When Mike Keller graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism in May, he figured that, like most rookie reporters, he would have to start off covering mundane municipal meetings or arranging “grip ‘n grin” photos for the inside pages of a small newspaper. Maybe someday, if luck and talent coincided, he would move on to larger stories and a larger audience. It didn’t work out that way. Just six weeks after he started his first reporting job, at the Knight Ridder-owned Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi, Keller found himself, quite literally, in the eye of the storm. By choice, he was one of only four reporters at the Sun Herald who chose to ride out the storm in the newsroom, so that he could hit the ground and start reporting as soon as winds slackened. Keller, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was not unfamiliar with what a powerful storm could do. But he’d never had to cover one as a journalist.
Gal Beckerman: What kind of conversation was going on in the newsroom before the storm hit? You must have been nervous as a rookie reporter …
Mike Keller: They started doing emergency newsroom all-hands-type meetings. At the first one they were telling us to get prepared in the event that the hurricane comes ashore and that we had to figure out where we were going to go — this was the Saturday before the storm. The storm started coming ashore Sunday evening.
GB: What were the instructions to you as reporters? Was there a sense that you were going to try and continue business as usual or that this was going to shut you down?
MK: They made a plan — being in this area, they’ve had to deal with this before. They had an emergency office set up in Columbus, Georgia and they were intending to basically not stop producing papers and, of course, keep the online version going. By that Saturday meeting, the storm had turned into a category five. It was big and it was dangerous. That Saturday meeting was, “Everyone needs to consider their own safety first. We’re not going to tell you to stay around. If you need to go, you need to go. Because this is not going to be a safe place.”
GB: And what happened at that point? Did certain people take off?
MK: At that point, everybody took off. It wound up being me and another Columbia Journalism School graduate, and two other senior reporters who stayed. Everyone else left. We pretty much hunkered down in the newsroom.
GB: What made you decide to stay?
MK: The fact the once this thing came ashore, I knew what was going to happen afterwards. I knew that once that thing went through, if you could get [back] in a day or a day-and-a-half afterwards, you were lucky. So, it’s basically, we’ve got to cover the story.
GB: Was this also a chance for you to shine a little bit?
MK: Oh, absolutely.
GB: That sounds a little opportunistic the way I put it. But here you are, you’ve only been there for six weeks, and this is a chance to really sink your teeth into a [huge] story and you might be the only one around.
MK: I had always been drawn into journalism number one, to tell a story, telling a story to people who don’t have the information and don’t know the story, bringing them into it. But also, I always wanted to go into places where this type of stuff happens and report on it. Not as a parachute-in-type person. This was exactly how I wanted to do it. This was the chance to test my mettle. Whether I was full of shit, basically.
GB: Were you scared, though?
MK: It didn’t start really getting nerve-wracking until the full brunt started coming ashore.
GB: So you’re hunkered down in the newsroom. What was it like, physically?
MK: The newsroom is located about a quarter-mile [inland] from the Gulf. So we were basically looking down the pipe of it. This building was built after Camille, in 1969, and that was the biggest storm that this coast had seen. So they built it out of what I think is slab-concrete. Very bunkerish. But the [outside] air pressure was so low as the hurricane came over, you could feel it kind of sucking the roof up a little bit.