I’ve been in this business 32 years, through earthquakes and firestorms, and I’ve never been run out of my own newsroom.
Nothing like waking up to a tsunami siren. Then, within an hour, seeing the lights of so many boats on the dark horizon and feeling tardy upon my 5:45 a.m. arrival to The Triplicate office as colleagues finished loading up computer equipment. I grabbed some Rolodexes and lifted bound volumes of old editions from the floor to a table, figuring a few feet might count in the potential inundation zone. We’d been told to leave by 6.
Our first act of a long day would be retreat. That fact alone threatened our ability to produce a newspaper. It would be up to the technically minded to see if we could actually produce the first version of this particular history from emergency quarters on higher ground — the school district offices on Washington Boulevard.
Occasional renewal of sirens lent the dawn an air-raid ambience as I drove through the empty streets toward the harbor. I’d already sent a reporter and photographer that direction, figuring they needed to be on that side of town before the authorities blocked access. Surreal anticipation hung heavy at the harbormaster’s second-floor office. A brief chat, then back down the stairs to photograph a fishing boat’s late escape.
People were already gathering at viewpoints along Pebble Beach Drive. They’ll never see anything from there, I thought — quite mistakenly — as I drove toward our newsroom-for-a-day.
Listening to local radio, I grudgingly accepted this would be more their story than ours for the next few hours. We’d posted the warning information on our website hours earlier, but for a while the site was inaccessible as we itched to update. Phone calls told me the surges had begun and the harbor was taking a beating. Bryant Anderson started e-mailing photos from his remarkably high-resolution camera phone. With triplicate.com still blocked, I found some catharsis in e-mailing our words and images to the Western Communications mother ship for immediate posting on the Bend Bulletin website.
With my staff deployed, I was sometimes alone with little to do between telephone updates. My wife Laura called to describe the spectacle being enjoyed by throngs along ocean bluffs on Pebble Beach Drive. Impossibly low tides followed within minutes by threateningly high tides. Over and over. I diverted a reporter there, then indulged myself with a quick drive to take in one of the surge cycles myself. Something of a carnival atmosphere there, a contrast to what was unfolding in the harbor.
Each arriving photo showed more devastation. Access to our own website remained spotty, but we did manage to post fairly early updates. The rest of the worldwide web was maddeningly available, and it soon became clear that Crescent City was once again the epicenter of tsunami damage on America’s West Coast. Phone calls from faraway media outlets confirmed this. Ironically, the guy who was seeing the least of the action first-hand was interviewed live on Los Angeles television and Sacramento radio to provide on-the-scene accounts of what was happening in the tsunami capital of the contiguous states.
There came a point where the editor gave the publisher — they were alone in the newsroom — an extremely succinct report on the state of the harbor.
To her credit the publisher, ever the mom, turned toward an open door leading to district offices and, thinking of possible students nearby, indicated such language should probably not be used there.
Fortunately, no students materialized. As for school district staffers, they made our stay as comfortable as possible. My special thanks to Don Olson for his technical assistance and Superintendent Jan Moorehouse for taking in us journalistic refugees in the first place.
By late afternoon, staffers were mostly tapping away at keyboards or downloading photos at their makeshift work stations. We now knew that a Klamath man had been washed away by a wave — some of those helicopters buzzing Del Norte on Friday were doing more than documenting the devastation. There was information to organize, page plans to make, and always new details awaiting posting to a website that was finally behaving. Miraculously, the technical sorts had figured out backdoor routes to our computer server — we could produce pages just like we did on good old Third Street.
The overview story and writerly sidebars slowly emerged. The Northcoast Life section and the sports page were co-opted for tsunami picture pages. It was all transmitted to the press plant in Smith River by midnight, where more sweat was expended to produce the final product delivered to our readers — on time — Saturday morning.
Covering a disaster is frantic work, but it pales in comparison to what Del Norte’s boat captains experienced Friday — those who set sail and escaped, only to have no dock to come back to, and those who struggled in vain to protect their vessels in the churning boat basin.
In the days ahead, our job is to focus on the fishing industry and what must happen here and in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., to make it whole again.