Newspaper publisher Roland Weeks rode out Hurricane Camille in a newsroom. He survived the storm. Then he faced his greatest challenge yet: How do we print a paper now?
story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 13, 2010
In four days, a phone will ring inside a small home on Lameuse Street, and Roland Weeks will answer. He will know who it is before he looks at the caller ID. He has been expecting this call for a year.
The man on the other end will ask Weeks the same questions he has asked every August 17 for the past four decades. He will ask Weeks how he is, and how he has been, and what he is doing.
And then they will ask each other: How the hell are we still here?
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Roland Weeks didn’t see it coming, and he was the one who was supposed to be watching the headlines. On August 14, 1969, three days before Hurricane Camille hit, there wasn’t a word about a storm heading toward the coast. That week, the headlines were elsewhere in Weeks’ newspaper: “Spacemen Tell of Moon Walk.” “Viet Cong Appears to Open Fall Drive.” “Desegregation Plans Studied by Two Judges.” “Woman General Possible.”
But Camille? The storm that killed more than a hundred, that brought 200 mile-per-hour winds to Mississippi? No, Weeks never saw it coming.
A year earlier, Weeks had been appointed general manager of the Daily Herald, an afternoon newspaper with 150 on staff. Weeks was, perhaps, an unlikely choice for the job. He was just 31, and six years earlier, he’d been working as an engineer in his home state of South Carolina. But when he found himself out of a job, a family friend offered a spot at the local newspaper. For five years, he worked in every department he could: news, sales, management. When his newspaper bought the Gulfport-based Daily Herald, the board of directors announced that Weeks was their pick to run one of the largest newspapers on the coast.
Weeks admits now that he had to learn on the job, but he says his new staff had just as much to learn. When he arrived, the paper was just a small-town daily.
“I had the opportunity to grow with it,” he says.
Not that there was much time to grow. A year into his tenure on the coast, the paper’s vital signs were improving: circulation was up a tick, and so were revenues. But when Camille hit the paper’s radar, it was just 48 hours before the storm made landfall. Editors weren’t too worried about the hurricane; they ran an A1 story from the AP about how the Florida Keys were hunkering down for Camille.
But the next day, as the storm crept west, Weeks grew nervous. He considered worst-case plans and decided to pick up the phone.
“I called my counterpart in South Carolina,” he says. “I told him I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to print the next day.”
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(At top) Roland Weeks in his Biloxi home. His dog, Elvis Presley, is on his lap. (Above) The bent flagpole at the Hurricane Camille memorial in Biloxi.
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The first thing Weeks remembers about the morning after was the disorientation. He’d spent the night in the office, his top editor, Robert McHugh, and a few other staffers phoning in stories to South Carolina until the line went dead. Then, they stayed on the ground and hoped the building would, too.
“We thought the roof was collapsing,” he says, “so I was happy just to be alive.”
When he stepped outside, Weeks remembers being unsure of where he was. He hadn’t moved, but everything else had. The road was torn up. Homes had been swept across the street or into nearby yards.
One thing pulled Weeks and his staff back to reality: their jobs. The Daily Herald was an afternoon paper, which meant that they needed to get it onto the presses mid-day, and Weeks had no intention of canceling that afternoon’s edition. Weeks had arranged for the paper to be printed in South Carolina and flown to Gulfport, which was a fine plan, except for two complications. The first was that all stories needed to be dictated by phone to the South Carolina offices, but there were no working phones within an hour’s drive of Gulfport.
So deadlines changed. Reporters found whatever story they could find, wrote their copy, had it edited and then drove 75 miles north to Hattiesburg, where there were still had working phone lines.
The paper went to press that afternoon, Weeks says. Workers in South Carolina loaded the papers onto a private plane and sent it off for the airport in Gulfport, which is where they ran into the second complication in Weeks’ plan:
The airport was closed.
Officials refused to allow the plane to land, so the pilot began to circle the city. Meanwhile, he radioed back to South Carolina, where the board of directors got one of the state’s Congressmen on the phone, and he called the officials in Gulfport and told them to land that damn plane. The Daily Herald went out that day across the coast; maybe a little bit later than usual, but it went out.
