Mary Judson, co-publisher of the Port Aransas South Jetty, and Laurie Ezzell-Brown, publisher of The Canadian Record, shared their experiences in the ‘Come Hell or High Water’ midwinter conference presentation.
Moderator Leonard Woolsey, publisher of the Galveston County Daily News, and panel members Yvonne Mintz, publisher of The Facts in Clute; Brenda Burr, publisher of the Bay City Tribune; and Michael A. Smith, editor of the Galveston County Daily News, explain how they and their staffs covered the flooding that inundated coastal areas weeks after Hurricane Harvey’s initial impact.
Two panels of community journalists gave programs concerning how their staffs covered disasters impacting Texas in 2017.
In the program entitled “Come Hell or High Water,” Canadian Record Publisher Laurie Ezzell-Brown discussed covering ice storms and wildfires in the Texas Panhandle and Port Aransas South Jetty Publisher Mary Judson discussed how she used a disaster plan to keep her family newspaper running while directing coverage of the devastation.
Grassfires in February came on the heels of January’s Winter Storm Jupiter that knocked out power and caused an estimated $2.056 million damages in Hemphill County. Damages in surrounding counties totaled almost $8 million.
On March 6 wildfires burned more than 318,156 acres in Ochiltree, Hemphill, Roberts and Lipscomb counties. Five deaths were reported, including three ranchers who were trying to save their cattle. Just a week later, another fire struck on a Hemphill County ranch, with more than 1,000 acres burned.
Brown described the fear of local residents and the harrowing scenes of the horizon in flames as property owners prepared to evacuate.
After covering the disasters and using social media and online resources to keep readers informed between editions, The Canadian Record continued covering the aftermath of the disasters as residents dug out from the ice storm to begin rebuilding and again weeks later as ranchers assessed fire damages and started their recovery efforts.
“I’ve found myself wanting to share the stories I’ve heard,” Brown wrote in a column published March 30. “From those who watched the flames approach their homes and who simply had to walk away, realizing there were more important things in their lives than those worldly possessions. From those who found a greater appreciation for the people around them, seeing more clearly as the smoke lifted. From those who felt fear but drove on through the flames; who were weary beyond measure, but found solace in a few minutes of sleep in a fire truck with the engine still running; who saw their life’s work destroyed, but who pulled on work gloves the next day and began again.
“This community has been tested in the last few months and has found itself reeling from unbearable loss, its hope challenged, its comfort stolen,” Brown wrote. “But these words of gratitude, this newly-discovered common ground, this new-found faith we have discovered in each other — these are the raw materials with which we will rebuild our lives and strengthen our bonds.”
When Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast Aug. 25, small communities like Rockport and Port Aransas took the brunt. Judson described how she and her staff used the warning time before impact to put the newspaper’s disaster plan into action. From computer backups to remembering to make several sets of mailing labels, from getting a line of credit at the bank and locating a printing plant away from the storm-ravaged area and finding a place to weather the storm and set up shop, the South Jetty staff had their work cut out for them, Judson said.
She praised the work of the late Willis Webb in driving home to TPA members the need for a detailed disaster plan. Webb was publisher of the Jasper Newsboy when Hurricane Rita struck the Beaumont area in 2005, shortly after hurricane Katrina had devastated the Louisiana coast. Hurricane Rita traveled deep into East Texas, leaving $6 billion in damages.
The Judsons and their staff heeded the official evacuation warnings, traveling inland to ride out the initial impact. They were armed with contact information from emergency management officials so they could get regular updates and be ready to go back as soon as permitted.
In the days and weeks following the storm, they operated from a condo unit on North Padre Island where staff could use computers and access the Internet to produce digital and print editions.
Bookkeeping, circulation and other business operations also continued.
With many buildings and homes destroyed, mail could not be delivered to many addresses, so other means were used to get the print product to readers. Judson said they relied on the newspaper’s webpage and Facebook page to post critical updates about conditions, hazards, and re-entry information.
While some of their staff had damage or lost their homes, the newspaper office and Judsons’ home survived. Judson said the community continues to recover and come to grips with what will and will not be restored.
Both publishers said their knowledge of their local communities and their relationships with local emergency personnel helped them give their readers the most accurate and up-to-date news and public safety information.
They also noted their communities suffered post traumatic stress, but neighbors found solace in working together and hope in seeing the response and offers of help from throughout the country.
The panel program “We get by with a little help from our friends” was moderated by Leonard Woolsey, publisher of the Galveston County Daily News. Panel members were Yvonne Mintz, publisher of The Facts in Clute; Brenda Burr, publisher of the Bay City Tribune; and Michael A. Smith, editor of the Galveston County Daily News.
The areas represented by these newspapers suffered flooding from Hurricane Harvey for weeks after the initial landfall devastated Port Aransas. Flooding from the massive storm – measured in feet rather than inches – inundated areas along the Gulf Coast as rivers, lakes and reservoirs overflowed their banks. Two areas saw as much as five feet of rain, and 18 other areas had four feet of rain. The flooding was historic in Houston, it isolated areas such as Port Arthur and it caused damage far inland.
The newspapers represented on the panel are part of the Southern group and were able to rely on each other and other sister publications for assistance, printing and places to work. Each newspaper also had a disaster plan.
The panel members praised the work of their staffs. Many continued to work covering the disaster while their own homes were flooded.
Smith noted that he encouraged several fatigued staff members to take breaks, rest and recharge as best they could while keeping the community informed.
Like many others along the coast, publishers of these newspapers temporarily lifted the paywalls on their websites to allow more people access to information and updates while digital and print editions were produced.
Social media and email contacts brought more than official information, however. Some of the panel members said their staffs received phone calls and emails from people trapped in the rising water begging for help.
“All we could say was ‘hang up and call 911,’” Woolsey said. “Many people said they had already tried that and they either couldn’t get through or hadn’t heard back, so they called us.”
Several panel members mentioned people coming to the newspapers’ offices to offer to take bundles of newspapers to their neighborhoods where delivery was difficult. Mintz said her circulation staff continued to deliver print editions as far as they could travel in the flooding.
The panel members said they expect to continue covering in the impact on their communities for years. The hurricane center estimates the damage at between $90 billion and $160 billion with a midpoint of $125 billion.
Sixty-eight Texans died in the storm and its aftermath.