WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The images were unforgettable. Hours after hurricane force winds hit Wilmington, WECT broadcast live television coverage of people looting a Family Dollar store on Greenfield St.
It was undoubtedly one of the most memorable and disturbing moments following the wrath of Hurricane Florence.
Reporter Chelsea Donovan and her photographer were out riding around looking for businesses that were still selling gas when word came across the newsroom scanners that there was looting in progress. The duo headed in that direction for live coverage.
Within moments of arriving on the scene, Donovan made a bold move. She confronted the looters face-to-face on live television.
“Hey guys, you know you’re looting, right,” Donovan said to two of the looters coming out of the store. “You know you’re stealing.”
It was a dangerous move. Family Dollar’s corporate office asked police to stay away from the scene and let the looting happen. There was no police presence.
Donovan, who now reports for a television station in Norfolk, Virginia, admits a year later it was risky.
“We probably weren’t thinking about our surroundings,” she said during a Skype interview.
The live coverage went viral. It was shown on television stations across the country. While many applauded Donovan’s bravery, critics questioned her motive and said she was impeding people who were desperate for food and water after a devastating hurricane. Many of the looters appeared to be coming from Houston Moore, a low-income neighborhood across the street from the store.
“That was disappointing because that was not the situation,” Donovan said. “There were plenty of places where they could have plenty of resources. And I’d also like to stress that they weren’t coming out with bottled water and canned goods and things like that. They were coming out with crock pots and duvet covers and clothing and toilet paper and things that you don’t need to survive a hurricane.”
Chelsea admits her adrenaline was high after non-stop coverage of the storm. Fear was not a factor. Still, she did start to think about her safety and the safety of her photographer.
“I started worrying about our well-being when there were some obscenities thrown at us and people were shouting and giving us the finger and things of that nature,” she recalls. “From afar, I started thinking this may not end well."
The news director at WECT thought the same and decided to end the live coverage, directing Donovan to leave.
One year later, Donovan says she’d do it all over again.
"Absolutely. One hundred percent. Wouldn't look back."