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Published on June 29, 2021

The View from my Seat

How to cover a hurricane and other stories

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

This, by my reckoning, is my 50th hurricane season in the Houston area.

I have been fortunate. Unlike many, I haven’t been touched by devastation. My home or my car have never sustained flood damage.

All I can offer to mark another hurricane season are a few stories from my years helping to cover the many storms that have come our way while I worked for the Houston Post and Houston Chronicle.

Here are a few.

MY HERO

Covering storms poses challenges for media outlets.

All too often the damage is widespread and flooding makes it difficult to report from the hardest-hit areas.

Then there is staffing. Reporters, photographers and press crews are asked to leave their homes and families and risk driving to work. Many simply can’t make it.

In the late 1980s - I don’t remember the exact year - there was an unnamed storm that caught us off-guard. Structures were flooded and cars were submerged on roadways that looked like rivers.

The Houston Post building at the West Loop and the Southwest Freeway was surrounded by water. The few people inside the building couldn’t leave, and the night crews responsible for producing the paper couldn’t get in.

As managing editor, I worried we wouldn’t publish a paper for the first time in Post history.
Suddenly, late in the afternoon, a cheer went up from a group of Post staffers looking out the window toward the Galleria.

I wondered what the fuss was about.

The cheering was for a veteran copy editor who had parked his car in a Galleria garage, taken off his shoes, rolled up his pants above the knee and was wading through the flooded interchange to get to work.

Darrell Mack was already a legend in Texas journalism before that day.

A hard-charging, old-school journalist with a thunderous voice, he had served as editor of United Press International’s Dallas bureau.

He had also served as executive editor of the Beaumont Enterprise before he was fired by a publisher. The offense? Mack had run a story based on months of reporting that compared grocery store prices.

The story pointed out that poor neighborhoods had some of the most expensive stores, and one of the paper’s big advertisers had among the highest prices.

Texas Monthly reported the story of Darrell’s firing with the headline “Mack the Knifed.”
When the barefooted Darrell walked into the newsroom that day, he was greeted by applause. The legend grew.

I still get chills thinking about his dedication.

With help from other late arrivals, perhaps inspired by Darrell, we did get the paper out.

ALICIA

As Alicia roared through town in 1983, I was one of several people who stayed in the Post newsroom.

We had asked our boss if we should stock up on food since the cafeteria was closed, and restaurants and grocery stores would likely also be closed for days. We were thinking pizza.

He said he would take care of it. He disappeared for a couple hours and returned with a cart of Hormel chili he had stockpiled from vending machines in case of just such an emergency.
We ate nothing but Hormel chili for two days. I haven’t had any since.

A SORE POINT

As mentioned earlier, staffing is often a problem during bad storms.

With that in mind, the Chronicle decided to put several of us up in the Magnolia Hotel near the paper as Hurricane Ike approached in 2008.

I convinced my wife she should get out of town. Of course, thousands of others had the same idea.

My wife ended up leading a caravan of three vehicles across Texas in search of a place to stay. Besides my wife, the trail boss, the caravan included her mom, her ailing dad, her sister, niece and her niece’s fiancé, my wife’s daughter and two dogs and three cats.

The caravan found a place In Johnson City owned by my wife’s ex.

Needless to say, I didn’t tell her about all the amenities at the Magnolia Hotel or how good the breakfast buffet tasted.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)