Bracing for a hurricane, Corpus Christi journalists are running on ‘caffeine and hope’

August 25, 2017

After Mary Ann Cavazos Beckett packed up her two children into her blue Hyundai Tuscon and began making the seven-hour drive to the city of San Angelo, she started getting texts from the newsroom.

At the same time she was driving away from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, a Gannett newspaper based on Texas’ East Coast, a hurricane was bearing down on the city.

“It’ll be interesting to see, in the next couple of hours, what happens,” Cavazos said from a conference room in the San Angelo Standard-Times.

Cavazos, the news director for the Caller-Times, is one of several journalists at the newspaper who evacuated the city before the arrival of Hurricane Harvey, a Category 2 storm that’s making landfall today. About 25 employees volunteered to cover the storm. About a dozen are hunkered down in the newspaper’s downtown headquarters, determined to tell the story of a soon-to-be waterlogged city.

Tom Whitehurst is one of those journalists. Normally the newspaper’s opinion editor, Whitehurst is helping out on the metro desk by editing and reporting stories.

“We’ve gotta keep on giving people the news as best we can,” Whitehurst said. “Our function is a vital function. And in this case, it’s not just letting them know what the city council’s up to or the president’s up to … this is a situation where the information could have a real safety component to it. It could actually save someone’s life.”

Reporters at the Caller-Times have braced themselves for hurricanes several times during Whitehurst’s 34-year tenure at the newspaper, but the Caller-Times hasn’t received a direct hit since he started there in 1983. He dispatched reporters to cover hurricanes on Texas’ East Coast in years past, and even once took dictation from a reporter stationed in the eye of a hurricane in the early 2000s. But this is different, he said.

“We had one that hit probably about 50 or 60 miles south of us, and the landfall was in a cattle pasture,” Whitehurst said. “We’ve been in the path many times. But this is the one that looks like it’s headed right for us.”

Because of the all-consuming nature of covering natural disasters, the Caller-Times is covering the news in shifts. A food kiosk in the break room, full of sandwiches and energy drinks, has been declared fair game by newsroom leadership. People are remaining calm, Whitehurst said — none of the giddiness he’s seen in years past.

That might be because the situation is serious. Although authorities haven’t ordered a mandatory evacuation in Corpus Christi, many residents have been advised to get out of town. A recent estimate put the amount of rain at 35 inches, a potentially life-threatening amount.

Cavazos, who is coordinating coverage from San Angelo, may ask for reinforcements from USA Today Network journalists in other regions should the situation require it, she said. They’ve made all of the Caller-Times’ hurricane content free as a public service, and she recently had a conference call about putting Saturday’s paper to bed so the staff can focus on as-it-happens digital coverage.

“We’re kind of running on caffeine and hope right now,” she said.

Correction: A earlier version of this story called San Angelo a “nearby city” in relation to corpus Christi. It is several hours away. The story also misstated the number of people on the hurricane team. It is 25, not 35.