Torrential rain and flooding can’t stop SC newspapers
November 2, 2015
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
Despite a week’s worth of dire weather warnings from forecasters, few residents could imagine the torrents of rain that swept through South Carolina the first week in October, and they certainly could not have expected to face a 1,000-year flood of Biblical proportions. Rainfall ranged from 6.3 inches in the western South Carolina town of Greer to 24.75 inches in Kingstree, located about 75 miles from the coast.
In that historic flood, raging water completely cut off outside access to the tiny town of Kingstree. Although the state’s romantic low country, south of Myrtle Beach, is accustomed to flooding anytime there’s a heavy rainfall, the residents there were not prepared for the onslaught of water that flowed in from upstate. In the center of the state, Sumter was a mess.
Through it all, newspapers serving those communities managed to report the news and find ways to get the news to their readers.
Kingstree is a small town in eastern South Carolina, home to 3,321 people and marked by the Black River that runs right through the heart of the town. Many homes and businesses thrive along the picturesque river.
At 12 feet, the Black River will overflow its banks. After nearly 25 inches of rain poured down, the river could not be contained.
“It finally crested late Thursday night (Oct. 1) into early Friday morning at nearly 23 feet,” wrote Kingstree News Publisher Tami Rodgers in an e-mail.
On Oct. 4, the river was quickly rising. By Monday morning, a canal running directly through downtown Kingstree had overflowed, triggering the start of major flooding in the community. The next day, access into and out of Kingstree was cut off as roads and bridges from every direction were closed, Rodgers wrote.
“If not for the power of the Internet, we would not have been able to keep our readers and residents informed,” she wrote. “Even as our reporter was stranded at home for three days, she was in constant contact with our emergency management and town and county officials, gathering news and posting it on our website and Facebook page.”
The 43-year old weekly newspaper in the heart of Kingstree has a paid circulation of 4,800 and has seven employees. It prints on Mondays and hits the streets on Tuesday morning. The News is part of the Charleston Post & Courier family of newspapers.
“We faced several challenges during the week,” Rodgers wrote. “Our first challenge came Monday morning, which happens to be our deadline, so getting our paper wrapped up and sent to the Post and Courier for printing was a top priority.”
But that morning, floodwaters were already climbing over the roads, posing safety threats.
“Thankfully, all of our staff, with the exception of one, was able to travel, and we managed to get our paper sent to press before deadline,” Rodgers wrote.
Then came the daunting task of stocking the news racks across town. Normally a simple task, it took an entire week during the flood.
“Several roads and bridges had closed overnight, making it impossible to get to certain areas,” Rodgers wrote. “As the week went by and the waters receded, we were able to finish delivering the papers.”
Then the staff had to get the next week’s newspaper out.
“With many businesses closed, homes flooded out, roads and bridges closed, and access throughout Kings-tree cut off, the last thing on anyone’s mind was newspaper advertising,” Rodgers wrote.
The town’s annual Pig Picking Festival was set for the following weekend, and the team still had to produce the festival tab.
But they did it.
Despite the challenges the town of Kingstree is still facing to this day, Rodgers feels satisfied that she and her staff were able to get important news out to their readers and keep their residents informed.
“It was rewarding knowing that in some ways, we were able to keep our citizens safe,” Rodgers wrote. “I was very proud of our staff through all of this for being able to pull it together and for understanding that we all still had a job to do.”
South Strand News
South Carolina’s South Strand is a vacation paradise.
Located on the coastline just south of Myrtle Beach, South Strand is a branded regional news site covering Georgetown, Waccamaw and Murrell’s Inlet. The site serves three print newspapers in those communities: The Georgetown News, the Waccamaw Times and the Inlet Outlook.
The Charleston Post & Courier is their parent company.
“The flood was a very odd thing here,” said Mark Stevens, executive editor. “It rained for several days. The rain stopped and the water receded. Then all the flooding from Upstate flowed downstream.”
The governor’s office issued widespread and unnecessary evacuation notices, which made national news and caused panic and confusion along the entire coast, Stevens said.
He was critical of those adrenaline-fueled, misinformed reports from national media outlets that valued speed of delivery over accuracy.
“You can’t put information out just because you have the ability to press a button,” he said. “We made a decision early on to be journalists and to not report information as news just because an official with the state said it.”
Stevens, who is from northeast Tennessee, has been with the South Strand newspaper group for less than a year. He heads a small team of reporters, and they worked nearly around the clock to cover the flooding.
