After Harvey: Remember to breathe

By Chris Cobler- Staff Column
Sept. 12, 2017 at 5:18 p.m.
Updated Sept. 12, 2017 at 10:52 p.m.

A care package sent to the Victoria Advocate newsroom from the staff of the Newtown (Conn.) Bee after Hurricane Harvey

A care package sent to the Victoria Advocate newsroom from the staff of the Newtown (Conn.) Bee after Hurricane Harvey   Contributed Photo for The Victoria Advocate

The staff of the Newtown (Conn.) Bee sent this care package to the Victoria Advocate newsroom.

The cover of the card from Newtown, Conn., said simply, "Breathe."

At first, we thought the card inside the box of goodies was one more example of the generous outpouring of support from U.S. newsrooms after Hurricane Harvey smacked the Texas coast. But this card punched me in the gut.

Inside, the handwritten message read, in part, "At the Newtown Bee, we have weathered storms of nature and those manmade. We were recipients in those difficult days of care packages and random acts of kindness that buoyed our spirits as we worked to deliver the news."

In disbelief at first, I gradually realized this card came from the hometown newspaper of the Sandy Hook massacre, which left dead 27 people, including 20 children, on Dec. 14, 2012. The woman who took the iconic photo of that horrible day, Shannon Hicks, was among those signing the card.

I walked out of the newsroom into my office to process what I was reading. Tears started to fill my eyes. Just then, reporter Gabriella Canales, at 24 almost the same age as my journalist daughter, walked in to tell me about a hurricane recovery story she was doing. Gabby had stayed with the 17 of us who rode out the Category 4 hurricane inside our 75-year-old downtown building or stationed in neighboring counties. Like our other journalists, Gabby was fearless and tireless, working around the clock and sleeping on the floor, never stopping even after the building lost power and running water.

Blinking back the tears, I told Gabby something I hoped made sense, but I don't recall now. After she left my office, I started to cry harder, escaping downstairs and out the back dock of our distribution area. I walked to nowhere amid the piles of fallen tree limbs and around the tilting power poles.

Emotions bottled up for more than a week poured forth. In those predawn hours as Harvey slammed Victoria after devastating Rockport, Refugio and other towns in its path, I had feared for all of our journalists who had volunteered to stay. Had I put them in harm's way? Were our teams stationed with the sheriff's offices in Calhoun, Goliad and Jackson counties OK? Would our old building, whose leaky roof was repaired only two years before, withstand winds that howled unlike any noise I had ever heard before?

Along our second-floor newsroom's east wall, a metal door that led to the roof banged wildly, as if the devil himself demanded entry. Strange sounds groaned from the same outside wall. Somehow, exhausted journalists slept on the floor nearby. We had produced a digital-replica version of the Victoria Advocate in the late-night hours after Harvey had made landfall at 10 p.m. Friday. Afterward, we didn't know what else to do as the storm raged into the night, except try to rest for whatever lay ahead.

About 6 a.m., the power went out. Marina Riker, our reporter at Victoria's Emergency Operations Center, immediately relayed the lights went out there at the same time. That meant Harvey had beaten the city's downtown underground power grid, which the newspaper shared with the EOC. What would fall next?

Within minutes, though, Advocate operations manager Charles Kulow and his assistant, Brian Higdon, had our backup generators running. They provided enough power to light a small corner of the newsroom and up to four laptops. We kept reporting and posting updates, but my memory of what we shared is a blur.

The journalists around me never showed any fear, so how could I? We just kept doing our job of informing our community to the best of our ability. The winds started subsiding later in the morning, but I fearfully held back eager photojournalist Nick Galindo in our newsroom, even as our journalists in the field, reporters Kathryn Cargo, Jon Wilcox and Jessica Priest and photojournalists Ana Ramirez and Olivia Vanni, went out on their own with first responders between 7 and 8 a.m.

Inside our newspaper - which had morphed into various campsites of sleeping bags, cats, dogs and even a bunny - we posted updates to our website as fast as we could. With only laptops, we weren't sure we could do more than that. Only 12 hours later, as if by magic, the darkness lifted; AEP had restored our power. Suddenly, we knew we could produce another e-edition with our desktop computers available to us again. We worked feverishly on it until about 1:30 the next morning. With no hope of printing or delivering our newspaper, we were free to work on the edition until we dropped.

We kept going Sunday until we dropped again, finishing the next e-edition about 1:30 a.m. again. Copy desk chief J.R. Ortega, his baseball cap snugly on backwards, never faltered and somehow led a small contingent in watching the 80-minute season finale of "Game of Thrones" after we finished putting the paper to bed. I had watched the entire series to that point, but I collapsed back onto my air mattress without any energy left to care what terror the Night King might bring.

For many days after Harvey, we reported and edited at a sprinter's pace. As power started being restored around Victoria and the Crossroads, we realized we had to adjust to become long-distance runners. This story wasn't going away any time soon. Many in our community had suffered far more than us. One lineman, who had come from Tennessee to help restore power, had died.

Inexplicably, his was the only death caused by Harvey in the Crossroads. More than 70 died elsewhere, primarily in Houston. We told stories of people huddled in their homes as Harvey ripped off roofs, walls and windows. My office window, so thin I can hear conversations on the sidewalk below, was untouched, even though it couldn't be boarded up safely because of a nearby overhead power line. A stained-glass cross given to me by faith reporter Jennifer Preyss still hangs, unbroken, on the window.

I thought of all this and more as I walked around the homes of downtown Victoria, trying to recover from the emotional wallop delivered by the card from Newtown. I couldn't imagine a pain worse than losing all those children to a madman. Humbled, I thought of the Bee journalists and all the others before me who had suffered far more in pursuit of the truth.

Slowly, I started to breathe again. Eventually, I found myself inside The Box, an ATM turned beautifully into a coffee bar. Even though we still had to boil the water at that point, owner John Valdivia had reopened the tiny sanctuary. As I waited for my iced hazelnut latte, I felt a whack on my back. I turned to find a smiling woman, who said simply, "Mosquito."

We laughed, and I thanked her for hitting me. Her jolt turned my last tears into laughter.

Chris Cobler is editor of the Victoria Advocate. He may be emailed at ccobler@vicad.com.


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