chattahoochee whitewater course, put it best when asked if they should have been out there.
“That’s a tough one for me,” he said. “You have world-class kayakers out there and they can handle the water conditions, so it is not a safety issue. ... Was it wise? That’s a tough one, too. But that is the whole issue.”
Was it wise? Tomlinson doesn’t think so. She is looking at the possibility of restricting river access during weather events in which the city is placed under a State of Emergency, a declaration that goes to the governor. While being interviewed by Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera, Tomlinson witnessed two daredevils jump into the river and swim into the teeth of one of the rapids during the storm.
Was it wise? This week, I’ve been asking if it was wise for me to go live on Facebook in that situation. I don’t have an answer for that, but I suspect this job is going to call for more Facebook Live videos from me and my colleagues.
In this new world, you get the information out as quickly and accurately as possible.
I’ve thought about what I did Monday afternoon and realize I made mistakes. Next time, I will be better prepared.
On Wednesday, I was talking to Stephens. He pointed out that the water conditions were not dangerous. He was right. Then I asked him at what point he would not enter the river with his kayak.
“That’s a funny question,” he responded.
I then asked if his personal cutoff was 20,000 cfs — or maybe 25,000, 30,000 or 35,000.
“With my skill level I don’t have a cut off,” Stephens said.
It took a while to process that answer.
We all have a cutoff point. When it comes to that river, you can currently jump into it or launch a kayak under any conditions as long as you are wearing an approved PFD. Is that good public policy? That’s not my call.
But I will say this: When you don’t know your limitations or where the cutoff is, others will tell you.