The Georgetown News, with a circulation of 9,000, is published twice a week on Wednesday and Friday. The Waccamaw News and the Inlet Outlook each have circulations around 7,000 and are published on Thursdays.
A team of four reporters plus Stevens cover the news for all three papers.
“We all wear a lot of hats,” Stevens said.
As fortune would have it, the reporters and Stevens all live in different parts of the coverage area. On the days of the worst flooding, they covered the news in their own communities.
“That really gave us an advantage in this situation,” Stevens said. “The reporters were able to work safely from home, and we got better local coverage.”
The bigger challenge was getting newspapers printed and out into the county. With the flooding so widespread, the Post & Courier and Myrtle Beach Sun, which print a number of community newspapers, including the South Strand group, had to set new print deadlines to adjust to a hodgepodge of disrupted schedules.
The other hurdle was getting newspapers into the readers’ hands. News boxes were often not accessible, and the U.S. Postal Service had trouble navigating flooded roads.
Stevens turned to the Internet.
“The goal we have set for our website is 400,000 page views per month,” he said. “As of (Oct. 16), we have had more than 500,000 page views since Oct. 1.”
The news organization’s Facebook volume sits at more than 24,000 with dozens of new followers signing on weekly.
“The numbers are staggering,” Stevens admitted. “We may not be able to keep those numbers, but they show we did a good job, and we are proud of that.”
Overnight, the South Strand News confirmed its mission to be the go-to news source for its community.
“We learned how important it is to get it right from the very first step because people depend on us,” he said. “We also learned you can practice good journalism under extreme pressure, and maybe that is when we do it best.”
Hubert Graham Osteen founded The Sumter Item in 1894. Today, six generations of the Osteen family have been involved in community newspapering for a total of 159 years.
For more than a century, the family has weathered many a storm.
Jack Osteen is the latest son in that long line of publishers.
The October flood was Osteen’s first experience dealing with a huge natural disaster, although he remembers Hurricane Hugo, the monster storm that devastated parts of the state 17 years ago when his father, Hubert D. Osteen, was The Sumter Item’s publisher.
“I was in college at the time, but I can remember that people didn’t have the Internet or cellphones and other technology back then,” he said.
Twenty inches of rain fell on Sumter, located near the center of South Carolina, about 43 miles east of Columbia in a rural area of the state. The Item is its readers’ daily link to their community and the world. Published Tuesdays through Sundays, the newspaper has a circulation of 13,000, including single-copy sales. About 10,000 copies are home-delivered, and two-thirds of the readers don’t have a password to read the paper online.
“The main rain arrived on Sunday night (Oct. 4),” Osteen said. “We print in Charleston, and our biggest challenge was getting the printed newspapers back to Sumter.”
It helped that the newspaper doesn’t have a Monday issue, but that didn’t alleviate the challenges of getting the Tuesday paper printed and delivered.
The main highway and lifeline for the area is Interstate 95. When 30 miles of it was shut down for days, getting the printed newspaper back from Charleston required the Item’s truck to drive 100 miles out of the way. Bridges and roads were washed out, hampering home delivery to readers.
“Still, we were able to deliver 90 percent of the newspapers,” Osteen said. “Our carriers are our real heroes.”
Osteen pulled down the website paywall, giving everyone free access, and kept the site updated constantly. The site, as well as the print product, kept residents informed about flood zones, roads to avoid and roads that had washed away. The staff also reported on relief and recovery efforts.
“Sadly, some people may never recover,” Osteen said. “Our commerce is crippled in general.”
Covering the news was a big challenge for Osteen, who is also the newspaper’s editor.
“I was calling in stringers I haven’t used in a while to write features,” he said. “We wanted to tell stories in pictures and words in the thorough way a community daily newspaper tells them the best.”
Weeks after the flood, the newspaper is helping local businesses recover through advertising assistance.
“We established a fall special for the month of October and are discounting ad rates,” Osteen said. “Every business is different, but the last thing they are thinking about is advertising.”
The Item’s sales team is helping get local businesses back on track.
“We will work with our advertisers to help them stay in the newspaper,” he said. “But this is going to be a tough year to close out. It may be tough next year, too.
“A newspaper’s role is to take the lead in providing the community with information—in print, on the Web or both ways,” he said. “I hope we’re doing a good job.” © Teri Saylor 2015
Teri Saylor is a freelance writer and association executive in Raleigh, NC. Reach her at email@example.com or tweet her @terisaylor.