October 17, 2018

The morning after Hurricane Michael turned much of Panama City into a disheveled lumber yard, Patti Blake took off on foot to document the damage.

The chief photographer at the News Herald walked a few miles last Thursday, past fallen power lines that felt to her like “a jungle gym of nightmares.” Then she saw a church missing a part of its red brick wall and patches of roof.

The people talking outside St. Andrew United Methodist Church invited Patti in. The images she shot include one with rows of neat pews — a few cushions scattered about, one wall open to blue sky. The Bible still sat on the altar. Hymnals still rested in the pews.

On Sunday, she went back to photograph their service. When some of the older parishioners saw Patti’s press badge, they asked her where they could get the paper. She wasn’t sure, she told them. But she still had 15 or 20 minutes before the service, so she drove to the Herald’s crumpled building and grabbed a handful.

Back at the church, she started handing them out.

“There’s just this look of relief on their faces,” she said a few days later. “One lady said it was the most normal thing she’d done in days.”

Passing out that day’s news was a small moment of normal for Patti, too, after she and her colleagues at the News Herald made it through the storm, then made it back out into Panama City to document the disaster that, so far, has left at least a dozen people dead.

Hurricane Michael

The News Herald sits at West 11th Street in the heart of Panama City. The 81-year-old paper, now owned by GateHouse Media, has made it through a lot of storms.

An old production manager used to tell people that the sounds they’d hear when hurricanes got close were supposed to happen — that was just the roof shifting with the wind. On Wednesday, though, that building started making sounds that regional editor Mike Cazalas had never heard before.

In the newsroom with him were publisher Tim Thompson, reporter Genevieve Smith, photographer Joshua Boucher, a few other employees and a few people they’d let inside who needed shelter.

While everyone else moved into the plate room in the center of the building, Mike shot a Facebook Live video.

“Whoa, OK, now the whole wall — you know what— the whole wall, front wall, just moved,” he says after about 13 minutes. “I’m gonna get back a little bit further in the building I think.”

A few miles away, reporter and weekend editor Patrick McCreless watched out his window as trees ripped out of the ground and slammed into townhouses around him. The power flicked on and off. Trees swayed in the howling wind.

Patrick started at the newspaper just one week before from the Anniston (Alabama) Star.

Back at the newsroom, the cinderblock walls held inside the plate room. Fifty to 60 mph winds pushed through the building. Windows cracked. Doors flew open. Water poured in.

Their cell phones lost power. Their generator ran out of gas. The lights died.

Mike, his team, and dogs Buddy and Addie hid under tables as the building around them rumbled. Mike has been at the News Herald for about 35 years. He’d never been afraid that he might not make it through something until the hour they spent sheltering there.

When the storm passed, they all came outside. It looked like a bomb had hit Panama City.

Back to work

Patrick’s car was blocked between fallen trees, so he walked back to the newsroom, climbing over trees, around metal and past shocked neighbors who’d also come outside.

Tim, the publisher, drove by and saw him. When he dropped Patrick at the newsroom, he was shocked. Everyone had said it was hurricane-proof.

Some of the 14-person newsroom had evacuated. Katie Landeck, managing editor for print, and Patti, the chief photographer, had embedded with the Bay County Sheriff's Office and took shelter with the fire department.

The Hathaway Bridge, which connects Panama City to Panama City Beach, was closed, so the two rode as far as they could with an ambulance.

Then, they set out on foot.

For Katie, it was one of the eeriest experiences of her life.

At 8 p.m., it was pitch black. Sirens sounded all around them. Everything smelled of fresh wood.

The two walked a mile until they reached the News Herald. The roof of the print plant had caved in, walls leaning into the main building.

They walked to the nearby family home of Genevieve, the reporter. It was still standing. Inside, they found a few colleagues. They had no power. Genevieve’s phone still worked. Katie could talk to people using Google Hangouts.

So they started planning the next day’s newspaper.

Send help

A tree went through Patti’s house. Katie’s home has busted windows and a leaking roof. The home of Tim, the publisher, is flooded. The roof of Eryn Dion, managing editor for digital, was ripped off.

The morning after the hurricane, Patti grabbed a saw and a sledgehammer from Genevieve’s house and busted into her newsroom office to rescue her two black cats, Finch and Boo.

For a few days, staff worked from a conference room a local company just outside of town let them borrow. Now, they’re at a home 30 minutes away owned by Genevieve’s family. By Friday, they’ll have a trailer set up in the parking lot of the News Herald.

They’re working from burner phones now, and on Monday, for the first time, they could all talk to each other.

To Katie, it felt like a luxury.

Eryn, managing editor of digital, helped keep things running from Massachusetts, where she was on vacation. They’ve also had help from other Florida GateHouse papers, including the Northwest Florida Daily News and The Apalachicola Times, which has kept the News Herald’s site and social channels updated. The Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser, a Gannett newspaper, is publishing the paper.

Jason Blakeney, executive editor for Northwest Florida Daily News, saw everyone face-to-face for the first time on Monday. He brought along some people to give them a break.

But no one from the News Herald wanted to leave.

The newsroom wasn’t invited to be part of the pool for the president’s recent visit to the hurricane-ravaged area, Jason said, because they were unreachable. 

“That was probably the most devastated I’ve seen a lot of them.”

They wanted to be the ones to help tell the story of what was happening there.

When Hurricane Florence hit, Jason sent people to help in North Carolina, and people have helped now from GateHouse papers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and Savannah and Palm Beach in Florida. It’s hard to cover their communities with fewer people, he said, but they’re leaning on their network of newsrooms and banding together to cover the story, regardless of the name on the masthead.

“Right now,” he said, “all of us are working for Panama City.”

Special delivery

It hasn’t really hit Genevieve yet. She’s from Panama City and has been at the News Herald full-time since September.

It’s like when you lose a phone or a computer, she said, and then go to reach for it and remember it’s gone.

“It’s like that, but with every building that I remember.”

None of them have had time to process what’s happened, or what it’s meant to keep local news going before, during and after the storm. Except for Mike.

On Friday, a neighbor lent him a brand new 2018 Mustang convertible. That neighbor wanted to support the paper.

After Mike figured out how to take the top down, he grabbed two bundles of newspapers and rode around Panama City. When he saw people, he’d stop and ask, “Would you like your local newspaper today?”

“There were two women who literally cried,” he said. “They missed the paper.”

But more than that, he said, these were people cut off from the rest of the world. The News Herald was the first news they’d seen of any kind.

You know that guy who goes around giving people money at Christmas?

“I felt like him,” Mike said. “It’s the best feeling I’ve had in a long time, seeing how valuable that local news and that local content is.”

Getting through the storm, covering it, has been exhausting. But after that, Mike feels fired up. Now, he grabs two bundles a day and drives around town in a borrowed Mustang, passing out the news.

“The look on the faces I see — that tells me the value right there.”

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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