How a young reporter set out to cover the storm and found little Stormy
By John Toth / Editor and Publisher
A friend posted on Facebook recently that Hurricane Alicia made landfall in Brazoria County 30 years ago. How time flies when you’re having fun.
Many of us back then didn’t care much about hurricanes until it was obvious that they were in the Gulf of Mexico, heading toward us. Even then, the predictions were not that good.
There were no spaghetti lines extending into the Atlantic Ocean from the Coast of Africa. There were no computer models that made their best guess where the storm was heading.
As a reporter for the Houston Chronicle (I had been hired on just a couple of months earlier), I was ready to tackle this monster all the way to landfall and beyond.
And, that’s how I bumped into Alicia and Stormy.
A hurricane heading right toward you is quite a disruptive event, but I was childless and renting. I really didn’t have all that much property to lose. It’s more complicated now.
I stayed and covered the storm, but didn’t know which direction to go. I needed a place to ride it out that night, so I set up shop in the county courthouse in Angleton, along with some other reporters.
We all should have been at the Freeport Police Station, where, as it turned out, all the action was, but it was too late. What was done, was done. I decided just to move out as soon as the storm allowed.
My wife, Sharon, came with me. She finally caught some sleep, and when she woke up, I was gone.
A couple of reporters and I decided to take a little ride around the county while Alicia was still raging. Sparking power lines were down everywhere. Trees were split in half, pulled up by their roots.
The rain was pounding on the windshield. I kept on driving. At least I didn’t have to worry about other cars on the road.
We pulled up to my old apartment complex next to Kroger’s in Clute. The lights were still on. That’s crazy. This was a Category 3 storm. There should not be any lights on, anywhere.
We slowly made our way back to the courthouse. There were no such things as cell phones then, so Sharon was worried to death. The courthouse was dark, but it was almost dawn.
It was a rough night. When we went outside again, we saw that all the windshields of cars parked around the courthouse were shattered, except for mine.
I had a company car, so that would not have been a major deal. When something happened to my car, I just took it to the Chronicle garage and got another one until mine was fixed.
Those were the days when we didn’t care much about the car, as long as we got the story and looked good the next day. That’s when daily newspapers were making a lot of money.
The next day there were no assignments. I was told to take the day off. Instead, I headed out to Surfside Beach.
Houses untouched by the storm stood next to totally destroyed homes. But, overall, Surfside was not in all that bad of shape.
I had my camera and started taking pictures. On my way out, I saw a family searching through what was left of their mobile home. One wall remained standing.
A man, woman and a little girl looked hopeless. The woman held the girl, 4, on her lap, while the man was looking through the rubble.
We started to talk, and I got my photos and interview. I had some good human interest stories in the camera and notebook, but no way to let the desk in Houston know. Utility poles and power lines lay on the ground.
On my way out of the city, I found a pay phone and stopped to see if it worked. Hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? I lifted the handset and heard a dial tone. Now, that was just incredible.
I called the desk and got right through. I guess they were not receiving too many calls that day.
You won’t believe where I am calling from – a pay phone in Surfside. Let me tell you what I have.
They wanted the film driven to downtown Houston. I could not just zap the photos to them on the Internet back in 1983. I arrived at the Chronicle about an hour later, and dropped the film off for developing.
Then I stayed to write the story. It didn’t take all that long. It kind of wrote itself.
The editors emerged from their 5 p.m. budget meeting and rushed over. “You have the top story tomorrow on Page 1.” That’s what reporters want to hear. The picture that wound up accommodating the piece, also on Page 1, was of the woman holding the little girl, while the husband was looking through the remains of their mobile home.
I wrote the photo caption, and just hung out while the story was edited ... by I don’t know how many eyes, but many.
“The girl’s name is what? Stormy? Are you sure?”
I knew they would be skeptical, so I made sure because when I heard it, I also thought that this was too good to be true.
That’s her first name, promise – Stormy. It took a while to convince them.
I saw Stormy again in 1998 at one of the Sweeny Market Days. She was all grown up by then. Her parents saw me and told her that I was the reporter who took her picture after Hurricane Alicia.
Do you know what problems your name caused me? The editors didn’t believe it.
That’s my name, she said, has been since I was born.
Alicia and Stormy were brought together in that story 30 years ago, although the circumstances were less than pleasant.
And, a young reporter learned an important lesson: Don’t listen when your editors tell you to take the day off.