American Towns, Dealing with Disasters

How do newspaper readers in various parts of the country feel about the recovery efforts under way in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita? Liane Hansen speaks with three editors: Pat Yack of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Bob Rivard of the San Antonio Express-News and Mike Jacobs of the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Major rescue and recovery operations are under way today after a week of devastating natural disasters. Yesterday, a massive earthquake wreaked havoc on large areas of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. The death toll is already in the tens of thousands. And after a week of heavy rains, a mudslide destroyed an entire neighborhood in Guatemala, where the regional death toll is now in the hundreds. The United States is sending help to both places while federal, state and local officials here are still struggling to deal with the aftereffects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Yesterday, we called three newspaper editors in states that have had their fair share of disasters. Pat Yack is editor of The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. Bob Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Express-News. And Mike Jacobs is the editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota.

In 1997, Grand Forks was devastated by the Red River Valley flood. Financial and emotional recovery has been slow for some of his readers who have been comparing the government's response to the Gulf Coast hurricanes with their own experiences eight years ago.

Mr. MIKE JACOBS (Grand Forks Herald): I think the prevailing reaction a month out is, `We were lucky.' We were lucky that the disaster that overtook us was not of the scale that has befallen the Gulf Coast and we were lucky that the response from government agencies, FEMA, the Small Business Administration and others was so much more timely and so much more effective that what seems to be the case in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama.

HANSEN: Bob Rivard, San Antonio and Houston received the largest number of Rita evacuees. How's the city holding up? And how are your readers reacting to whatever FEMA's planning for the survivors?

Mr. BOB RIVARD (San Antonio Express-News): Well, we have taken in quite a few evacuees, more than 12,000 from Katrina and many thousands from Rita. Of course, Houston was much more of an evacuee center for Katrina, but once Rita hit, Houston had to evacuate and more and more people poured into San Antonio. But the local officials handled it really well and it's gone very smoothly and we're now down to less than 2,000 evacuees in the city shelters, the four shelters, about 900 of them left over from Katrina and a little bit more than a thousand left over from Rita. And, you know, some of the people have just sort of been absorbed into the local population that left the shelter, and a lot of people, once they got back on their feet, just found their ways out of the city and on their way to homes of friends and family or back home.

HANSEN: Pat Yack, Jacksonville didn't really bear the brunt of the four hurricanes in 2004. So far, the city has come through this hurricane season unscathed. What are folks in your community saying, though, about hurricanes Katrina and Rita? Are you seeing, for example, any evacuees from those storms?

Mr. PAT YACK (The Florida Times-Union): Yes, we have several thousand here in Jacksonville. They are scattered out and about in people's homes and spare apartments and the like. People who live in Florida realize how dangerous and destructive these storms are. Katrina before it hit the Gulf came into the southern part of the state and did close to about a half a billion dollars worth of damage to the agricultural industry in our state. The outpouring of affection from Jacksonville and north Florida, though, has been tremendous and we have sent money, we have sent supplies, we have sent food. There have been fund-raisers as small as kids on the corners with lemonade stands to some of the major restaurants holding large gatherings and galas. So that pouring of affection and the support from northeast Florida and Florida in general has been enormous.

HANSEN: Pat, what's the price of gas where you are?

Mr. YACK: It's in the 2.90s.

HANSEN: And...

Mr. YACK: It's been over 3. In fact, after Katrina, it went steadily up and there were gas lines. And our governor has encouraged people to take fewer trips, condense trips, and I think just anecdotally, my experience is talking with people is, in fact, people are doing that.

HANSEN: Bob, how about you? What's the price of gas in Texas?

Mr. RIVARD: Oh, Pat could save about 10 cents a gallon if he'd drive over here and fill up in San Antonio.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Mr. RIVARD: It's 2.79 yesterday when I checked.

HANSEN: Are people concerned, though, about perhaps a rise in the price of fuel?

Mr. RIVARD: Of course, they're very concerned about...

HANSEN: Yeah.

Mr. RIVARD: ...the price of gasoline; not just the actual price of it, although it's very high, higher than what a lot of people have ever experienced, but they're very concerned about where's it going and, you know, how everything in the world and nationally is going to affect their pocketbooks. It's topic A.

HANSEN: Yeah. Are they talking about using public transportation, car pools, bicycles, that kind of thing?

Mr. RIVARD: I don't know that the price of gas has gotten high enough yet to convince Texans to get out of their SUVs and get into public transportation. A very controversial debate going on in San Antonio about building tollways and taking existing state highways that have been paid for and expanding them and turning them into tollways. Very little conversation, frankly, by the political leadership in the state or locally about light rail or mass transit.

HANSEN: Mike, how about North Dakota? What's the price of gas?

Mr. JACOBS: I paid $2.69 yesterday.

HANSEN: Now you've got winter coming. North Dakota already had its first major snowstorm.

Mr. JACOBS: Yeah, we're more worried about heating oil than we are about gasoline at this point.

HANSEN: Yeah. So talk a little bit about that. What are people talking about?

Mr. JACOBS: Well, I think that a lot of people who own recreational property, lake cabins and the like, are thinking, `We're not going to be heating that this winter.' I think that people who can close off a drafty room are thinking about doing that because heating oil's an important source of heat here and propane, of course, and both are monstrously expensive at the moment. Heating oil, I think, has risen proportionately more than gasoline. It's pretty close to doubled since last season.

HANSEN: Let's talk a little bit about an issue that's raising a little bit of heat in Washington. We had the beginning of the Supreme Court term. John Roberts began as chief justice. And it--also this week, the president announced his nomination for Harriet Miers, the White House counsel, to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Mike, I want to start with you. How--do your readers care much about Miers' nomination?

Mr. JACOBS: You know, there hasn't been a lot of reaction to it at this point. And what there has been has been pretty predictable. Those people who have an ideological point of view, one side or the other, had the reaction that you would expect. I would say that the prevailing opinion is, `Let's see who this woman is and what she has to offer,' rather than an immediate acceptance or rejection of the nomination.

HANSEN: Bob, how about in San Antonio? Your readers are somewhat familiar with Harriet Miers. How have they reacted to the nomination and the fact that there's also a very slow trickle of information coming out of Washington?

Mr. RIVARD: Right. Actually, even though, you know, Texas is home field for President Bush, she is actually somebody, of all the people that went to Washington to Texas with him--one of the lowest-profile people. Maybe the highest-profile position she had here in the last decade or so was head of the Texas Lottery Commission and, you know, she got pretty good grades for that and everything else she did. But people don't really know her. And I would say Bush supporters and detractors alike were taken by surprise by the nomination and probably are in a wait-and-see mode to see how she does in the hearings as someone who has never sat on the bench.

HANSEN: Pat, what about in Florida? What are you hearing about Harriet Miers?

Mr. YACK: Very little. I think that Floridians are occupied by other things. She was not a name that was talked about or made anybody's list. She was not part of the speculation. So I think, like a lot of Americans, people are going to be waiting to see who this person is. There's not much of a profile on her.

HANSEN: Pat Yack is editor of The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. Mike Jacobs is the editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota. Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Express-News and author of the upcoming "Trail of Feathers: Searching for Philip True."

Thank you all for joining us.

Mr. JACOBS: Thank you.

Mr. YACK: Thank you, Liane.

Mr. RIVARD: Thank you.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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