Our Town: Behind flood coverage

Publication Date: Wednesday Feb 11, 1998

Our Town: Behind flood coverage

by Bill Johnson

Reporters don't usually call me at home to discuss a story. But when the phone rang at about 11 p.m. last Monday night I knew it would be Elisabeth Traugott on the other end.

Elisabeth had just heard in person what I had seen on cable TV.

Palo Alto City Manager June Fleming had just informed the City Council that the city's emergency operations center had been activated and that all off-duty emergency personnel had been called back to work.

With relentless heavy rain and a high tide coming at 4 a.m., there was a very real chance of a major flood within the next few hours.

Since our entire paper, except two pages being held as usual for Elisabeth's story on the City Council meeting, had already gone to the printer, Elisabeth wanted to know what to do.

Earlier in the day, we had decided we'd better monitor the storm carefully overnight in case we would need to get a late-breaking story into the Wednesday paper. By the time Elisabeth and I hung up, it was obvious that the next 12 hours would be among the most challenging we had ever faced as a newspaper.

My first phone call was to our chief photographer, Joe Melena, but typical of Joe, his wife reported that he was already out shooting pictures.

We would later learn that Joe narrowly avoided serious injury when he partially fell into an open manhole as he walked down the middle of a flooded street. The camera equipment and Joe got drenched, but he escaped unharmed.

By midnight, associate editor Dave Wallace and Elisabeth Traugott joined Joe out in the pouring rain to report on the rising creeks and the efforts of emergency crews to respond to the flooding of underpasses and roadways caused by backed up storm drains.

Reporter Vicky Anning went to the emergency operations center in the basement of City Hall to keep tabs on the overall response and the trouble spots.

Meanwhile, senior staff writer Don Kazak was trying to stop the flooding of his own apartment building, while sports editor Keith Peters was alerted by a neighbor that his car was in danger from the rising flood waters.

As the magnitude of the emergency became clear around 1 a.m., I knew that we would have to completely make-over our Wednesday paper with breaking news coverage. It was too late to make changes to our Menlo Park edition, which prints earlier, but our Palo Alto paper doesn't normally go on the presses until late morning on Tuesday.

Shortly after 6 a.m., our entire editorial staff, including those who had been up half the night or more, began pursuing all angles of the story. While Joe Melena processed the film he had shot overnight, photographer Eva Soos went out at daybreak to photograph the flooded neighborhoods.

Our map guru Frank Bravo quickly produced a map showing the areas most affected by flooding pieced together from what we knew at the time.

We pleaded for more time from our printer and asked the post office to accept our paper later than usual. Both cooperated to help get the story out.

Vicky Anning was assigned to write the main story, and she and editor Dave Wallace worked for most of the day Tuesday to integrate the information pouring in from our other reporters and editors.

Our graphic designers worked under intense pressure to create a strong cover and the inside page layouts that presented the story to our readers.

By the time our paper arrived in your hands last Wednesday, we were already immersed in preparations for last Friday and today's editions, trying to anticipate the news and the weather.

And for the first time, we decided to use our web site (Palo Alto Online) to provide constant updates through the weekend on emergency conditions, with our reporters each taking shifts at monitoring the situation and posting reports.

Throughout the last week, we've tried to keep our focus on the victims of this disaster and how the community has responded.

The victims on our own staff are a helpful reminder that no matter how much we consider ourselves journalists with an important job to do, we are first and foremost neighbors and community members wanting to offer support. I'm proud of the fact that this week we were able to do both.

Bill Johnson is publisher of the Weekly.

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