Hurricane helps Leigh make a splash of Florida survivors

Debris: Hurricane helps launch David Leigh (right) and Chris Whittle

Former Daily Express head of news David Leigh found himself covering the biggest hurricane to hit Florida for 15 years when he arrived in the state to set up a news agency last week.

The Florida bureau of the agency Splash was not due to open for another three weeks. But Leigh linked up with Splash photographer Chris Whittle and arrived at Punta Gorda just hours after Hurricane Charley devastated the port, leaving at least 16 dead and tens of thousands homeless.

They were the first journalists on the scene filing news and pictures for the British press and their material was widely used in Sunday and Monday’s papers.

Leigh, 40, said: “When we arrived in Punta Gorda it was absolute chaos. There was no power anywhere and we just had to weave our car through the debris.”

The storm came ashore early on Friday evening local time battering the port with winds of up to 145mph.

Leigh and Whittle, 24, had to sleep in their car and spent the following day filing stories about British survivors for the UK nationals.

Leigh and wife Sue Thompson, former news editor of the Sun, have been taken on by Splash to set up a new Miami bureau.

Leigh said: “It was an amazing start to life in Florida. The original plan was to find a home, get my bearings in Miami and sort out the new office. Things didn’t quite work out that way.”

He added: “It was a dream start and a great way to let people know that we are here in Florida and ready to do business.”

Los Angeles-based celebrity news and picture agency Splash was founded by British journalists Kevin Smith and Gary Morgan and is developing a habit of setting up new bureaus in places where massive stories are about to break.

The agency’s New York office opened on September 11, 2001.

Charley blows Mail sales away

Hurricane Charley affected overseas sales of the Mail on Sunday. Orlando, the Florida town where overseas editions of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday are printed, was in the direct path of the storm, writes Jeffrey Blyth.

As a result 6,000 copies of the Sunday edition never got printed. It wasn’t the printing plant that went down, but the communications system.

Chuck Caroll, who runs the company that publishes the titles in North and South America, said “We tried everything, even e-mail to make contact with London – but somewhere, somehow the signal kept vanishing.”

Florida is home to around 100,000 ex-pat Brits, of whom about 6,000 subscribe to the Mail on Sunday. The Daily Mail sells about 5,500.

By Dominic Ponsford

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