By: Mark Fitzgerald
Even the newspaper veterans of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 — the last Category 5 storm to hit the U.S. mainland — are awed by the devastation faced by newspapers from New Orleans to Biloxi.
?As devastating as that was, I think it pales in comparison with what’s happening in New Orleans,? Editor Doug Clifton said from The Plain Dealer in Cleveland Wednesday. ?Andrew was a powerful storm, but it wasn’t a wet storm. The vast amount of damage was done by wind.?
Clifton was editor of The Miami Herald when Andrew stormed ashore, smashing apart homes, businesses, and infrastructure and causing what was then a record $21 billion in insured losses in 2005 dollars.
The heroic efforts made by the Herald’s staff — in the newsroom, production plants and circulation trucks — to get the paper out to people who had virtually no other means of information is an oft-told tale.
But as the personnel at the papers overwhelmed by Katrina this week begin their near-Sisyphean tasks of recovery on the job and at home, they may take some comfort in what happened at the Herald after those initial days of dread and adrenaline.
Far from sinking into depression as they coped with a storm that left 75 of them homeless, and many more of them facing extensive repairs, the staff retained remarkable morale, Clifton said.
?We were blessed with a staff that had such incredible dedication so that while, yes, the elation of the first triumph had to wane, it certainly didn’t diminish their ardor for the story. I wish I could say it was my leadership, but it wasn’t it. It was this incredible staff.?
It wasn’t so much that reporters and desk editors wanted to be in on the biggest story of their careers, but that they were motivated by the public service they were doing. ?We delivered the paper free for the first week or so, and it was literally a conduit for people looking for people who were lost,? he said. While the New Orleans Times-Picayune is doing that now on its Web site, the Herald put it in print for the thousands who were without power for days on end.
?We ended up being the first provider of news,? Clifton said. ?It was a further affirmation of the power of the traditional newspaper as we knew it.?
There were some journalists who were homeless, but didn’t know it because they were working virtually around the clock for three days straight at the Herald’s office building on Biscayne Bay. Some 350 employees and family members spent the night of the hurricane in the fortress-like building designed to withstand 250 mph winds.
?One of the biggest problems was prying people away so they could take care of their families,? Clifton said. The hurricane story, after all, would not be a ?40-yard dash, it’s a marathon,? the editor reminded staffers.
Andrew targeted its worst destruction south of downtown Miami. Journalists who lived in those areas were sent home and were replaced by colleagues from less damaged areas. (Clifton, as it happened, lived south of Miami in Coconut Grove. Despite destruction that made the street impassable, Clifton’s home suffered no significant damage.)
?You have to introduce some normalcy into the schedule,? Clifton said. ?People can’t work 20 hours a day, so you drive them off.?
Normalcy, though, is a relative term. It took at least six months before the newsroom settled back into anything resembling a routine, and personal problems did not go away. ?A lot of people went a year, a year and a half with roofs missing? and other structural damage, Clifton said.
For those staffers, one thing arrived sooner than shingles: In 1993, the Herald was award the Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for Meritorious Public Service for its work on Hurricane Andrew.