By: Anna Crane
While there was a national focus on the struggles and rebuilding of top gulf newspapers like The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, La., smaller papers like the Sea Coast Echo in Bay Saint Louis, Miss., were also hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.
The headquarters of the Echo, which publishes Thursday and Sunday, is located only a block away from the Gulf of Mexico — just 28 feet above sea level. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, which completely destroyed everything in the paper’s newsroom (although the building remained standing) the Echo was forced to leave its office and relocate to publisher Randy Ponder’s dining room.
The Echo is now back in its office and is finally starting to return to being a normal paper, said Ponder. New printing presses are being installed on Monday, and the paper’s editorial coverage is starting to move beyond the direct aftermath of the hurricane.
?We are actually getting back into a normal newspaper routine,? he said. ?We do not put an issue out that does not have an item about Katrina, and I think it will be that way for years to come. But, we?re back to asking questions, investigating.
“We?re back to being able to present weddings and engagements — the normal fabric of life in a small town.?
The Echo’s news editor, Geoff Belcher, headed back to his hometown in Kentucky just before the storm, said Ponder, and the first week after Katrina hit, he was the one who made sure the paper got out. Belcher made a deal with the local paper in Pikesville, Ky., which agreed to help him put together a four-page paper entirely focused on Bay Saint Louis. The newspaper went to press even before Belcher had heard that Ponder was still alive.
?Luckily, they found me,? said Ponder, who was in town to receive the papers Belcher had printed. ?I was able to get into an old Jeep and drive around with my son, actually handing out the papers.?
For the first two or three months after Katrina, that?s what they did, said Ponder. They distributed the paper for free — leaving copies at rescue stations, stores, and anywhere that people could get to.
?As a small town newspaper publisher, I?ve always known that the newspaper was important,? said Ponder, ?but until we got here, I never understood how.?
Ponder described the reaction from local residents when distributing that first issue after the hurricane as absolutely moving — grown men cried when he handed them the paper.
?I really think they were still just in shock, but here all the sudden was their little newspaper, and I think they thought that if this little newspaper can come back, so can we,” said Ponder. “It was a big morale boost.”
After the first issue, the Echo relied on the Picayune (Miss.) Item to print the paper for the next three months. Each week, he said, his staff would drive up to Picayune with the issue on a compact disc and use the paper?s printing press to put out the issue.
Tom Andrews, publisher of the Picayune Item, thinks that small papers like the Echo really made a difference in Katrina coverage.
?These papers deserve some recognition,? said Andrews. ?They just did an outstanding job in the face of adversity.?