For ‘St. Pete Times,’ Katrina Coverage is a Test of Preparedness

By: Daryl Lang

(PDN) Newspaper readers in Hartford, Nashville, Baton Rouge, and more than a dozen other cities all saw the same front-page photo today. Shot Monday by Douglas R. Clifford of The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, the image shows a flooded street in New Orleans, the tops of cars jutting above the waterline, and several groups of people wading through chest-deep water.

After it was transmitted nationally by The Associated Press, more than two dozen newspaper editors ran it as dominant art on the front page to illustrate the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Along with several pictures shot by AP staffers, it is one of the most commonly seen photos on today’s front pages.

For the St. Petersburg Times, getting one of the defining photos of the day — from an area outside its regular coverage zone — was the result of careful planning, modern technology and some courageous legwork.

Journalists in the hurricane-ravaged areas of Louisiana and Mississippi have battled dangerous conditions and a lack of power and phone service as they try to get news out. Earlier today, the New Orleans Times-Picayune announced on its web site that its was abandoning its building as waters rose around it.

As Katrina developed, the St. Petersburg Times activated its longstanding hurricane plan, which involved sending four reporters and four photographers out in rented four-wheel-drive SUVs with a variety of battery-powered transmission equipment. Just last week, the paper had conducted a hurricane safety program with its photo staff.

The paper’s editors had already decided that if a major hurricane ever hit New Orleans, it would send staffers to cover it, even though it is beyond its usual coverage area.

Clifford and three other photographers – Willie Allen Jr., Edmund Fountain, and Chris Zuppa – were sent to meet the storm. When the hurricane grew in intensity and veered west, the editors had Clifford and Zuppa drive from Florida to New Orleans.

“We barely got in because they closed down I-10,” says Boyzell Hosey, deputy director of photography at the Times, who has been in sporadic contact with Clifford.

“He was staying at a Doubletree Hotel. As soon as the eye passed, he made a decision to leave,” recounts Hosey. “As soon as he walked out the door, there was news all around him.”

Back in Florida, Times photo technology director Jack Rowland was following the storm news from his computer. Rowland checked message boards and blogs from newspapers in the area, keeping track of which communities were being most severely hit.

Rowland used Apple iChat to send text messages to the photographers’ cell phones with the latest news. The staff found that text messaging worked, even when regular cell phone service was spotty.

Following Rowland’s messages, Clifford drove out to the Orleans and St. Bernard parishes. Clifford parked his SUV near Interstate 10 and walked up a highway ramp to shoot photos, according to Hosey.

“He said he could hear people yelling and screaming and shouting and that’s how he knew where to go,” Hosey says. “He said once he saw it, he knew he had it.”

Next came the challenge of transmitting the photos back to Florida.

Rowland says the photo staff travels with Apple notebook computers equipped with WiFi antennas, cellular modems and a satellite modems. They also have radios to keep in contact with reporters and other photographers. The paper is prepared to receive photos via Internet transmission or an old dialup system.

Clifford had tried to transmit using a satellite phone, but couldn’t get it to work. Cellular phones weren’t working either. So his next option was to drive to the newsroom of the Times-Picayune, which had already agreed to assist the St. Petersburg Times staff if they needed help.

On the drive to the Times-Picayune, Clifford stopped outside a hotel and used his notebook computer to search for a wireless Internet signal, according to Rowland. He found one. His picture arrived at the Times newsroom at 6:22 p.m.

“We knew right away it was an excellent photo,” Hosey says. The paper sent the image to the Associated Press soon after, which then sent it to its members.

The St. Petersburg Times ran the photo four columns wide on the front page, under the headline “AGONY ON THE COAST.”

The photo also ran on the front page of Newsday, the Miami Herald, the Rocky Mountain News, and many other papers. Several other St. Petersburg Times photos were also widely published.

Craig Porter, deputy director of photography at the Detroit Free Press, which ran the picture, says it was one of the first photos to show people emerging from their homes after the worst of the storm passed. “It sort of brings you up to date,” he says.

Today, the Times reporters and photographers in Louisiana and Mississippi are coping with the challenge of getting fuel for their vehicles. They’ve been using power converters in their SUVs to charge the batteries on computers, cameras, and phones.

“I’m working on logistics trying to get someone up to the Panhandle, and get a pickup truck filled with a bunch of gas cans out to them,” Rowland said this afternoon.

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