During Katrina, staffers here shined

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 30, 2015

I was lucky. When Hurricane Katrina hit, I was safe and sound at my home in Niles, Mich., far removed from the horrific devastation being heaped upon my beloved Mississippi Gulf Coast and in New Orleans.

Having been born and raised in Natchez, I spent almost every vacation of my young life with my family on the Gulf Coast or in New Orleans. Later, during college in Lafayette, La., I spent way more time than I should have in the Big Easy.

For a period of hours that first day, I was unable to get in touch with my mother in Natchez or my siblings, who live in either St. Francisville, La., or in Baton Rouge. However, all were safe.

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But in Vicksburg, the story was vastly different. The community suffered heavy damage from spin-off storms and thousands escaping the ravages of Katrina made their way here.

At The Vicksburg Post, Charlie Mitchell, executive editor, and the staff were faced with covering the disaster and putting out a newspaper under some incredibly dire circumstances. I swapped emails with Mitchell this week. Here’s what he told me about that time.

“I can tell you that with the leadership of Pat Cashman, the drive of managing editor Karen Gamble and the ingenuity of Marty Kittrell, Jimmy Mullen, Bobby Childers, much was accomplished.

“The first day we ‘reported’ by using battery-powered radios out in the parking lot and tuning to public stations for reports from the Coast and New Orleans. We were able to be in personal contact with local authorities regarding the extreme damage and fatality in Warren County. We also had stories from the Vicksburg Convention Center, which was serving as an evacuation shelter.

“Pat found a rental truck and fuel and made arrangements to print in Greenville. Marty, Jimmy and Bobby rigged generators to power the production computers and, when that was complete, reconfigure to power the image setters so negatives could be driven to the Delta Democrat-Times. Then much appreciation is due to the carriers who made deliveries on roads that were covered with debris for many days.

“A personal memory is seeing two reporters walk back into the newsroom after having flown along the coast with Maj. Gen. Robert Crear in a Blackhawk. I don’t know the right word to use, but ‘shell-shocked’ comes close. These staffers had covered all sorts of fires and other tragedies, and journalists are stressed by that. But the impact of Katrina on their minds was exponentially greater.”

Karen Gamble, who ran this newsroom for many years in almost legendary fashion, stopped by on Friday.

“The thing I remember most is how every news employee put his or her family second. It sounds terrible, but by cell phones, when they would work, they made sure their families were taken care of, but they stayed here.

“Through cell phones, our people communicated with us about where to find gasoline in the city. If someone saw a gas truck come into town, they would follow it, park to save a place in line, and call us. We had to have gas to run those generators. We had to bring table lamps from home to use for lighting. We had to bring our animals here with us. We couldn’t leave them at home.

“Everybody who worked here just went way beyond,” she said.

Gamble said it was a full three weeks before normal operations returned to The Vicksburg Post, but Katrina for years affected the city and the newspaper.

It is clear from reading the stories commemorating the 10th anniversary of Katrina that Vicksburg’s citizens — at the newspaper, at church shelters and at the convention center — responded in heroic fashion.

Here’s hoping Katrina was a once in a lifetime storm and none of us will have to go through that test of character again.

Jan Griffey is editor at The Vicksburg Post