Texas twister puts local paper into high gear

Jun 5, 2013

By Stanley Schwartz

Managing Editor | Publishers’ Auxiliary

GRANBURY, TX—It was nothing short of a miracle that the Hood County News and it’s staff were unscathed by a devastating EF4 tornado that ripped through a Granbury neighborhood, said Jerry Tidwell.

Six people died and more than 100 were left homeless after the May 15 tornado plowed through the Rancho Brazos subdivision about 5 miles east of the News’ office. Tidwell, publisher and owner of the News and a former National Newspaper Association president, said his building was untouched by the storm and the twister, which packed winds up to 200 mph, harmed none of his staff.

“Right here there was nothing,” Tidwell said. Yet a block away a car was swept off the road by the wind. “It’s a miracle it wasn’t worse.” Hail damage was extensive as well, he added, but again, the newspaper was not touched. “Most of the county got a lot of hail,” he said. “It’s strange. I’ve been here 34 years, (and the tornado aside, this is the worst damage we’ve had from hail).”

Currently there are 64 people living in churches another 40 in hotels.

“This is a small town,” Tidwell explained. “There’s not an abundance of rental homes. This community is like most small towns. We’ll fight over nothing, but when it comes right down to it, we’ll close ranks and do whatever it takes to help our neighbors.”

Within minutes after the tornado hit, Tidwell and his staff began preparing their coverage of the storm. Three people from the editorial staff, one editor, one photographer and one reporter made their way to Rancho Brazos.

“We sent them as soon as we felt it was safe,” Tidwell said. They started making photos and trying to help where they could. The twice weekly’s website was used to post the most urgent information. There are only six people on the editorial staff at the paper.

“We thought we were running at full speed, but when you encounter something like this, there’s another gear you can get to—and have to,” Tidwell said.

In addition to the six deaths, there were 14 people missing. People from all over Granbury rushed to help those hit hardest by the tornado. School buses were used to move the injured to triage staging areas and then to hospitals. Eventually, the 14 missing were found alive.

“People were taking the injured in their own cars, too,” Tidwell said. The first responders were doing an amazing job, he added.

Normally, the paper runs two sections, but since the storm it has been printing three and will be for a while. Tidwell said he and his staff were planning on running an issue full of tornado photos on May 25. The first issue following the storm featured the six people who lost their lives.

“We interviewed their families,” he said, “to learn as much as we could about them.”

In the May 18 issue, reporter Kathy Cruz interviewed a woman who rode out the tornado in her house. Cruz wrote: “One minute, Ronna Cotten was watching a spring shower with her two daughters and their friend. The next, she was fighting with all the strength she had to keep them alive.

Cotten, who lives in a Habitat for Humanity home in Rancho Brazos, struggled to keep a grip on the doorknob of the hall closet where the three girls were screaming in terror as powerful winds threatened to suck them into the blackened sky Wednesday evening.

“‘I just did the best I could,’ said Cotten, who attributed the red blotches that appeared on her arms the next day to nerves.

In the vortex of violence, the single mother with a slender build somehow managed to get the best of the powerful twister, even as the family’s home on Sundown Trail was ripped apart around her.

“‘All you could hear was windows breaking and things crashing,’ she said. “‘It was bad.’

“By the time the family showed up Thursday morning at the Red Cross shelter at First Christian Church on Highway 377, Cotton looked as if she had been to hell and back.

“Fact was, she had.”

Tidwell noted that Habitat for Humanity built 61 homes in the Rancho Brazos subdivision. All of them were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable.

“But they were required to have (homeowners) insurance,” he added, so hopefully, they will be able to recover quickly.

Tidwell had high praise for Hood County Sheriff Roger Deeds. He became point person for the emergency responders and the face of Granbury for the national media. The sheriff’s department was running the Emergency Operations Center, coordinating rescue efforts and assisting the victims.

“He could not have been better,” Tidwell said. “But that is who he is every day.”

The area is facing a long clean up, he added. Bulldozers are moving into the area to start clearing away the debris now that the survivors have had a chance to go through the rubble and find their memories.

“There are doors stuck up in leafless trees,” Tidwell said. “And they’ll stay there until someone can get to them.”

The churches are all working together to help the victims, Tidwell noted. “The community has this feeling: We know we’re going to get it done.” Granbury is 30 miles from Ft. Worth and 60 miles from Dallas. Coverage by the big city media outlets was admirable, Tidwell added.

Just five days after the Texas tornado, a massive EF5 tornado flattened a huge section of Moore, OK, in the suburbs of Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma Press Association Executive Vice President Mark Thomas sent out a letter after the tornado, thanking those in the newspaper industry for their concern. He wrote: “In short, the OPA office and our employees and their homes are all OK. We don’t have final word from member papers/employees so we will have to send a report later this week when we know more. All of us, however, have friends and neighbors that have received storm damage in one way or another. We are awaiting word from search and recovery personnel to let us know what to do next. They are very well trained in this area.”

OPA put together a disaster checklist for newspapers in 2006. The four-page document states: “The newspaper has a very unique and important responsibility to the community in times of disaster and must plan to operate in a crisis. Developing a checklist of items leads to the development of a disaster plan, which will provide the publisher and staff confidence that they are prepared to fulfill their obligation to their community, neighbors, family and friends. In times of crisis you are needed more than ever.”

It is available for download from OPA’s website at www.okpress.com/disaster-checklist-for-newspapers.