Disaster Reporting through the Ages

In both the Galveston and Katrina storms, the news often was the news

The day after a massive storm hit Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900, the headlines outside the region were tentative. “Galveston May Be Wiped out by Storm,” wrote the New York Times. The Washington Post reported on the “Fear that the City Has Been Wrecked by Storm.” The hurricane that overwhelmed Galveston—which was the Gulf Coast’s largest port at the time, having grown rich on the cotton trade—was front page news on the East Coast, but the reporters had virtually no information about the events unfolding in the island city once it was hit with the full force of the Category 4 storm.

A broad survey of the contemporaneous reports is difficult because only The New York Times and The Washington Post’s archives are easily searchable that far back. But these two papers alone show that the difficulty of reporting disasters at the turn of the last century made the flow of information a central part of the coverage alongside the event itself.

“ALL TELEGRAPH WIRES DOWN,” declared the Times above its front page story on September 9th, 1900. With no sources available, all the unnamed writer from Dallas can report is rumors proliferating in an information vacuum. Loss of communication suggested that the four bridges to the island had been wiped out, the author deduced. “Not a wire is working into Galveston, either telegraph or telephone,” he wrote, “and as all bridges carried wires, the fears that all these structures are gone is strengthened.” He then reasoned that “It seems hardly credible that all these bridges could be swept away without the city suffering tremendously in the loss of buildings, general property, and lives.”

Neither the Times nor the Post carry bylines, but the similarity in the language of their September 9 stories suggest that they were relying on the same reporter, or producing their stories based on wire reports. (Both stories are datelined Dallas.) An AP reporter in Galveston, Richard Spillane, did survive the storm, but it does not appear he was able to contribute any reporting until reaching Houston on September 10. (Curiously, the Post notes that “The Associated Press wire is the only one that is working” out of Galveston, but no one seems to be using it because the reports all complain of the inability to get any information off the island.)

The hunger for information led both papers to run items alongside their main storm coverage headlined, “Last Dispatch from Galveston.” While the Post just repeated the message’s meteorological information, the Times relayed the details of this communique on the front page.

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, Sept. 8.—Possibly the last dispatch out of the flooded City of Galveston was received in San Antonio to-night by “Jerry” Gierrard, announcing the death of his brother by drowning. The entire message left Galveston at 8:15 P. M. The entire lower portion of Galveston was then flooded and the people were huddled on higher ground in the pouring rain for safety.

Given that no larger significance is attached to the person named in the story, the only reason this made the front page seems to be its status as the last glimmer before the news blackout.

A major part of the Times’ Day Two coverage—this time from Houston—was word that “A report from an authentic source was received here this morning concerning the conditions in Galveston.” His name was James C. Timmins, a Houston resident identified as the “general superintendent of the National Compress Company.” The Times reported that he made his way back from the wrecked Galveston by schooner to Margan’s Point, after which he caught a train to Houston.

Timmins carried word that “citizens of Galveston” estimate that 4,000 houses had been destroyed and that “at least 2,000 people have been drowned, killed, or are missing.” But, the Times recounts, Timmins only knew of one house “succumbing with fatal results.” This was Ritter’s saloon and restaurant at 2109 Strand Street: “This three-story building was blown down and nine men, prominent citizens, were killed.” Among them were a man identified as a “cotton buyer for an English firm,” a shipping executive, and a cotton company executive “whose body is still in the ruins.”

Timmins’ news (which a subsequent story refers to as the storm’s first reported deaths) are fleshed out by information from a smattering of telegrams: a “dispatch from New Orleans” based on a message that “came by cable from Vera Cruz”; another dispatch from San Antonio based on a message received by Texas Governor J. D. Sayers.

Communications with the island appear to have been reestablished two days after the storm, and the first solid stories ran in the out-of-town press on September 11. This led to a noticeable change in tone. While specific accounts like the one from Timmins still appear, they now are used as color to broader stories that are able to give information on the situation as a whole: the death toll could climb as high as 10,000, winds reached eighty miles an hour, and water covered the island at a depth of six to twelve feet.

