LA biweekly covers flooding despite losing office and press
September 8, 2016
By Stanley Schwartz
Managing Editor | Publishers’ Auxiliary
DENHAM SPRINGS, LA—The resiliency of community newspapers can be found in the simple statement from McHugh David, publisher and managing editor of the Livingston Parish News: “We’re still here. We made it.”
The twice-weekly paper’s office sustained extreme damage when heavy rains caused flooding throughout the region. The newspaper’s office had more than 4 feet of water in it by the time the local rivers had finished cresting. The press was a total loss, and all the stored newsprint in the plant was soaked.
“The water took out our CTP machine and some of our other technology,” David said in a phone interview. He and his staff were able to move some of their computers to higher ground before the flooding hit.
The David family and the newspaper has faced a lot of adversity during the last year. David’s father, Jeff David, died of cancer last October. Jeff, a former National Newspaper Association president, had been a driving force for his newspaper, the region and other newspapers, locally and nationally. And the former editor of the paper, Mike Dowty, died not too long after Jeff.
“He had been with the newspaper, working for my Dad, since before I was born,” David said.
On Aug. 11, the rain started. In a first-person account, David wrote that at first the rain was just an annoyance. However, what the people of Livingston Parish did not know at the time was that a tropical storm was going to stall over the region. Denham Springs is just a few miles from Baton Rouge. It sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Comite and the Amite. During the course of four days, the storm dropped upwards of 30 inches of rain. The Tickfaw River, farther east, would rise to record levels.
David noted that by Friday, the outlook for the area was bad. He went to help his mom, Nancy David, move some things in her house to the second floor, believing that she might get 2.5 feet of water, at the most. The worst of the flooding was not supposed to reach them until sometime on Sunday. But things changed quickly over the course of a few hours.
By 4:30 a.m. Saturday, David wrote that his Mom’s voice was calm when she called, telling him to come over right away. David thought he would have time for a cup of coffee before heading back over to Nancy’s house, but she told him the water was already at her front door—and it was rising fast.
“The water was rising at about 1 foot per hour,” he said. David raced toward his mom’s house, but he was stopped by local police who told him the road was impassible. Not deterred, David set out on foot, wading through water that at times came up to his chest.
Nancy, some of her dogs and the neighbors were eventually evacuated to higher ground by boat. David had to wait at his mom’s house with the remaining dogs until another rescue boat arrived. The house would eventually take 4 feet of water. David’s home would also be flooded, but it would have less than 2 feet of water in it.
Great newspaper staff
David said he is impressed and inspired by his staff. Even though some of them sustained losses in the flood, they still came to help at the office and continued to work on the next issue.
“We had all hands on deck,” David added.
The first thing David did was take down the paywall on the newspaper’s website. He and his staff also utilized social media, mainly Facebook and Twitter, to get the most up-to-date news out to readers.
David’s brother-in-law and press operator, Earnest Vasquez, waded in to check on the press. The damage was extensive.
“He didn’t think it was worth trying to restore it,” David said. It was a tough decision, he added, because without the press, he would have to let some staff go.
“He was pragmatic about it,” David explained about Vasquez. “Once he saw the press, he knew he would have to find someplace else to work.” Even so, it was devastating to David. “They don’t train you for this sort of thing.”
Disaster plans put in place for hurricanes had to be utilized for this flood.
“You can’t really prepare for a flood or tornadoes,” David said. “But we knew where we were going to be printed if our press was out of commission.”
The Enterprise Journal in McComb, MS, is currently printing the Livingston Parish News. David said he was given a good rate and is considering staying with the McComb press.
David noted it was fortuitous that he and his fiancée, Melanie, had recently rented space for her business. They moved the core newspaper staff into that building, to get things running for the next issue. Most of the staff is mobile and only needs to check in. Post flood, there are 11 people on staff.
When asked if he received any offers of help, David said that Louisiana Press Association Executive Director Pam Mitchell had called, as did Tonda Rush with NNA.
“We were not the only newspaper affected by this flood,” David said. He did not have the time to speak with Mitchell when she first called, but noted that LPA was making every effort to help the newspapers that needed it.
When it comes to disasters like this, David learned self-reliance from his father. He said about rebuilding the business: “This is on us. We have to do this.”
Mitchell said she had set up a clearinghouse of information for those newspapers that needed help and those that were offering help. Donations are being funneled through the press association at lapress.com.
It will be three to four weeks before the News’ office is dry enough for them to go in and see about rebuilding.
“We have to get a permit first,” David said, to see if it’s safe to build on the same site. The earliest construction could begin, he added, was November. Until then, he said, he and his staff will continue to put out the 15,000-circulation newspaper from where they are.