Galveston Paper Undaunted By Hurricane

Galveston Island off the coast of Texas was devastated by Hurricane Ike last week. Though the island was ruined, the Galveston daily newspaper published every day.

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On the Texas coast, Galveston is still officially off limits to most of the people who call it home. After being pummeled by hurricane Ike, the island city won't officially reopen until Wednesday. But evacuated residents have had an information lifeline through last weekend's storm and its aftermath. NPR's Greg Allen has this report now on the small but resilient local newspaper, the Galveston Daily News.

GREG ALLEN: If there was a movie made about a small Texas newspaper, Dolph Tillotson would be good casting as the publisher. As it happens, that's the role he fills at the Galveston Daily News. Tillotson's slim, 58 years old, with salt-and-pepper hair, dressed these days not in his usual suit, but in T-shirt and jeans. You talk to him about the Galveston Daily News, and you hear about pride and tradition.

MR. DOLPH TILLOTSON (Publisher, Galveston Daily News): Our newspaper is the oldest newspaper in Texas. It was founded in 1842 when Texas was still a republic. I think they missed some editions during the Civil War, but other than that, we've never missed a print edition of our newspaper. And we were just committed to not doing that now.

ALLEN: And they haven't. After Ike flooded much of the island and took out the power, the Daily News moved operations inland. In the days after the storm, much of the staff worked in New Braunfels and printed the paper in Victoria. Some of the papers were just eight pages, one section with no ads. At the same time, the Daily News constantly updated its website, a vital resource for the tens of thousands of people who had to leave the island and were desperate for information about their homes.

A week ago, Saturday, the day the storm hit, reporter Leigh Jones was at the San Luis Hotel downtown, where city officials made their emergency operation center.

Ms. LEIGH JONES (Reporter, Galveston County Daily News): As the storm came in, we were still stuck at the hotel because the winds were too high. But we had a police scanner, and we were listening to what the first responders were seeing. So I Twittered like crazy during all that time. And I had so many people subscribe to that feed. It's been amazing and, you know, people are just dying for information.

ALLEN: Since last Sunday, Jones and a small coterie of reporters, editors, and the photographer have been working and living at the Daily News building in Galveston.

Ms. JONES: We've been sleeping over there. We've got the windows open so that we get a nice breeze. And they've been leaving the back door open, so we get a cross breeze, which is nice.

ALLEN: Their only power is a small generator. Outside on the loading dock, Bill Cochrane has two coffee makers working. Cochrane weathered the storm with a few stalwarts at the paper's solid concrete block building next to the Galveston Causeway.

Mr. BILL COCHRANE (Production Manager, Galveston County Daily News): Well, it started to be fine, then it started to be not fine.

ALLEN: In what way?

Mr. COCHRANE: You know, the wind and the water is coming up, and you just don't know when it's going to stop.

ALLEN: Cochrane points to the top step of the loading dock, a place several feet up where the storm surge reached. Behind the paper, between the Bayou and the Causeway, power boats and sail boats lie scattered where the wind and water left them. Cochrane was production manager at the Daily News for 40 years before retiring a few years back. If you can believe it, he came out of retirement just for Hurricane Ike.

Mr. COCHRANE: We went through a lot of almost three hours of the eye. And as much as you tell everybody that's it's going to get worse when it comes through, it's not - like you can't believe it because it's dead calm. And when it came back, it came back a little fury.

ALLEN: So it was worst on the back side?

Mr. COCHRANE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

ALLEN: The storm took off part of the newspaper building's roof and blew out a few windows. But otherwise, the building did OK. Many of the reporters and editors soon found the same couldn't be said for their homes. Leigh Jones lost her house to several feet of flood waters. Billy Cochrane's two boats now are part of a pile left by the storm in the marina. A few miles inland from Galveston, Daily News employees, clerks, and ad managers returned to work at the Texas City offices last week.

(Soundbite of talking)

ALLEN: Another reporter talks about fleeing the rising storm surge and taking refuge in her attic until the flood subsided. Publisher Dolph Tillotson chokes up when he talks about his employees and their dedication to getting out the paper even after they had lost their homes.

It's the same story from three years ago in New Orleans. Staffers at the newspaper there, at the Times Picayune, struggled to cover hurricane Katrina. Likewise at the Galveston Daily News, there's a sense of mission. And after hurricane Ike, Tillotson says it's about more than just providing information.

Mr. TILLOTSON: The fact that we're still there, I think, and people can look at a printed copy of our paper, tells them the community's not dead. What I'd like us to become is a focal point around which all the recovery efforts can be kind of coordinated and that we can communicate to people that there's hope, and there's reason to have courage, and faith, and the will to come back and try hard to rebuild.

ALLEN: In the first days after Ike, there was some tension in Galveston after the mayor, struggling to deal with the crisis, ordered city officials not to talk to the press. That order was quickly rescinded. Leigh Brown (ph) says after two years of covering Galveston City Hall, she knows most city officials personally and what they lost in the storm. She says we're all in this together.

Ms. LEIGH BROWN (Reporter, Galveston Daily News): We drive around the truck, so we're easily identifiable, and people will like yell at us from their porches. They're like, hey! Where's my paper? You didn't deliver my paper today. It's really funny. But it's so heartening for us to know how important we are in the community.

ALLEN: The Daily News is now printing its paper on presses at its Texas City offices. Power's back on there, and about the only evidence of the storm are some huge rolls of newsprint brought into the paper's offices to dry out after rain got into the press room.

Mr. TILLOTSON: For instance, this one has a little water damage on it. I don't know whether that particular roll is salvageable because when it bulges like that, because of water, it's no longer usable on the press.

ALLEN: For the newspaper and the city of Galveston, now comes the hard part. Tillotson says he's anxious to move operations back across the causeway to the Daily News offices on the island. That will happen as soon as the power comes back on.

Mr. TILLOTSON: This is our classified department right here, where we take the classified ads. We hope to God today, because we sure need the revenue.

ALLEN: The Daily News is part of a small family-owned chain of newspapers. And like papers across the country, it's coming off a tough year. Revenues are down five percent. Now, with hurricane Ike, Tillotson says the newspaper has already lost two weeks of income. What's even more wearisome, he says, is what kind of economy the newspaper and the city of Galveston have left after hurricane Ike.

Mr. TILLOTSON: What concerns me is that a lot of our businesses and a lot of our advertisers at the newspaper may make the decision not to return, and I think that we have a community interest as well as a selfish interest in convincing as many people as we can that there's life after Ike.

ALLEN: In Galveston now, there are only a few thousand people. Officials say maybe late this week, some of the rest of the island's 50 thousand plus residents can begin to return. But Tillotson remains optimistic. He talks about Galveston's history, hurricane, civil war, yellow fever epidemics, fires. "You name it," he says, "Gaveston's been through it. We'll survive this, too." Greg Allen, NPR News.

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