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A young reporter’s encounter with Hurricane Alicia in 1983

By John Toth The Bulletin

There was a storm about to enter the Gulf of Mexico in August 1983, almost 40 years ago. I was thinking that it would probably turn toward Mexico or Florida, where many others have ended up.

The Houston Chronicle hired me to cover Brazoria County a few weeks before the storm started making headlines. I was hoping that I would be able to get some stories out of it. I was also hoping that it would turn and leave us alone. My internal conflict within was resolved very quickly.

On Aug. 15, 1983, Hurricane Alicia formed over the Atlantic Basin as a tropical storm. The National Weather Service predicted that it would wind up somewhere near Freeport. Even though landfall predictions were not as accurate as today, this one meant trouble.

The name Dan Rather came to mind. In September 1961, Hurricane Carla made Dan Rather’s career in broadcasting. Maybe Alicia would do the same for me in the newspaper business. Every reporter who covers hurricanes probably thinks the same thing.

Rather, who was born in Wharton, was working at KHOU, Channel 11, in Houston at the time. His coverage of Carla caught the attention of CBS News executives in New York. By 1962, he was working at the network.

His genius was to introduce viewers to something called the weather radar, a new gadget that the NWS was reluctant to share with the public, fearing that it might cause a panic. Rather convincingly argued that it would not and produced the first broadcast of live-radar images showing a hurricane.

That was innovative, for sure, but by 1983, radar images were old hat. Until power went out, television and radio were leaders of hurricane coverage back in those days. Newspaper newsrooms were a beehive of activity, but the nature of the product limited its effectiveness to disseminate information while the hurricane was raging.

I worked through the night during the storm, but none of what I filed made it into the next morning editions limited distribution.

The next morning, on Aug, 19, 1983, after the storm passed, the editors gave us the day off.

I was dead tired, but I can’t sleep during the day, no matter how little sleep I get the night before. I told my wife, Sharon, that I was going to Surfside to see what was going on, so I could try to get a feature story for the next day’s paper.

I talked then-Marshall Phil Pesses into letting me into town. Some buildings were untouched, while structures next to them were totally destroyed.

People were cleaning up. The owner of the Flying Dutchman told me that this was it for him.

He planned to close. Workers at a convenience store were discarding thousands of cans of beer that were deemed by the Health Department to be contaminated after a storm surge struck the store. I had the place all to myself. I was the only reporter in the town.

Little 4-year-old Stormy was climbing through what was left of her mobile home while her parents searched the home to see what was salvageable. There wasn’t much. As I recall, only one wall was standing - barely. I wrote about Stormy in a previous column a few years ago.

I took photos, and I talked to the storm victims. Then I realized that I still needed to contact my editors and tell them what I had. It was close to 4 p.m. The first editorial meeting was at 5 p.m. They didn’t even know that I was in Surfside.

Miraculously, I found a payphone that still worked and called my desk. They seemed surprised that I didn’t take the day off. “I can’t sleep during the day, so I went out to see what Surfside looks like,” I explained. I told them what I had and that I would write the story at home and send it in. They said a courier would pick up the roll of film.

When I got back home, Sharon was anxiously waiting. My editors had called several times wanting to talk to me again. Sharon had no idea where I was or when I was coming back. I learned why they were so persistent.

“Can you drive the film up and write the story here,” asked the editor. “We pitched the story at the meeting, and it’s going on Page 1.”

I drove to downtown Houston on previously flooded roads, dropped the film off at the photo department and went to the newsroom, where a computer was waiting for me.

This had to be important. I usually had to scramble for an open computer when I went to the newsroom. It didn’t take long to write the story. The good ones tend to write themselves.

I didn’t pull off a Dan Rather trick with Hurricane Alicia, but I did get my first Page 1 story and photo credit in the Chronicle. The story also ran on the news wires. It didn’t establish me as a national figure like Rather, but it did boost my standing within the paper. It also took away my rookie label.

I considered that enough of a reward at the time.


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