Floods Can’t Stop the
Presses In Grand Forks
By Laura Parker
The scene looks more like Sesame Street than Lou Grant.
The Big People perch on orange plastic chairs, hunched in front of kids’ computers in a very small elementary school computer lab. This is the newsroom.
The Little People are across the hall in Mrs. Muehlenbeck’s second-grade class, keeping a watchful eye.
“Usually, there’s not this many phones ringing,” reports Emily Gowan, 8.
The Manvel Public School is where the Grand Forks Herald newspaper ended up after it was flooded out then burned down in the Great Flood of 1997.
Despite these twin disasters, it has not missed a single day of publication.
And that’s probably not surprising to the generations who have lived here and read the newspaper for the past 108 years. Like Grand Forks, this daily newspaper with a circulation of 35,000, is infused with a fierce pride for North Dakota.
It duly notes the daily doings of its residents - the births, the deaths and the cross-town high school football rivalry.
A few years ago, as the media focused on crime, the Herald consulted its readers and found them most concerned about potholes. So the Herald wrote about potholes.
Now, as the newspaper covers the flood, it has also become a community lifeline. It publishes phone numbers, tips for cleaning up and messages to and from displaced residents.
“They are providing a sense of community that Grand Forks needs right now,” says Beth Blanks Hindman, a journalism professor at North Dakota State University in Fargo. “The radio is important, but this gives you something tangible, something to hold onto.”
The newspaper set up in Manvel, population 300, the day after it was forced to abandon its offices in the early morning hours of April 19.
Down the hall from the computer lab, the advertising department occupies the health room. The photography department is set up next to the drums in the music room, and the circulation department has taken over the library. If you want to place a classified ad, you have to go to the counselor’s office.
“It’s wonderfully weird being here,” says Editor Mike Jacobs, from his trailer out by the playground. The trailer is Jacobs’ new office. At the moment it contains a phone, a desk, a fax machine and six metal folding chairs.
The staff is adjusting. So is the school.
The day the Herald moved in, the school had two phones and a fax line. The phone company soon arrived, bored a hole in the cinder-block wall and threaded a dozen new lines into the new newsroom.
“It’s turned out to be a little more than we expected,” principal Richard Ray says. “The kids have lost their computer class. But we look at the paper as a community service, especially in an emergency. People need information.”
The night the Red River spilled over the dike will go down as the most perilous night in the newspaper’s history. The river washed into the downtown streets about 1:30 a.m. The presses were rolling. Jacobs had just added the latest developments to the front page, including a new headline: “THE FLOOD HITS HOME: CREST COULD COME TONIGHT.” Then police phoned and ordered them out. Jacobs begged for more time.
By 2:20 a.m., the river slurped up to the door. The foreman shut down the power, and Jacobs and the others abandoned the plant.
“We wanted to try and finish the run,” he says. “We had very few truck drivers so we started loading papers into my vehicle. I took the papers six blocks away. By the time I came back, water had swamped the building, The pressmen were running through water to get to their cars.”
The fire the next day seemed strangely anticlimactic. “I remember thinking, ‘A fire? Sure, there’s a fire,”’ says Andy Braford, the chief copy editor. “Everything else has been happening, so why not a fire? Why not locusts?”
Grand Forks by this time was evacuated, Jacobs went on the radio in search of reporters to put out the Sunday newspaper. He asked them to meet at the University of North Dakota on the west edge of town.
But floodwaters soon threatened the university. Uprooted again, the Herald moved to Manvel. The plan was to publish the newspaper in St. Paul, Minn., at the Pioneer Press, which, like the Herald; is owned by Knight-Ridder Inc. Then the newspapers would be flown back and delivered free.
The stories would be written in Manvel and transmitted to St. Paul via e-mail.
Braford and two other editors flew to St. Paul to lay out the pages and write the head-lines. As the plane left Grand Forks, Braford doubted they’d be able to pull it off. “That was the only time I lost faith that we were gonna get a paper out,” he says. “I said we should just turn around. I don’t think we can do this.”
Two weeks into the crisis, Jacobs is searching for a closer print site. This week, the comics, editorials and a page of Sports returned. Home delivery has resumed in outlying areas.
The newspaper has only be-gun to assess its losses. The presses are damaged, but salvageable. The main computers seem intact, so accounting re-cords and the circulation list eventually can be retrieved. The library, however, was destroyed by the fire. It was used regularly by area residents re-searching family histories. Thousands of photographs and clippings dating to the 1800’s were lost.
“Losing 20 years’ worth of negatives down there was an emotional moment for me,” says John Stennes, the chief photographer.
In Manvel, the Herald staff is slowly developing a routine. Those displaced by the flood stay at the Lutheran Church here and eat at the Manvel Community Center. Managing Editor Jim Durkin frets about long-term stress.
“When we did the first pa-per, it was a sprint,” he says. “This has turned into a marathon, and I’m not sure that people have the stamina. Adrenaline can only pump for so long.”
Meanwhile, the students at the Manvel school are preparing a special section about the flood for this Sunday’s edition. The section will contain stories, poems and drawings.
The project has become a lesson in the value of getting a newspaper out, no matter what. When Jacobs met with student editors, one said that he’d try to finish on time.
“No. If it’s not done, it’s not going in,” Jacobs said. “I explained to them what a deadline was.”
“Then there was this very serious silence.”
Laura Parker is a national correspondent for USA Today.
This article adapted from Vol. 10#3.
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