|Mary Henkel Judson, left, listens to Laurie Ezzell Brown|
A state the size of Texas can have a wide range of disasters in a short time. That happened last year, as Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of the Gulf Coast less than six months after 32 wildfires in the Great Plains burned 1.2 million acres, many of them in the Texas Panhandle, and 15,000 cattle died. At last weekend's Texas Press Association
meeting on Galveston Island, in a session called "Come Hell or High Water," editor-publishers from each locale talked about how they dealt with the disasters.
Laurie Ezzell Brown of The Canadian Record
said the March 6 wildfires came three months after an ice storm "had given the area its last precious moisture" but laid waste to power lines and "beautiful old-growth cottonwoods that lined Canadian’s streets," leading to "weeks of cleanup," but "That moisture, though, seemed like such a blessing" after months of drought. Then came the grass fires, sparked partly by power lines short-circuiting in 70 mph winds.
"My cell phone was blowing up with text messages . . . while I attempted to take notes of the scanner traffic I heard," Brown recalled. " At some point, my staff took over, and I headed out with a camera, driving toward what was by then a wall of smoke and flame that spanned the western horizon, and seemed to be moving at a speed I’d never seen before. I listened to the scanner in my car, trying to figure out where the fire was. It was everywhere. I’ve never heard fear in the voice of firefighters. I heard it that day — and night."
Then, "The wind suddenly reversed course, turned on a dime, and headed for Canadian. I got close to that black wall—close enough to hear it roar, feel its heat, and take a few photos as I braced myself against the wind. I headed back to town . . . It occurred to me that we were also in danger. That our equipment, our archives, our building, were unprotected. And that my staff had families and homes they needed to take care of. Some left, came back, left again."
The town survived, bit some people did not, including "a young man who worked in Canadian [and] headed to Lipscomb to take care of his pregnant wife," Brown recalled. He went missing, and his mother called the newspaper, asking for help. "I posted her plea online, but had to tell her the road had been closed. Every firefighter available was on the fire line. Every law enforcement officer, every emergency medical worker; they were doing anything that could be done. Someone did heed her plea and volunteered to help. They found Kade Koch just a couple of miles from his home. He had been overcome by smoke, left his car, become disoriented. They found him, but could not save him."
"The fire’s destructive power was mighty," Brown said. "In the aftermath, kindness was mightier. The response from across the state and region—in donations of money and hay, fence posts, volunteer fencing crews who just showed up and asked to be put to work, even replacement bulls—were overwhelming, and proved to be a powerful silver lining to the firestorm we weathered. So when I started hearing the news of Hurricane Harvey, I knew only too well what my friends at newspapers in those communities were facing."
Mary Henkel Judson of the Port Aransas South Jetty
said she, her newspaper and her town are still recovering from the hurricane, which forced them out of town for five weeks.
"Recovery takes time," she said. "You’ve probably heard people say, 'It’s a marathon, not a sprint.' They’re right. . . . With a disaster comes PTSD, a.k.a. Mush Brain. There were times when I questioned whether I should be driving. Your memory goes. You don’t sleep. You’re confused. And we had it easy compared to others. Everyone around you is in the same boat. No matter how little damage you might have suffered, it’s tough to see your town battered and on life support."
But her final point was upbeat: "This is what journalists live for – the big story. It’s a tragic disaster and an adrenaline rush at the same time. Our staff did more than just rise to the occasion. They were spread from Mission to Dallas and every place in between – but they were writing stories, selling ads, making up ads, printing labels and everything necessary to get the paper put together and distributed. In the face of their own personal losses, they stepped up and kicked butt and I am beyond proud of them and grateful for their work and dedication."
Judson spent most of her time talking about what they learned, and offering advice. The above quotes and the following points are taken from her prepared remarks.
• You have to have a plan (and based on Laurie’s experience, everyone, not just those in hurricane zones, has to have a plan no matter where you are – floods, ice storms and fires can happen anywhere -- almost). Everyone on staff has to know what that plan is.
• Take your checkbook or whatever you need to make payroll (no one missed a check during the five weeks we produced the paper off-site, or since). Make sure you have enough money in escrow at your post office to mail at least one edition of the paper.
• Make arrangements with an out-of-town post office to mail your paper if your post office is shut down (ours was).
• Make arrangements with a printer; back up your server to an external hard drive and take it with you; be prepared to pay for offsite accommodations.
• You’ll need a line of credit with your bank, whether you use it or not. The amount depends on where you are and what your payroll is.
• Take advantage of your Facebook page and Twitter accounts and let your readers and followers know that you are providing them with vital information in real time, and that you’re the go-to source for the best and most accurate information they’re going to get about their hometown. That’s something they won’t get from television news that covers the story in broad strokes. All our hurricane-related information was free access on our website.
• Make a list – literally, of everything you need to take in order to publish remotely.
• Make arrangements in advance for air transportation to take photos.
• Now that we’ve done this, we’ll have a news budget planned -- story and photo assignments made, at the start of hurricane season. There are more stories to cover than the obvious, but you really can’t know this until you experience a disaster.
• We have a new perspective on how we approach our hurricane season coverage. Now we really do know what people need to know to be prepared. It won’t be the same old dog and pony show.
• Take “before” photos of the interior and exterior of your office (and home) as well as your vehicles, if any are left behind.
• Be more flexible than you usually are. Things can change on a dime.