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Live from Hurricane Ian, TikTok creators find traction

When hurricanes touch down, some TikTok creators follow the storm to create real-time footage for millions to watch.
An aerial view of vehicles making their way through a flooded area after Hurricane Ian passed through the area in Fort Myers, Fla.
Vehicles make their way through a flooded area after Hurricane Ian passed through the area on Sept. 29, 2022 in Fort Myers, Fla.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

It was 5 a.m. ET, just hours before Hurricane Ian would make landfall in Florida, when TJ McCormack, 44, prepared to head south from Venice Beach — not to escape the coming storm, but to meet it head-on.

He lives in Denver and had traveled to Florida to chase the storm, though he’s not a meteorologist or a journalist. He’s a roofer by trade but a burgeoning influencer, as well, one who has amassed more than 280,000 followers on TikTok, where he posts videos of whatever he thinks people might want to see. 

And what he knows people want to see — and what TikTok’s algorithm seems to favor — is livestreams. He was one of dozens of people who livestreamed Ian as it hit Florida.

“Whenever people watch me, they expect they’re going to see up-to-the-minute, real, live, authentic things being shown to them,” McCormack said in a phone interview  Thursday. “I love the thrill of the chase, the adrenaline rush, and being able to document things as they’re occurring.”

McCormack is among the many people who have found some success as a part-time TikTok personality. When he’s not roofing, he’s working as a social media consultant for businesses looking to achieve the same virality as him, something of a business-focused version of the smaller-scale influencers who have become famous in niche communities.

Through TikTok, he has become a jack of all trades, posting anything and everything to see how his content performs. Increasingly, he said, his viral moments come from livestreams and videos about what’s in the news. It’s a path that has nudged him toward becoming something of a TV-style personality for TikTok.

“I’ve had over 160 million views in the past year and a half. It’s always something different,” McCormack said. “I had a viral video on Covid vaccines. I was in Hurricane Ida last year and had multiple viral videos there. It happens to be whatever is trending at the moment that I do the best at.”

TikTok is already considered a threat to TV, with some research showing it has become a crucial news source for young people. And news events have taken off on TikTok, most notably the war in Ukraine and the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.

TikTok’s livestreaming feature has also proven popular. The company said that a study from Ipsos, a market research company, found 1 in 5 users had watched livestreams on the app, and that 62% of that group watched a livestream every day. TikTok currently counts over a billion monthly users.

The popularity of news and livestreams on TikTok has meant people like McCormack can be on the ground as quickly as major news organizations, often with just their smartphone. McCormack said that gives his videos a raw and unfiltered feel.

“I had just over a million people watching me live yesterday,” hek said. NBC News could not confirm the numbere, but TikTok shows one of his recorded videos in which he touted his livestreams has more than 1.5 million views.

His TikTok videos from Wednesday show him driving down streets covered in running water, standing near an overpass Floridians were stranded under, and walking around a beach that receded from the coastline during the storm. He plans to post more footage of the devastation as he makes his way toward Tampa, away from the hurricane. 

“Nobody expected this hurricane to be as bad as it was. Nobody here was really prepared,” McCormack said. He described camping out in a hospital parking garage for eight hours Wednesday, filming through the 140-mph winds and rain and watching as the roof of the hospital “peeled off this building” and was “blowing all over the place.” 

As he chased Ian, he said that some of his followers reached out asking him to check on their families. He said he drove from house to house to do so. He said he views social media as a way to help people. His first video to surpass half a million views, on Easter in 2021, was a video of him bringing flowers to his elderly neighbor. 

Right now, McCormack said, he is looking for more businesses in the area to band together and provide resources and support for communities affected by Ian.

His TikTok success has helped him, too. He makes money from the Creator Fund, TikTok’s way of sharing revenue with content creators. When users surpass 100,000 followers on the platform, they can start to receive payouts — but they’re small, typically only a few cents for a few thousand views. Livestreams offer another way to make money through gifts donated to streamers from viewers.

On his website, McCormack advertises free consultations for roofers and other businesses to learn how to “leverage social media to generate consistent income.” He said he’s sponsored by and affiliated with a number of businesses in the roofing industry, including a property insurance claims training center in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. 

He said that virality is becoming increasingly important to all kinds of people and industries, and that investing in TikTok and content creation is valuable for any kind of business. 

“I’ve seen a shift in the past year where businesses are needing to learn how to do social media in the way it’s being created now, which is short-form video creation and live video,” McCormack said. “That’s really attractive to people, the point of view.”