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Sun-Herald staff marooned!

The Sun-Herald faced a desperate crisis last month. Power was cut off, mobile phones didn't work, and many of the staff were unable to return home. The paper's website said: "Sun-Herald employees: Call 1-800-346-2472 to let us know where you are."

No, it wasn't in Sydney, but in Biloxi, Mississippi, one of only four places in the world with a newspaper called the Sun-Herald.

Hurricane Katrina devastated Biloxi (population 50,000), a city on the Gulf of Mexico, on Monday, September 7. A terrible 29ft (8.8m) surge obliterated nearly everything in its path, and anything not destroyed by water was hit by a 175mph (280kph) windstorm.

" The Mississippi coast changed forever Monday," Scott Dodd reported from Biloxi. "Gone are the signature landmarks, moneymaking casinos, pricey beach houses, ramshackle apartments and the bridges that link South Mississippi together. Katrina stole or smashed them all. In their place, a mess of sand and debris coated everything - left by the hurricane's surging seawater that sometimes topped 30 feet."

The Sun-Herald's Operations Director Marlene Kler reported, "No power, and the roof blew off the generator switch. When the rain subsides, we'll try to get it started. No phones, no cell service. I'm sending this while UPS (uninterruptible power source) is still up. We lost a vent in the print storage area, but I think we can salvage most of the newsprint. Being in the building and draping plastic, using wastebuckets, etc., I think saved a lot of damage.”

Miraculously, the Sun-Herald continued publishing, even though the newspaper could not be delivered and many of its subscribers were homeless. Because it's owned by the Knight-Ridder group, other newspapers from the same stable promptly offered help. The Columbus (Georgia) Ledger-Enquirer produced and printed the Sun-Herald for the rest of the week.

About a dozen Sun-Herald employees remained in the newspaper building, sending their stories from their battery-powered laptops and by email to Columbus.

On the Monday night, the Ledger-Enquirer printed 20,000 copies of the Sun-Herald, about half its normal circulation, and sent them by truck to Biloxi, where they were handed out free on the Tuesday.

The eight-page paper included full colour photographs and maps, and was printed on heavier stock. "We needed something that would be better quality. My sense is people want to keep this," said Pam Siddall, the Ledger-Enquirer's publisher.

The Ledger-Enquirer and the Miami Herald sent water, powdered milk and breakfast bars to the Biloxi staff.

The Sun-Herald website provided a superb emergency service, keeping residents fully informed of developments hour by hour, listing the names of victims, and displaying dozens of heart-breaking pictures showing scenes of utter devastation.

By the week's end, the situation had improved. A management memo to staff said "Full power has been restored to The Sun-Herald building. We are moving toward beginning to print the paper here again, rather than in Columbus.

"We are now publishing advertising in the paper and are increasing our print run. So we’ll need help from all of you, as soon as you’re able."

The newspaper offered to cash staff members' personal cheques for up to $100, and to provide on-the-spot low-interest credit union loans. It was still searching the area for missing staff, who were asked to ring its employee hotline.

It listed the names of 22 people not heard from, adding, "If you have heard from any of them, please call and let us know so we can focus attention on those still missing.

"Take good care of yourself and your family. And know that you are in the thoughts of colleagues all across Knight Ridder. Many are contributing to a Knight Ridder Fund set up to make grants to Sun-Herald employees who have suffered serious losses."

Thankfully, all the missing employees had been found alive by the time the newspaper resumed normal publication, although few of its subscribers remained in Biloxi.

On Sunday, September 11, the fourth anniversary of New York's World Trade Centre disaster, the Biloxi Sun-Herald printed 80,000 copies, the largest press run in its 121-year history.

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Story first posted October 2005

Copyright © 2005

Eric Shackle

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