Galveston, Texas, Newspaper Kept Printing Despite Hurricane Ike's Wrath

Galveston County Reports used Twitter and text messaging to obtain the news.

by / May 22, 2009

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."


Internet Distributes Information

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

there, as well as what didn't happen. There is tremendous value in that."

What kept the news staff going was dedication to their readers and, as Taylor said, dedication to the craft.
Perhaps it's not surprising that it would take more than Hurricane Ike to stop this paper and its 20-member staff. The oldest newspaper in Texas, The Daily News has been publishing since 1842, through epidemics, wildfires, the Civil War and major hurricanes in 1900, 1915, 1963 and 1983. The newspaper's building was damaged while it was under construction during Hurricane Carla in 1961, so it was built strong enough to withstand hurricanes.


Preparing for the Worst

Baker calls the structure one of the safest buildings in Galveston. The newspaper's plant is a hulking concrete fort with a 14-inch-thick concrete floor, 9-inch-thick concrete walls and a concrete roof. The windows are rated for up to 160-mph winds and further protected with internal film. The building is behind the seawall, elevated and anchored on 30-foot-deep concrete piers.

Preparedness and business-continuity planning also contributed to the newspaper's ability to keep publishing.
When Hurricane Ike entered the Gulf of Mexico, the news team, according to plan, began preparation in earnest. "We filled 55-gallon drums with water so we could flush toilets," Baker said. "We got plywood and screws. We brought in drinking water, food and a grill so we could cook our food."

The emergency plan included provisions for exporting printing and copy editing to the mainland if needed, which it was. Exporting the copy electronically turned out to be a major challenge, but the staff found ways to make it work.

The newspaper had installed a natural gas generator as an emergency power source. "We assumed it would be 100-percent reliable," said Taylor. "We certainly didn't plan on losing natural gas service." But at the height of the storm and for days after, natural gas service was disrupted for the entire island.

"We certainly never planned on our satellite phones failing," Taylor said. "For a while, we were operating on the backup emergency power supplies for computers, and we used them to charge cell phones too." In time, workers added small gasoline generators.


Plan for Failure

What advice does the newspaper staff give to others who find themselves in a similar situation?

Baker recommends investing in a strong, elevated building and protecting the integrity of the windows and other openings. "These newer buildings are being built too cheaply," he said. "Corrugated steel. They can't handle this wind. They rip apart." He hopes to look into shutters or coverings for the windows and wants to have them resealed to prevent leaks.

"Have a written plan," Taylor said. "Review it every year before the season. Also, have an annual review of technology. Decide what you can use and what you can afford. And if you live on the Gulf Coast, I would seriously ask what you can't afford not to have. The solutions that actually worked for us are not that expensive: air cards and cell phones."

Taylor recommends redundant systems. "One of the most important provisions you can build in to any plan is the provision for failure. Think about what you will do if something fails, even something you think is going to be 100-percent reliable. You have to be very flexible as things develop."

The lessons learned from Hurricane Ike have changed the way the newspaper does business, Taylor said. The newspaper now relies more on cell phones, air cards and the Internet. "We're using the Web much more," Taylor said. "We're still operating as we did during the emergency - posting information as we get it. We're posting these stories in real time on our Web site, then at the end of the day we pull together a print edition."
The editor also said hazard mitigation, disaster preparation and emergency planning will play a larger role in future news operations.

"The reward is that we were here when people needed us," Taylor said. "If we hadn't been in a strong, elevated building - if we hadn't had that written plan - we simply would have failed when people most needed us. We'll plan better for the next time, but we did have that plan, and it allowed us to keep functioning when things went wrong."