Fire & Rain: Ops Managers At Nexpo Reflect On Disasters

By: Mark Fitzgerald

When disaster hits a newspaper, one of the first lessons learned is that even the most conscientious planning is gone with the wind, production executives with plenty of experience with disasters said at Nexpo Monday.

Ironically, experience with disaster close-calls can be a weakness when the real thing comes along, these executives warned fellow production people at the newspaper equipment show.

“We’d had plenty of hurricanes before, and the lights would be out for an hour, and then they’d come back on,” said Ray Maly, vice president and production director for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

Then Katrina hit, and the newspaper found itself in the middle of rising floodwaters, the staff huddled in a convoy of delivery trucks that barely made it to dry road.

“Any hurricane planning we had never (envisioned) something as big as this,” Maly said.

“There’s this thing in Florida where people go, oh, it’s just a Category 1, no big deal. But those National Hurricane Center predictions can be wrong,” added Craig Woischwill, vice president of operations of The Miami Herald. A Category 1 hurricane in 2005 not only knocked out power at the Herald, he noted, it crippled three other papers that it had counted on for emergency production.

Perhaps the best example of how the most carefully laid disaster plans can go wrong occurred at the Treasure Coast Newspapers in Florida.

When the E.W. Scripps Co. group of four dailies near Palm Beach began planning a new production facility in 2003, it told architects and contractors to build the plant to the more rigorous hurricane standards required in nearby Broward and Dade Counties.

“The overriding plan was for this to be our disaster lifeboat,” the group’s operations director, Michael O’Leary, said. In addition to the stronger construction requirements, the plant was located ten miles inland from the Atlantic, on ground that was 33 feet above sea level to avoid any possible flooding.

The Treasure Coast plant began production in October 2005. That month, a late-season hurricane swept into the area — and blew out the west-facing wall of the new plant. An emergency generator failed to come on automatically because it had been over-fueled. Water leaked into the newsprint storage area and press room.

Things were just as bad at the individual newspapers. A portion of the roof blew off the offices of The Stuart News, exposing the computer center. All the papers lost power.

In the end, Scripps estimated that it took a $3.7 million hit to the bottom line because of the disaster.

“What we learned is that water causes more damage than structural (problems),” O’Leary said, “and that codes for water are different than the codes for structural integrity. You’ve got to design to keep the water out.”

For the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2003, the problem wasn’t water — it was fire. A fire started by lost hunter spread rapidly in the high dry winds, consuming 270,000 acres and 2,200 homes, and killing 15 people.

The fire jolted the paper, which was spared any direct hit from the flames, said Bill Nagel, the paper’s vice president of circulation and consumer marketing: “Typically in San Diego, a disaster is when the temperature falls below 70 degrees for two days in a row.”

During the wildfire, the newspaper kept non-essential workers at home, and kept carriers out of danger zones. When the fire was finally extinguished, Nagel said, “Our next challenge was to find where our customers were.”

The paper extended subscriptions for six months to any customer who lost a home, and it set up tables at claims centers to get new delivery addresses for subscribers.

And as the Times-Picayune discovered after Katrina and The Miami Herald after Hurricane Andrew, readers and former non-readers eagerly snapped up copies of the Union-Tribune during and after the disaster. “People wanted the newspaper mainly because they didn’t trust the government,” which had given conflicting advice and instructions, Nagel said.

When the disaster is over, sometimes the hardest work remains, the production executives warned.

Newspapers should offer counseling to employees in those weeks later when the adrenalin rush of meeting the emergency wears off — yet the personal pain from the disaster remains.

“It’s been 20 months since Katrina, and I still have employees of mine living in trailers, I still have employees of mine without homes, I still have employees of mine who are commuting for hours to get to work,” the Times-Picayune’s Maly said.

Two things that every newspaper should have on hand for a business-disrupting disaster are building supplies and a lot of cash, the executives say.

“In all these disasters, cash is king,” the Miami Herald’s Woischwill said. “In any disaster plan, you have to have cash on hand.”

Newspapers should also keep on hand an inventory of the things employees will need to deal with the effects of disaster at their homes. Even now, Woischwill said, the Herald keeps stocks of gloves, bleach, tools and building supplies. During Wilma, the paper bought a large amount of those items from a Home Depot, and resold them to employees at half price.

Employees should also be instructed to have sufficient resources on hand to go at least 96 hours with no help from the company or government, he said: “That’s the reality, you’re on your own.”



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