PANAMA CITY — With one last crash, the last video taken inside the intact News Herald building — a cross between a memorial and a found footage horror movie by Editor Mike "Caz" Cazalas via Facebook Live on the fateful Oct. 10 — cut to black, ending one era and starting the next.
The video ended not a moment too soon.
Shortly after, the front doors, under the sheer force of wind and low pressure, blew open, slamming into the glass vestibule and shattering the cage. The combination of water, wind and low pressure created almost a waterfall effect, Cazalas said, like someone had turned on a faucet that was gushing into the building. It was, everyone in the building said later, almost surreal.
“I was watching from the back of the newsroom, from the door that separates the old and new part of the building, and a maintenance guy next to me said, ‘We have to do something about that!’” Cazalas remembered. “And I was like, 'no, buddy, we have to get to the back now.'”
Over the next three hours, the building tried to stand up to the bullying brought by Hurricane Michael, but was beat into submission. Literal tons of water pooled on the roof, causing the masonry walls with little reinforcement to buckle and collapse inward, like they were melted in the rain. The drop ceiling fell over the photo department, sports desk and circulation and inches of water soaked into the carpet. The roof ripped off the press room, sending those tons of water pouring into our state-of-the-art press. The damage was so severe, the front part of the News Herald will have to bulldozed and rebuilt, according to Publisher Tim Thompson.
But like always, when the 60 mph winds stopped racing through the building, a paper needed to get out.
"What happened immediately following wasn’t something we predicted but we were well aware of our community’s dependency on information and the role we needed to play in the rebuilding effort through our county and surrounding communities," said Publisher Tim Thompson.
When it all ended, only one of the employees in the building, reporter Genevieve Smith, had a working phone, the sole link to the outside world.
Staff was scattered for the storm. Print Managing Editor Katie Landeck and Photo Chief Patti Blake had been riding with a Bay County Sheriff's officer before the storm hit, and ended up sheltering with them on the west side of the Hathaway Bridge. Landeck was updating the website until 10 minutes before communications went out, using those last minutes to call corporate for back up. Reporter Patrick McCreless had been home, waiting to start working once the storm hit. Collin Breaux was at the Emergency Operation Center, but the most fortunately placed person was Digital Manager Managing Editor Eryn Dion, who was on a 23 hour train trip — with wi-fi — getting ready to take a pre-planned vacation.
Dion was one of the first people Smith called.
"It was a surprise, but I didn't know to be surprised. I didn't know there was no cell service. I didn't know the building had been destroyed," Dion said. More messages started to flow in from GateHouse corporate, and then it sunk in. "I was the only one who had contact with you."
Before there was time to take in what had happened, the planning started. Landeck, who had gone out with Blake to start reporting, realized standing in the middle of Thomas Drive she had just enough service to use Google Hangouts, was able to get in touch with Dion to start piecing together if there would be a paper.
Yes, Dion said, send me what you can.
On the ride back over the bridge, taken in an ambulance because it was the only vehicle available, Landeck sent over her first, most raw impressions via Gchat of the damage left by Hurricane Michael, which were sent to our sister paper, the Northwest Florida Daily News, for publication, along with what had been sent over earlier. The Daily News worked overtime to do what the News Herald staff couldn't, finding a place to get the paper printed, making a 'budget' for content placement when Landeck said she couldn't and later on delivering supplies.
For the next few days, using Google Hangouts, Smith’s phone, Dion's convenient location and the Daily News' help, a paper was strung together every day and printed in Montgomery, though not delivered because roads into Bay County had been effectively shut down. Brutally early deadlines meant waking up at 5 a.m. most days, meeting at Smith's house — where much of the staff was staying after damage to their homes and for communication — or in the News Herald parking lot to formulate a plan, then splitting up and hoping someone found enough cell service to send in whatever they reported. In those early days, with conditions still dangerous and not a lot of gas, The News Herald relied on the kindness and dedication of groups like the Bay County Sheriff's Office and Gulf Power to get to where the stories were.
"The second morning after the storm, I got up at like, 4 a.m. and sat in my car to listen to the radio for a few hours just to know what was going on," said Landeck. "And I heard Rick DelaHaya (local spokesperson for Gulf Power). I somehow was able to send a few emails, and he ended up spending the day taking the team where we needed to go, and tried to get us plugged into wifi."
"Without Gulf Power, we wouldn't have gotten a paper out that day," she continued. "At least, we wouldn't have been able to get to communities like Springfield and Lynn Haven."
And with virtually no way to submit stories, reporters on the ground relied on those outside, like Dion and the Daily News. Interviews were played to Dion and Daily News reporters on speaker phone as then the audio was transcribed through a fuzzy-at-best connection, reporters hand wrote stories then typed them into Smith's phone to be texted in, and several times Smith had to call the Daily News and dictate entire stories to their reporters on the end of the line.
"It was like the old days, before cell phones," Smith said.
Photos, too large to send through text or Google Hangouts, were an issue. But early in the morning on Oct. 12, through some clever hotspot usage, our photographers were able to upload their first batch of photos — finally showing the world what Hurricane Michael had wrought on Bay County through the eyes of the local media who, without an office or a press, cell phone service, or even homes in some cases, put out a paper every single day after the storm without missing a beat.
Behind us every step of the way was our parent company, GateHouse Media, who ensured we were able to get our paper out and arranged for out-of-town help to give our reporters a (reluctant) break to get their lives back in order.
"Our parent company, Gatehouse Media, rallied behind the scenes like nothing I’ve ever witnessed in my 35 years in his industry," said Thompson. "Publishing consistently was a very legitimate concern but we were able to print in Montgomery Alabama that first night and for the next nine days before returning to 11th St. In Panama City. Our first few days of operation back were possible because of generator power before moving back to Gulf Power on the day they set for restoring our plant fully."
While it was certainly hard, nearly impossible at times, and challenging still one month later, not putting out the paper was never an option for the staff.
“It’s our job. It’s our job to report the news and it doesn’t matter if you have a home or your car is destroyed or you have no electricity or running water,” said photographer Joshua Boucher, who worked during and continuously after the storm. “You need to report the news and nothing can stop that.
“I feel like I have a covenant with this community that I will give them the news."