Punch Line: In a Hurricane's Eye
March 23, 2012
This is the story of a newspaper, a reporter, an editor, and a storm.
It’s all true.
I worked at the newspaper.
I worked with the reporter.
I reported to the editor.
I’ll never forget the storm.
The reporter was young, idealistic, full of passion, and had an unquenchable thirst for covering the big story, which he had never covered before.
He was tired of store openings and ribbon cuttings.
He was bored with civic club meetings.
Front-page, above-the-fold by-lines did not come from writing sidebars about voting machine gaffes and poll watcher feuds at city elections.
He wanted to be knee-deep, battling the odds, flying by the seat of his pants, smack dab in the middle, matching wits with a hard-core news story that all the world was watching and waiting for him to write.
The newspaper, if you counted circulation for the morning and evening editions combined, was the largest in Texas.
More awards on the wall than walls in the building.
The editor was a legend.
He was tough, hard-boiled, and considered every column inch in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a sacred patch of paper real estate. He seldom smiled. He had a no-nonsense attitude when it came to producing each issue of the daily newspaper. He treated his reporters as both children and enemies.
He spit out words with the hiss of a rattlesnake and the force of a pistol shot.
He could take a bad newspaperman and turn him into a star reporter or out on the street.
It was all up to the reporter.
It didn’t matter to him.
Charlie Boatner, quite simply, was the best damn editor I ever knew.
The storm was a monster.
The first of the season.
A mean momma named Audrey, and it was headed straight toward the Louisiana coast with nothing but the wind to slow it down, and the wind had been sucked up into the eye of the storm, full of sound and filled with fury, growing angrier with each passing minute.
The editor handed the reporter a map. “There’s a storm coming,” he said.
“A big one.”
“It’s headed toward Cameron, Louisiana.”
“You’ve got less than ten hours to get there. Stop and buy a raincoat on the way.”
The reporter sat huddled with police, firemen, emergency hospital units, and the Salvation Army when Audrey came rushing ashore. The sky was a dark shade of ebony, streaked with scarlet, and sounding, the witnesses said, like as fright train on the loose, always a freight train.
Cameron had been warned. Cameron scoffed. Cameron had seen hurricanes before.
There had been no calm before the storm, only the storm, and when it arrived, there had been no escape. Waves were fifteen feet high when they hammered the coast. Tides had reached eight feet. Roads were swallowed up and lost. Rain was blinding. Floodwaters were teeming with snakes, cottonmouths, poisonous and deadly. Roofs were rolling down the streets. Buildings lay shattered. Wood had been ripped into splinters. Bricks were lethal weapons in the wind.
Cars parked on the street disappeared.
All signs of life disappeared.
For two days, the reporter fought his way through floodwaters and amidst the devastation, talking to whomever had survived, and he found so few of them, and they had so little to say. Shock will do that to man.
At twilight, he dutifully made his way to the only phone he could find still working in the wreckage, and called his editor. He hadn’t had time to write the biggest story of his life. He only blurted out what he had seen and heard. He left it up to the re-write man to make sense of it all. The reporter couldn’t.
The third day, the sun broke clear, and the reporter walked through the savaged ruins of a town. Only two buildings had been left standing. One, thank God, had been the old courthouse. Those who survived had been sheltered in the basement and hallways been the courtrooms.
He slowly counted the names of the dead. It had risen every hour. And now there were three hundred and eighty-two of them. There would be more.
The reporter wrote his story in longhand on the back of a soggy notebook. He was tired. He had not slept in two days. He was wet. He was beaten down. He was numb. He had been knee deep, battling the odds, flying by the seat of his pants, smack dab in the middle, and matching his wits with a hard-core news story that the whole world was watching and waiting for him to write. He had been swept up in the death, the dying, the destruction, the drama, the emotion of it all.
He called the office. “I have the wrap up,” he told his editor.
The reporter began to slowly dictate what he considered the finest lead he had ever written or read. He said in a calm voice: “God and I stood on a hill this morning, overlooking the ruins of Cameron.”
“Forget the hurricane,” Charlie Boatner snapped.
A pause. Longer this time.
The reporter frowned.
“Interview God,” Boatner said. “And send pictures.”
He hung up the phone.