Rookie reporter gets his first taste of storm coverage

By John Toth

The Bulletin


We dread it each year. It comes when it wants to and stays as long as it wants. It bursts in without permission and leaves on its own terms.


I’m talking about hurricanes, tropical storms, flooding, high winds and everything else that comes along during hurricane season.


It’s time again for TV news people to start practicing being blown in the wind as they report from the shores of the Gulf of Mexico on how bad the storm is and what carports it has blown away. Newspaper reporters don’t have to do this. They have the luxury of wading in flood waters later.


That was my job as a print reporter for several newspapers before I jumped ship to The Bulletin. It all started in 1979 in Bay City.


I arrived there in the middle of summer to save a piece of the world as a journalist. I was driven, enthusiastic, somewhat brash and very inexperienced other than writing articles for my college paper. My first real job, I thought, was about to jettison me to the ranks of Woodward and Bernstein.


All I needed was an event - like a hurricane. Dan Rather did it with Hurricane Carla and a new concept of TV reporting called the weather radar. Now, it was my turn.


I patiently waited, covering school board meetings, police news, and occasionally a dinner theater performance. I almost forgot about the Little League area championships and the rodeo.


Then it happened – not exactly a hurricane, but Tropical Storm Claudette. Close enough. It started raining, and then there was more rain, and then some more. This was not the type of rain I was used to in the Northeast, where I had resided.


I barely made it to work in my 1968 Buick Skylark. I drove through flooded streets almost all the way. It was still raining. We didn’t get 43 inches of rain like Alvin, but we got plenty. I rolled up my soaked sleeves and went to work.


The sheriff warned everybody to stay inside. It was a good enough quote. I got the basic information and wrote a story for the afternoon paper.


I am so glad that there is absolutely no trace of that story because it was awful. I never covered anything like this in college. But it was a good experience. Rather had to start somewhere also. Not everyone can land the mother of a storm right away.


After the paper was printed, we fanned out and looked for human-interest stories. I drove down to Caney Creek, where I found some cars and trucks parked at Peters Cut Rate Liquor. I parked the car on the side of the road and started to talk to the folks gathered around the store. Everything around it was flooded except for the road leading to the parking lot.


I became immersed in my work in more ways than one. And then the locals started laughing.

“Look down,” one of them said.


What was so important? I was getting good information here for my first big storm story. What are these people snickering about?


My right foot was placed right on top of an ant mound. I jerked it away, but it was too late.


They started biting, big time.


“You ain’t from around here, I suppose,” remarked one of my interview subjects as he helped me rid myself of the swarming ants. He was wearing boots and watched where he was stepping. I wore sneakers and didn’t.


The locals, whose houses were flooded, or they couldn’t get to them until the water subsided, saved me from the ants that day. They were very kind and actually made for a good story, which is also long lost.


My editor was surprised that a city boy who had never seen a tropical storm in his life came back with a nice human-interest feature. I left out the ants part, but maybe I shouldn’t have. It was representative of how receptive the people of Bay City were toward a young reporter who was still learning the secrets of the reporting trade.


It didn’t take me long to realize that newspaper journalism wasn’t about marching in step with the electronic media during a big event, but about featurizing it to be absorbed the next day, or even later.


I also learned how to avoid ant beds when covering a storm and flooding. It’s a lot easier that way.