Thursday, July 05, 2012

Newspapers in the Virginias and Ohio were hit hard by derecho storm but kept publishing

By Ivy Brashear
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

When residents of Ohio, West Virginia and northwestern Virginia woke up last Saturday, June 30, they did not expect to see as much damage as they did. The storm that moved through the region the night before knocked out power, but they assumed it would be back on by the next day. What they didn't know was that the storm wreaked havoc for more than 400 miles from Indiana to the middle of Virginia, knocking out power and phone lines, toppling cell phone towers, demolishing trees and killing Internet service. It was a derecho, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's term for "a widespread, long-lived wind storm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms." The Pocahontas Times of Marlinton, W.Va., ran this time-lapse radar image, ending just as the storm hit Marlinton:
In times of natural disaster, it is often local journalists who first put boots to the ground to get information out to their community in spite of what may seem like insurmountable odds. In the areas of Ohio, West Virginia and northwestern Virginia most affected by the derecho, journalists were without power, Internet, phone service and sometimes even their normal printing presses, but they still found a way to provide their communities with local news. For a report from Jason Sanford of the Ohio Newspaper Association, click here.

"This was one of the worst storms we've ever had," West Virginia Press Association Executive Director Don Smith said. "It was sort of a perfect storm in a bad way." Several papers hadn't finished designing pages for their Saturday editions when the power went out, and several others lost the ability to print as a result. They had to shift printing of their papers to other locations, and some had to find places that still had power where they could finish designing pages.

Smith said he sat on the porch of a Bob Evans restaurant in Charleston, plugged up his laptop and used the restaurant's free wireless Internet to send updates to and communicate with newspapers across the state. Some editors, like Anne Adams of The Recorder in Monterey, Va., were making updates on their newspaper's Facebook pages with their iPhones.

"Then, we lost cell phone service and could do nothing," Adams said. On Sunday, she was able uploaded the first full-length post-storm story on the newspaper's website. Public access to the site was limited by a paywall, which she said has since been removed so the community could have full access to storm stories and updates.

Adams said the local telephone cooperative gave her staff access to its board room. She and her reporters took four computers there and worked our of the board room until power was restored to their office.

Linda Skidmore, editor of The Inter-Mountain in Elkins, W.Va., said she and her staff were unable to print at their location, so they loaded up their computers and traveled to Fairmont to finish designing and writing the Saturday edition. The paper is normally published late Friday night and sent out to readers early Saturday morning, but readers endured a slight delay. Most got their papers late Saturday or early Sunday.

The Pocahontas Times had to move operations to the county library, which still had Internet access and electricity. Editor Pam Pritt said they stayed there until they uploaded their pages and sent them to the printing press. The paper's IT specialist was able to write a complete story explaining the derecho on his iPhone and uploaded it to the paper's website, she said.

Navigating through towns to gather stories wasn't easy. Adams said traveling 10 miles in Highland County took about three hours. Several gas stations were unable to pump gas and grocery stores had to throw away dumpsters full of perishable foods because of lack of electricity. On average, Smith said, it took about 45 minutes of waiting in Charleston to fill up a car. Several thousand people are still without power and water in both states, and Smith said it's estimated that neither will be restored in some places until Sunday. But, reporters kept doing what they do best, he said: reporting the news.

"We were sort of like Superman: we jumped in the phone booth and put on the uniform," Smith said. "This is just our job. We do it all the time." Mostly reporters were frustrated by their lack of ability to get the news out because of power being out, he said, adding that readers don't often realize what reporters go through in a situation like this to get the news out to them. He said to his knowledge, not a single paper in West Virginia missed a publication date, even though some were late.

Skidmore said there was no other way for residents of her community to find information about the storm than through The Inter-Mountain. There was no TV, no radio and no Internet, and the paper was "really the only source to know what was going on." There was no question the paper would be published on schedule, she said.

"We have a long tradition of never missing an issue," she said. "We're like the mailmen: through rain, sleet, snow and shine." The newspaper office burned in the early 1970s, and the staff still published the next day. She said she and the staff kept that in mind, and decided that if the paper could come through a fire and still be published, it could surely be published after a storm. "You just go and you keep doing this," she said. "Our staff is very dedicated and just jumped in to do whatever, even if it was out of their normal realm."

Adams gives a lot of credit to her "unbelievably outstanding staff," who all live in the community and who were "all in this together." She said for her and the communities her paper serves, they rely on the weekly paper, which also serves Bath County. "I couldn't afford to lose even one issue," she said. "I can't go one week without a paper."

She also said the small, mountain communities came together to help their neighbors get through the aftermath of the storm. "If you have to have a catastrophe of this sort, there's no better place to have it than in a mountain community," she said.

Pritt said the Times is vitally important to the community. She had heard reports of a people sitting on their porch reading it by flashlight, and that shows the importance of the paper to citizens of the county. "When there is nothing else for them," she said, "they have their newspaper."

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