The phone-it-in, fly-it-back system went on for a week, until Daily Herald engineers were able to get the printing press running again. Weeks stood in the room as the engineer loaded up the latest edition and started the machine. Two dozen copies came out fine, and then the ink just seemed to disappear, blank newspaper after blank newspaper running through the presses.
The engineer started his diagnosis. He looked at parts and cranks and levers, and then opened a tray that held the paper’s ink. He grabbed the tray and dumped it out on the ground, and a few gallons of the Gulf of Mexico splashed out onto the printing press floor.
Empty of salt water, the presses ran okay after that.
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The lighthouse that looks out over Biloxi’s shores.
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Robert McHugh had been working on a biography of H.L. Mencken at his home. He’d known Mencken personally, and had interviewed him on several occasions. After Camille, the pages simply disappeared, Weeks says, along with the rest of McHugh’s house. All that Camille left was a toilet seat standing on a slab.
But despite his personal loss, McHugh kept at the helm of the newsroom, and it’s McHugh’s voice that resonates throughout the post-Camille editions of the paper. For days after, on the Daily Herald’s front page, the paper ran editorials penned by McHugh. The first, on August 18, read:
“As this is written, it is not certain how badly we have fared from the monstrous winds and high waters that struck us. It will be days, even weeks, before the final toll is taken. But whatever the damage and no matter how sodden, drenched and disheartened we may be, the task before us is to clean up and get back in business again.”
Another, two days later, closed with:
“But rebuild we will. We will sweat and we will toil until the Gulf Coast is once again the fairest part of our State. And when we have finished with the task, no matter how long it may take, we will be able to say to one another, ‘We met the challenge.'”
The paper added a new A1 feature on Aug. 23. On the bottom of the page, editors started running this quote from then-Governor John Bell Williams: “The Coast is gong to be rebuilt. It is going to be rebuilt with planning and it is going to be one of the finest — if not the finest — recreation areas in this country.”
The message, Weeks says, was clear: the Daily Herald stands with this community in the rebuilding effort.
A few days after the storm, Weeks flew to Columbia, S.C., where the board of directors awaited word on what needed to be done to get the Daily Herald back to normal.
“I told them that we had an obligation to provide leadership,” he says, “and that building a new [printing] plant, starting now, would be a very important step in showing that the newspaper could provide leadership in the recovery, but [that we] also believed into the future.”
But while Weeks was just trying to figure out the finances — How much would it cost to rebuild our offices? Our printing presses? — he says McHugh kept the newsroom focused.
“Bob deserves a lot of the credit for the truly Herculean effort that was made to provide leadership after the storm,” he says.
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The headline wasn’t entirely truthful, Weeks knows. One of his reporters was driving down the coast and saw something odd: In front of a destroyed home, on a flagpole that was bent to 120 degrees, an American flag hung undamaged.
The staff knew, Weeks says, that someone had gone back to that flagpole and raised the flag after the storm. Still, the image — which ran across the top of the Daily Herald with the headline, “Old Glory, Midst Destruction, Still Waves in Home.” — sparked a new wave of support for the coast. Weeks got on the phone that day and found a manufacturer who sold American flags at a reasonable price. The next day, the Daily Herald started selling flags.
“We bought 1,000 flags,” Weeks says. “We sold out the first day.”
Years later, on Beach Boulevard, the city of Biloxi erected a monument to those that died in Camille. The flagpole at the monument is bent to 120 degrees.
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The phone call that will come on August 17 will be from the Daily Herald’s old photographer, who was among the staff that stayed in the Daily Herald building as Camille roared through. Weeks says he exchanges emails occasionally with the photographer, and maybe 15 years ago, they got dinner together when both men were in town.
Otherwise, they talk just once a year, on August 17. This year will be the 41st anniversary of the storm, and to Weeks’ memory, his old photog has never missed a phone call.
Even 41 years later, they cannot forget. ❑