While Hurricane Ivan loomed offshore and then on Sept. 16 drew a bead on Pensacola, Fla., Randy Hammer, executive editor of the Pensacola News Journal, drew a bead on how to get a newspaper out.
The city’s downtown took a severe battering, and the News Journal offices, located downtown, while not hit as hard, partook in the beating.
While newspaper staffers inspected the sandbags at the front door as the storm surge moved in,Hammer inspected his decision to keep people in the newspaper offices. At times, he had doubts about his call to try and keep all hands on deck.
“There was a point about three in the morning when I looked out and saw the building surrounded by water, and I thought ‘I have screwed up,’ “ he said. “We literally were holding the doors because the water was coming in.”
About 100 journalists and other employees joined Hammer and Publisher Denise Ivey inside the building, while outside the worst hurricane to hit the area in more than 100 years began to make landfall.
Because the building’s construction made it “a fortress,”Hammer knew it would withstand the 100-plus mph assault by the wind. He understood storm surge presents the most danger from a hurricane, but he knew if the water rose, employees could flee upstairs in the four-story building.
“I never felt anyone’s life was in danger,” he said. “It was a matter of how we could best produce the newspaper. I realized that in terms of the coverage, we wouldn’t be able to report as well (from elsewhere) as if we stayed here. Everybody felt this was the best place to be. But it was scary.”
So if stress reveals strength, Pensacola residents have learned just how strong a friend they have in the News Journal.
In the wake of Hurricane Ivan, the Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper served the community in ways that went well beyond the reporting.
On the news coverage side, the commitment to community demonstrated by the paper’s staff on the night of the storm and beyond spilled onto editorial pages the next day and for the next several weeks.
The paper became a conduit of vital emergency information and a source of encouragement eagerly awaited by the city’s 400,000 residents some 90 percent of whom went without power for weeks. A visual chronicle of the paper’s work can be found at: http://www.pensacolanewsjournal.com/news/guides/hurricane/galleries.shtml.
“Everybody needs us,” said Ivey. “They need information, and theyneed us to be our best. “I just don’t know how a community can survive in this type of situation without a newspaper.
“The only thing that has the opportunity to be the community glue is the newspaper.” Hammer, raised in Pensacola, agreed.
“For a lot of us, it’s more about community than it is about journalism,” he said. “Anytime you can really connect with your community, it’s good journalism.” But with the storm came challenges. “We had the only landline in the whole building, and it was like that for two days,” Hammer said, noting the line was used when the storm struck for “real-time” reporting.
“Cell phones were not working. … It was a nightmare,” he said. “Fortunately, we were able to get our computers back up and our high-speed Internet access. That saved us.”
Because the Category 3 storm made landfall early Thursday, Sept. 16, Ivey said, the decision was made early on to combine the publishing of the Thursday and Friday editions into one Friday edition. The Montgomery, Ala., Gannett paper, The Montgomery Advertiser, adjusted its deadlines to print and deliver the News Journal until it sent a huge generator to power News Journal presses. Hammer’s staff used the single open landline to call in storm reports to the remote printing operations.
Gannett papers in Hattiesburg and Jackson, Miss., The Hattiesburg American and The Clarion-Ledger, also proved instrumental in getting the news to Pensacola residents.
Ivey e-mailed a grocery list of needs to the papers, “and seven to eight hours later it appeared,” she said. One important item on the list that partner papers provided: portable toilets.
The News Journal’s could not be used.
“(The sister papers) really stepped up in a huge way,” Ivey said. “We couldn’t have put the paper out for the first three days without them.” Distribution became a problem initially because so many Pensacola streets were closed and choked with debris. But routine home delivery got back online within a few days. Some employees couldn’t get to work immediately after the storm, and so those holding down the fort found themselves in unfamiliar roles. The day after the storm hit, the Op-Ed Page editor wrote the main bar. The sports editor turned to writing hard news. Hammer became a photographer.
Meanwhile, Hammer reeled in a number of “loaner” reporters and photographers to supplement his hurricane-beleaguered staff. And for all the staff out and about covering the storm’s destruction, helping residents — way beyond the call of duty — became routine.
