Keeping an eye on the storms

CANTON – When a series of deadly tornadoes touched down in Northeast Texas on the afternoon of Saturday, April 29, news professionals at the Canton Herald were looking out for their readers as well as themselves. 
At 5:27 p.m. the newspaper issued its first ominous post on Facebook: “Severe weather in the area. Tornadoes have been confirmed. A slow-moving storm is headed towards Canton. A tornado warning is in effect. Listen for sirens and take cover.” 
At 6:18 p.m. the Herald reported: “Prepare for a third storm to pass over Canton around 6:30.”
Throughout the night, as the storms killed four people and injured dozens, the Canton Herald staff continued to post weather information and locations for triage and shelter.

Feature by PRISCILLA LOEBENBERG, Special to the Texas Press Association

More than 5,000 homes were damaged. Among those was the home of Canton Herald page designer Kelly Baker; it was destroyed. The newspaper offices were among the 52,000 customers without electricity.
News Editor Britne Hammons’ home was half a mile from the path of destruction left by the twisters. She and her family waited out the storms in a safer location, but when morning came she was on the scene to report on the damage. 
“There was no electricity, it was freezing cold and fresh food and water was scarce. So with an empty stomach and bad hair, I pulled on my rain boots and jumped into reporter mode,” said Hammons. 
Publisher Brad Blakemore was in Paris, Texas, when the deadly storms hit. His first priority was conducting a safety check on the newspaper’s employees, which he did with help of the company’s business manager. The next morning he joined the veteran journalists on his staff to help cover the whirlwind of post-disaster activity.
Mobile phone service was spotty in the affected area. Concise text messages flew among those on the ground to coordinate on the day after the storm.
“Canton looked like a scene from a war movie,” said Hammons. “You shoot the aftermath, the destruction and the damage and try not to let it hit home.”
The survivors she came across appeared mostly silent and shocked, she said. Hammons could have written dozens of stories about the people and places she came across but she had to focus on those that would best serve her community in the coming days. 
Blakemore was prepared to move the staff another office owned by Van Zandt Newspapers on Monday, but the power came on in the Canton office in time to avoid the move. The team strategized on coverage for that Wednesday’s paper. The edition would update readers on critical services and let them know how to get help. It would also be the most detailed and authoritative story of the disaster in Canton.
“We knew that we needed a story that not only touched the people of Canton but was also different from the reports that the local TV stations had run,” said Hammons. 
For the week’s lead story the team decided to highlight Sides Pea Farm, a landmark in Canton since 1957. A photo of Virginia Sides taken in front of her
ravaged property demonstrated the devastation of the tornadoes.
“Here is this elderly woman, looking like she just stepped from the rubble of a World War II bombing,” said Hammons.
She said the staff worked like a well-oiled machine in the time of crisis, with each person doing his or her part and trusting the others to come through as well.
“We arrived at the finish line together as a team — not as an editor, designer, publisher or photographer,” said Hammons. 
Blakemore believes the newspaper produced that week was one of the finest ever produced by the Canton Herald – and it was only the beginning. The damage was wide-ranging and the recovery will take years. The newspaper will continue to highlight the recovery services many residents will need for some time to come. 
Everyone in Canton was impaired by the tornadoes. Even those homes that weren’t directly damaged by the storms still have storm debris or were affected in some other way, said Blakemore. 
The newspaper’s Kelly Baker lost her new home and car to the storm just months after moving in. She and her husband, Paul, are also expecting their first child. Another employee had significant damage to her home and property. 
Although the town grieves for the four people who lost their lives, the impact could have been much worse, Blakemore said. The twisters did not go through the most populated areas or hit downtown. Thousands of people could have died, said Blakemore. 
The newspaper has a disaster plan that is updated every year. If the Canton office had been destroyed, the staff could have worked out of Van Zandt Newspapers’ Wills Point or Mabank offices. The newspaper prints in Tyler, but there is also a press in Wills Point. 
“You can’t put something like that off,” Blakemore said of the disaster plan. “You never know when something like this is going to happen.”
Blakemore is concerned about how well the town was prepared for the disaster. There is no hospital in Van Zandt County.  A triage center for the injured as set up at the local high school following the tornadoes. Blakemore said he hopes the city and county will be able to reevaluate their disaster strategy in the coming months. 
In the meantime, he said the newspaper will continue providing residents with information on recovery resources, help them look out for scammers and tell the stories of the many unsung heroes who rose to the challenge.

Editor's Note: To see some examples of the newspaper's coverage, see the June Messenger eEdition, http://texaspress.com/texas-press-messenger.