The reports before the storm have an almost random feeling to them: in the absence of complete information, the press reported what they could based on the idiosyncratic accounts of the only witnesses they could find. The press was like one train of relief supplies that tried unsuccessfully to reach Galveston on September 9, which, the Times reported, was forced to turn back because its path was blocked by “lumber, d├ębris, pianos, trunks, and dead bodies.”

The news that came out of the Galveston storm bears certain similarities to the initial reports on Hurricane Katrina, 105 years later. The first vignette from a Houston Chronicle story headlined “Katrina: The Aftermath; Scenes,” published two days after the hurricane decimated New Orleans in 2005, is about the city’s major newspaper. “Tuesday morning, a note posted on the Times-Picayune‘sWeb site drove home the personal danger of staying behind to report the story,” the Chronicle wrote. It quoted an announcement from the Times-Picayune Web site announcing the newspaper was evacuating its New Orleans headquarters.

“Water continues to rise around our building, as it is throughout the region,” the posting said. “We want to evacuate our employees and families while we are still able to safely leave our building.” It was unclear later how, or whether, the paper would print today’s editions.

It is hard to imagine what the reporting of Hurricane Katrina in 2005—when newspapers covered the story alongside outlets on radio, television, and the Internet—could have in common with the reporting on Galveston’s catastrophic hurricane of 1900, when the only coverage came from newspaper reporters at the mercy of telegraph wires. Yet when stories like the first ones from the Houston Chronicle are compared to the initial out-of-town newspaper reports about the Galveston disaster, it is clear that one thing remains constant: the challenge of gathering and disseminating news during a disaster makes the business of reporting an integral part of the story.

The Times-Picayune was doing impressive and heroic reporting during Katrina, for which it ultimately received a Pulitzer Prize. But it also found itself a leading character in the coverage of the storm. The New York Times ran two stories highlighted the paper’s challenges in the week after the hurricane, as it first sought refuge in the town of Houma before being forced to move again to Baton Rouge.

The Times-Picayune was not alone in being transformed from newsgatherer to newsmaker. AP reporter Charlotte Porter, bureau chief for Louisiana and Mississippi, found herself the focus of a profile in the Dallas Morning News. “Charlotte Porter longs for the moment she can go home and sleep in her own bed,” the story led. “But Tuesday, with a choke in her voice, she said she wasn’t sure that either possibility stood much of a chance.”

Even the Weather Channel made news. “If hurricane king Jim Cantore gets knocked off the air,” began a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Mother Nature must be putting up quite a fight.” Cantore was reportedly “swamped by Katrina” in the Mississippi city of Gulfport, and kept off the air for about six hours. He was “even out touch with the network’s headquarters in Atlanta, where leaders worried about their star reporter and the crew that accompanied him.

In addition to individual reporters and outlets, one medium was elevated to star status by the reporting-on-reporting: the Internet. Stories on the Internet’s role in coverage ranged from the Chicago Tribune’s “Uses snap up the latest on Web” to the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Patriot News’ “Web sites follow the aftermath of Katrina.” “Katrina triggers a tsunami of blogs,” was the headline on an August 31 AP story. “With entire counties isolated and telephone service knocked out along the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coast,” wrote the AP, “refugees and their loved ones are trying to use the Internet to stay in touch—and to plead for help for those still missing.” The story reprinted several online pleas for help. The story began, “Two days after Hurricane Katrina decimated America’s Gulf Coast, this cry reverberated through cyberspace:”

“Looking for a granddaughter living in Biloxi but may have stopped in Gulfport with other relatives. Haven’t heard from her since Sunday afternoon … PLEASE EMAIL ME ASAP IF ANYONE KNOWS WHERE OR HOW SHE IS … “

As media proliferate, stories of how disasters get reported will become an ever more interesting part of disaster reporting. The heavy use of Twitter (and the reporting on the heavy use of Twitter) during last month’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai is pointing towards an era when fragmented information on disasters emerges rapidly, and reporters will find it more fascinating—and necessary—to understand who produced reports so they can stitch them together into a coherent story. As electronic media further opens avenues of communication, however, the line between the covered and the coverers may blur altogether.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.