Lake Charles Newspaper Staff Persists Against Rita's Fury

February 15, 2005

 

 By JEREMY HARPER 
When I went to sleep Wednesday, Sept. 21, Hurricane Rita was threatening the Texas coast, promising to pester Louisiana with no more than a quick bout of tropical storm conditions. I was prepared to ride out the fringe of the storm in either my apartment on the second floor of a sturdy historic building in downtown Lake Charles, La., a city of 75,000 about 40 miles inland of the Gulf of Mexico, or in the newsroom of the American Press, the city's daily newspaper where I have worked for four years as a reporter.

Though the National Hurricane Center's projected path for the surging Category 5 storm had been creeping eastward, landfall was still expected to be somewhere west of Galveston, Texas, more than 150 miles away from Lake Charles. Under that scenario we would get plenty of rain and maybe tropical storm-strength winds, harsh conditions no doubt, but nothing devastating or potentially deadly. A voluntary evacuation was issued for the parish. There was no way I was leaving.

By the time I woke up Thursday, Rita had wobbled further to the east toward the Louisiana/Texas line. Local officials issued a mandatory evacuation for Calcasieu Parish early that morning, but the exodus had already begun. I showed up to work at the American Press and found a nearly empty newsroom. Only our editor and publisher remained, and they were discussing whether to print a Friday edition, who would deliver it and who might be around to read it.

Plans to print were forged, then scrapped, before the decision was made to move the paper online and start a blog. Friday would mark the first time in more than 100 years that the American Press failed to print a paper.

I worked Thursday in the eerie quiet of a mostly evacuated city, covering an emergency press conference and interviewing anyone I could find, still unsure whether or not I would evacuate. Later when I heard a weather man say the words "Lake Charles," "Category 5," and "eye wall" in the same sentence, I started packing. My girlfriend, Darla, and I put our TV in the bathroom, dragged the couch into the kitchen and taped the windows. We threw our cat in the car and caught the crawling wave of northbound evacuees. My sister's place in Shreveport, about 200 miles to the north, was our destination. The plan was to wait for the storm to pass and return home as quickly as possible.

Nearly six hours later, when we made it to DeRidder, 45 miles to the north, we realized that we would run out of gas before we reached Shreveport. It was past midnight, the car was down to half of a tank and the radio station was reporting that the few service stations still open between DeRidder and Shreveport were already out of fuel.

A bit distraught, we stopped at the American Press' news bureau in DeRidder to ponder our options. We were preparing for a night in the car when American Press city editor Hector San Miguel's van rumbled into the parking lot carrying his mother, four kids and two dogs. We joined his motley crew in the small bureau for the night, sleeping for a few hours on the floor of a cubicle with towels for beds and clothing for blankets. We made it to Shreveport the next morning and spent the day waiting helplessly for the storm to hit, wondering what we would have to go back to.

Meanwhile, back in Lake Charles, a group of about 20 employees, family members and visiting media were hunkering down at the American Press. Only three newsroom employees – two photographers and a night editor – remained.

Tropical storm winds started in Lake Charles around 3 p.m. Shortly thereafter, a local woman who was stranded with her 11- year-old son and their dog phoned the paper with a desperate plea for shelter. Photographer Rick Hickman picked them up and brought them to the newspaper. Hickman ventured out as late as 6 p.m., snapping photos of the early destruction before conditions became too dangerous.

After the American Press lost power around 8:30 p.m., night editor Dennis Spears blogged as long as he could on backup power, then relayed information by cell phone most of the night before his signal bowed to the storm. Thanks to a generator and a miraculously storm-resistant satellite, those sheltered at the paper had the surreal experience of watching part of the television news coverage of the very storm they were riding out.

Rita, by now a Category 3 storm, unleashed her worst in Lake Charles around 3 a.m. Saturday. Tropical storm winds persisted well into the afternoon. The American Press building was damaged, but those sheltered inside made it through the night unharmed.

Due to my sister's annoying lack of cable television, I spent much of Friday night in the lobby of a Shreveport hotel watching television news coverage of the storm with a group of fellow Lake Charles residents. I reported when I could, but was mostly a helpless spectator to the destruction of my hometown. Other reporters and editors, scattered about Louisiana and Texas, gathered information and posted it on our site throughout the night.

