Hilary Zalla was standing in a woman’s backyard in Minot, N.D., watching the rising Souris River slip its wet fingers over a long line of sandbags trying their best to keep the waters at bay. But the river was clearly winning. Her phone buzzed with a call from TV station KMOT. Zalla took a deep breath, turned on her camera and went to work.
“It was my first live phone call from the desk,” she says. “I said, ‘I’m standing in this lady’s backyard, and the water is trickling over the dike, and you can tell it’s about to engulf the city.’ ”
It was the first big story of her career as a TV reporter, coming barely four weeks after leaving Xavier and setting foot in Minot, the fourth largest city in North Dakota and No. 152 among America’s 215 television markets. Minot wasn’t quite what Zalla envisioned for her first job, but the electronic media major had her sights set on a job in TV journalism. So she accepted the offer and then checked her iPhone to learn what she could about Minot—it’s located just below the Saskatchewan border; the average high temperature in January is 3.2 degrees; the snow routinely piles up past front doors; the oil boom workers have snatched up all the apartments; and the shopping and restaurant choices are, well, limited.
Zalla put her game face on, drove to northern North Dakota and dove into her new job. She was hired to be a reporter by day and an anchor by night, but shortly after settling into a room in the Dakota Rose Bed and Breakfast, nature delivered its punch—flooding the town and turning her world upside down. Around June 20, the Souris River began overflowing its banks and garnering the attention of the nation. About 12,000 people—roughly a third of the population—were forced to evacuate, and about 20 percent of the housing stock was damaged. As the station went into round-the-clock live coverage, the national news turned its cameras toward Minot—and Zalla.
“Every resident was in panic mode trying to get everything out of their homes,” she says. “But I knew this was something not every reporter gets to report on, and I had to pull out all my skills.” She covered flood stories through August and became a flood victim herself when she had to evacuate the Dakota Rose. Late in the summer, she was put back on the desk to anchor the evening news—a pretty heady spot for a recent graduate. Though she expects to move up to a bigger market some day, she appreciates the value of her Minot experience and hopes to do more reporting about the people who live there.
“I’m a sensitive person, and every story I did I would get sad for these people,” she says. “These old people have been in their homes forever, and I knew they’d never be back in their houses.”