An example: Because reporters and photographers were constantly moving through the entire city to cover stories, some residents — evacuated from their neighborhoods — sought information as to what happened to their homes.
Little by little, those requests grew until reporters started reporting back to residents each time they went out on assignment.
“At first we thought, ‘Gosh, how can we do this?’ Hammer said. “Then it occurred to us, ‘Let’s just try.’We kept trying to answer each request individually, and I think we got most of them. I still don’t know quite how we did it.”
Even though checking on the condition of homes didn’t make it into staff job descriptions, reporters and photographers took the responsibility seriously.
“Almost everyone in the newsroom, when they’d go out reporting, were going by and checking on people’s addresses for them,” Hammer said. “It came naturally. Nobody had to give an order. A couple of people started doing it and then a couple of more, and the next thing you know, everyone was doing it.”
The News Journal’s Web site, which usually averages about 100,000 hits a day, spiked to almost 8 million hits the day after the storm and averaged 8 million to13 million daily in the storm’s aftermath, Hammer said.
Updates on business openings and closings, emergency information, advisories on water contamination, inspirational survival stories, “rumor control” and other vital community news made the paper and its Web site a lifeline for residents.
When the paper sent photographers up in small plane for aerials, Hammer discovered that people used the published photos to help assess damage in their neighborhoods.
“It occurred to me that this is how the people were using the Web site,” Hammer said. “So we started going up in the air two and three and four times a day.”
While hundreds of pictures were posted, one particular shot —by Andrew West of The News Press in Fort Myers, Fla. — best captured the drama and power of the storm’s impact. Hammer faced a great deal of trouble finding hotel rooms for incoming journalists but found West a room at a Ramada Inn, he said.
On the morning after the storm, from the high perch of his room, West saw an incredible photo opportunity: sections of the now destroyed Interstate 10 bridge drifting over Escambia Bay. Although it was 15 miles from the coast, the powerful storm surge washed away 46 spans of the bridge. West jumped in his fourwheel vehicle and took on 80 mph wind gusts and plenty of road debris to get to a place where he could get the best shot.
When he returned to the office, everyone wanted to see the shot. “Everyone was around his laptop when he was pulling it up,” Hammer said.
“We could see the damage around here, but when you talk about the I-10 bridge being out at the north end like that, we knew this was a serious storm, probably the worst we’d ever experienced. We were able to post that pretty quickly.”
Using that single open landline and 1980s dial-up technology, West’s picture was sent to the wire services.When papers throughout the country picked up West’s picture, “That’s when the world knew this was serious,” Hammer said.
It took only a few hours for Ivan to roar through, but the recovery will take years. Ivan made big news when it struck, but the presidential election and events in Iraq quickly pushed it out of the national consciousness.
However, the steady hum of chainsaws, roadside debris, the more than 6,000 homes destroyed and the ever-present sight of power company trucks — more than 5,000 of them sent from throughout the nation and Canada two weeks after the storm — serve as testaments to the shelf life of the story to local residents.
Pensacola Mayor John Fogg praised the News Journal for playing an important role in the overall community effort to rebound from Hurricane Ivan.
“Everybody is pitching in to bring to the table whatever they can,” he said. “Everybody has something to contribute to the effort to recover from this thing.”
While newspapers usually have their fair share of detractors, News Journal critics remain relatively silent these days. Meanwhile, e-mails and letters of gratitude that have poured in now get taped to a wall that fills an entire hallway. This excerpt comes from a woman in Gulf Breeze:
“Just wanted to say thanks for the great reporting on your Web site. It is has been the place to go for information about the area. For all of us that have evacuated and are hungry for news and information, it has truly been a blessing. The community forums have been helpful to find out information regarding Gulf Breeze. Thanks from a truly grateful subscriber.” Critics may one day return, but Ivey is not concerned because she knows everyone — critic or not — needs the paper.
“We’re not perfect,” she said. “But they can count on us.”
Richard Daigle is a freelance writer based in Atlanta who formerly directed media relations for an Atlanta firm and worked in journalism education in Atlanta. He can be reached at email@example.com.