May 22, 2009 By Ann Patton
The Galveston County (Texas) Daily News has written countless stories about the challenges and heroes of Hurricane Ike. But there's one story journalists for the paper have refused to write: their own.
During Ike, The News staff lost almost everything but its grit. Even when the storm was at its worst, the paper didn't miss an edition.
"It's all a blur," Building Superintendent Brett Baker said about operations throughout Ike and its aftermath on Galveston Island.
When the eye passed over the newspaper building at 2 a.m. on Sept. 13, 2008, workers who were staying there overnight rushed outside and boarded up cracked windows in preparation for the second half of the storm. The worst was yet to come. It brought 110-mph winds and a 12-foot storm surge. The building's roof covering, power, generator, satellite phones and nearly all technology were lost. But the staff never stopped.
"We were operating, at one point, pretty much just on my cell phone," recalled Editor Heber Taylor. "We had to improvise and overcome."
Rain came in around the windows. The waterproof covering blew off the roof. The surge came quickly, flooded the carpet and then subsided just as quickly. The generator failed when natural gas service was cut off. Before the storm was over, some Daily News staffers lost everything.
"We were working around the clock," Taylor said. "Our reporters were operating out of emergency management centers in Galveston and League City." Reporters filed stories using whatever technology they could muster, including cell phones, laptops and air cards. The newspaper exported copy editing to the mainland and printed through sister newspapers, starting with the Herald-Zeitung in New Braunfels, Texas.
When the newspaper was ready for delivery, finding readers proved nearly impossible. Delivery personnel went where they thought people might be, dropping bundles at emergency centers and hotels. "People would see our trucks and flag them down," Taylor said, "and I don't know how many people told me they hiked to the points of delivery just to find out what was happening. Think about it: There was no cable, no CNN, no local news stations. This was the way they got information, and information is critical.
"Some people picking up the paper were astonished to find out that the city had a curfew. People in the emergency command center and people in other states knew there was a curfew, but the people living on the island had no way of knowing other than picking up the newspaper."
The Daily News turned to the Web, posting stories as soon as they were written and then assembling them for print. Through the Web, the newspaper reached evacuees, extended families and news media.
"Our readership on the Web was enormous and continues to be very high," Taylor said.
In some cases, faraway Internet users relayed information back to those living in the impacted area. "It was amazing to me how people in New York would see something on our Web site and pass it along to somebody in Biloxi (Miss.) or New Orleans who somehow, maybe after 20 tries, would get a call in to Galveston and tell people there was a curfew. And those people would go tell their neighbors," Taylor said.
"It was critically important to get out accurate information," he said. "There were all kinds of horribly inaccurate rumors cropping up. There was a pernicious rumor that Ball High School burned to the ground, and the rumor would not die. When the phones did work, I got angry calls from people accusing us of hiding the truth. Of course, one thing you can do is report what is