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Column: Recalling parallels between the Great Coastal Gale and Hurricane Katrina

A tale of two storms
By Jim Van Nostrand

The Daily Astorian

Published on December 1, 2017 12:01AM

Last changed on December 1, 2017 10:04AM

A satellite view of Hurricane Katrina.


A satellite view of Hurricane Katrina.

Jim Van Nostrand

Jim Van Nostrand

Big storms can define our lives, and turn them upside down.

It has been fascinating for me to look at the memories from our readers of the Great Coastal Gale of 2007, recounted in a special section of today’s newspaper. Everyone had their own experience, their own story to tell.

Editing those stories brought back memories for me, as well — but of a different disaster, two years earlier and 2,700 miles away.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast with 120-mph winds, 55-foot sea waves and a storm surge averaging 30 feet. Low-lying coastal communities were completely devastated. It left 238 people dead and 67 missing in Mississippi, with 65,000 homes and businesses destroyed and an estimated $125 billion in damages.

The Biloxi Sun Herald, a Knight Ridder newspaper, lay directly in the hurricane’s path. I was a web editor for Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau at the time. When the lights went out in Mississippi, I joined scores of the company’s journalists around the country who mobilized to help our colleagues in their hour of need.

Digital editors based in several different time zones set up a news desk online to tell the world what was going on. The Sun Herald staff worked on laptops powered by an emergency generator. They transmitted the data via a sketchy satellite phone connection and the assistance of a friendly trucker, who ferried computer disks east on Highway 10 to Mobile, Alabama. We printed the newspaper at the Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Georgia, and trucked it back to Biloxi, never missing a day of publication.

As described by Stan Tiner, the Sun Herald’s editor at the time, the internet “came of age” for his newspaper during that crisis. Social media was in its infancy — Facebook was only a year old, and Twitter would not be born until the following year. The digital desk posted updates every half hour around the clock for weeks. We used online bulletin boards for readers around the world to inquire about their loved ones. We provided tools for readers to upload photos of their homes, in too many cases reduced to concrete slab foundations. The newspaper’s sports editor became a blogger, posting “news you can use” updates such as which bridges were out and where the emergency crews were working at any given time.

Then, as now, advance planning is the key to dealing with a calamity of that magnitude. Knight Ridder had years of experience dealing with disasters befalling its newspapers, from the 1997 Red River flood in North Dakota that inundated the Grand Forks Herald to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 at the Miami Herald in Florida. The company sent a team to Biloxi with food, water, fuel, clothing, cash and emergency equipment, including a portable cellphone tower. RVs were provided as sleeping quarters for staffers who’d lost their homes. The makeshift encampment in the newspaper’s parking lot was dubbed “Camp Hope.” Other Knight Ridder newspapers sent reporters and photographers to spell the exhausted staff.

The limited resources were carefully managed, Tiner recalled. If a reporter needed to drive to a neighboring town to cover a story, the editors would calculate the required mileage for a Honda Accord and hand-crank the exact amount of gasoline needed from a portable pump.

Many of the tales about how communities in Mississippi, Oregon and Washington state came together and coped with their respective disasters are remarkably similar. In Biloxi, for example, residents headed to the end of the Bay St. Louis Bridge to catch faint cellphone signals. In Seaside, everyone gathered at the Cove to do the same thing.

In all the communities, neighbors broke bread together in the streets, sharing the food from their melting freezers and pooling their fuel. First responders struggled to deal with unprecedented damage and overcame obstacles they never imagined they’d have to confront. People had to figure out how to live their lives without electricity, for several days here and up to several weeks in Mississippi.

I was never sent to the hurricane zone, and did not have to endure those privations. I did my small part from the comfort of an office in Washington, D.C. To this day I feel pangs of guilt about that. I will always remember the sacrifices made by the good folks at the Sun Herald, who put out a newspaper every day and worked hard to serve their readers in the face of adversity. Many lost their homes and everything they owned to the hurricane — some lost relatives — and they continued to do their jobs. It was their finest hour.

By all accounts, the staff here at The Daily Astorian overcame long odds in 2007, though without the assistance of a corporate parent with deep pockets and expertise. They figured it out on the fly, navigating treacherous roads and downed trees and power lines, among other obstacles. They managed to miss only one day of publication.

I feel a sense of comfort. I work with a battle-tested staff who has done this kind of thing before. I live in a community that came together in such a positive way.

Now it’s time to make sure we’re ready for the next “big one,” whether a storm or a tsunami.

Jim Van Nostrand is editor of The Daily Astorian.


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