Late Friday, forecasters began predicting that Rita would stall around Shreveport, drop up to 20 inches of rain on the area and cause massive flooding. Faced with the possibility of being stranded in a flooded Shreveport for days, we evacuated again to Dallas, the only city in two states with an available hotel room.

By Sunday, I couldn't take it anymore. I bought a propane stove and as much non-perishable food and water as I could fit in my car and headed for home. It wasn't long before Rita's destruction became visible.

The power was out in the town of Leesville, 120 miles from the coast. Back in DeRidder, trees were uprooted and buildings were damaged. The destruction only got worse as we headed south, past the National Guard checkpoint at the Calcasieu Parish line and into another world with military convoys, tent cities and splintered homes. Rita's swift arrival spared the city of major flooding from either storm surge or rain, which made navigation through most major roadways still possible.

The American Press was my first stop, and it was in worse shape than I expected. The giant sign outside our plant was on the ground. Trees were toppled and sheet metal was strewn about the property. The newsroom, dark and dank, had been vacated. The carpet had begun to bubble; the smell of mildew was overpowering. When I picked up a notebook, it limped cartoon-like from the extreme humidity.

I headed through the black newsroom toward the distant humming of a generator, sloshing through an inch of water, and eventually found our press operator, who told me the building and the printing press were badly damaged and would probably be unusable for weeks. He recounted how an outdoor metal porch was ripped from its foundation by the storm and dragged across the roof of the newsroom, slicing a huge gash that allowed water to pour through.

After a few more stops to check on houses of friends and family and empty their refrigerators, we made it to our apartment, which had survived, though the roof on the opposite half of the historic building peeled away, ruining the dwellings below. Somehow our place didn't even have a broken window.

I worked that day as our sole reporter in town, gathering what I could before retiring to my apartment shortly after the 6 p.m. curfew that was now in effect. Though I was exhausted, sleep really wasn't a realistic option in the post-Rita downtown Lake Charles. Dozens of generators hummed in a parking lot across the street near the parish courthouse. Four industrialstrength flood lights were pointed at my window. Energy company trucks and ambulances passed by intermittently, lights flashing. Military transport trucks also rumbled down the road. Helicopters landed late into the evening.

But the noise was nothing compared to the ever-present and oppressive heat from which there was no escape. The heat index was 105, unseasonably hot for late September. My apartment, now serving as my temporary office, turned into something not unlike a sauna during the day. After sunset the inside temperature may have dropped below 90, but the evening breeze went dead. To make matters worse, there was no running water. And after a day of racing around in 100-degree heat, a bottled-water bath offered little comfort. But I had a roof and a functional phone line and I was working. I really couldn't complain.

I received a call at home that night from a woman with the White House advance team who informed me that President Bush would be visiting Lake Charles Tuesday morning. She later told me she had seen my byline in an old paper and looked me up in the phone book. I just happened to be home.

Hickman, the photographer who still hadn't left town, and I showed up at the local airfield the next morning as instructed, sweaty and grumpy, where we baked on a runway for three hours waiting for Air Force One to land. Bush's visit was followed by a press conference with FEMA officials across town. I wrote my stories in the passenger seat of my car as we made our way toward family in Texas City, Texas, near Galveston, where I got some much-needed sleep and the best shower of my life.

For the next few days, American Press reporters came and went, staying anywhere cool (City Editor San Miguel slept in the back of his van for two nights). A few days later a group of managers, copy editors and reporters set up a makeshift bureau in a conference room at the Daily Advertiser of Lafayette outside of the paths of both Rita and Katrina. The first paper since the storm – 12 pages with the headline "Hope amid ruin" – was printed Thursday, Sept. 29. The free edition was printed at noon in Lafayette and trucked in the afternoon to various locations in southwest Louisiana. The news bureaus in DeRidder and another outlying town were reopened.

By Oct. 2, power was restored to the Lake Charles newsroom, and people began trickling back over the next week. The building was patched, the carpet was cleaned and the press was revived. The American Press sign is still down, the roof still leaks, but we haven't missed a paper since.

Jeremy Harper reports for the American Press, the largest newspaper in southwest Louisiana, covering six parishes from the Texas line to Cajun country to the east.

**Fraom SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Winter, 2005 issue.

JEREMY HARPER