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With aid from sister papers, Mississippi's Sun Herald perseveres

GULFPORT, Miss.—They're giving tetanus shots in the storage room of The Sun Herald newspaper. There are hallway handouts for coping with grief and loss. The pressroom loading dock is stacked with bottled water and Raisin Bran. Reporters must disinfect their shoes before bringing in stories from the infected world outside.

Katrina bear-clawed entire towns off this coastline of shrimp nets and poker chips. It cut down hundreds of lives and left tens of thousands more adrift. But it couldn't stop The Sun Herald, which never missed a day of publication.

The 78-point headlines say it all: HOPE AMID RUIN. HELP US NOW. DIGGING OUT. KATRINA'S CASUALTIES.

From the editors, photographers, press operators, writers, carriers, ad representatives and everyone else at this 40,000-circulation daily, the Category 4 storm is getting a Category 4 response. Despite losing much or all of what they had in their lives, they weren't about to break a 121-year-old tradition of putting out newspapers through hurricanes, fires, wars and yellow fever.

For its readers, the paper has been a lifeline.

"I was digging through the rubble in front of my house after the storm when I found my paper," Gulfport homeowner Greg Bradley said. "I was amazed. Just seeing it connected me back to life."

Even as the paper's bunker-style building three blocks from the beach reels from the personal tragedies of those inside, one edition after another reaches the presses through a synergy of social triage, grief counseling and deadline reporting.

"I thought I'd lost my home and the paper, too," said assistant features editor Sharon Fitzhugh, who fled during the storm to Florida with her husband and 5-year-old daughter. "When I saw my house standing, I went to my little girl's room and cried as if I'd lost everything, but hadn't. When I saw The Sun Herald building still standing, I thought, I've gotta get to work."

Newspapers, especially to newspaper people, are more than ink-stained newsprint. They can be family, especially here in small-town America, where the Aug. 12 headline was "Biloxi Little Leaguers Make Championship Round." Co-workers helped home-delivery manager Michelle Evans clean up her wrecked house. Fitzhugh, who's 40 and has worked at The Sun Herald since she delivered papers at 15, said her colleagues helped her pay for journalism school.

"This is truly my home," she said, caught up in a mix of emotions. "I feel safe in this building. I feel like I'm in a womb right now. If I'd come back and it was gone. ..."

The building is still there, but it's been redesigned in Katrina's aftermath: a first-aid station in the composing room, portable toilets and RVs in the parking lot for homeless staffers, the strange faces of journalists on loan from sister papers around the country and counseling sessions for people who are covering a tragedy that belongs to them, too.

Don Hammack, 38, a sportswriter and "Eyes on Katrina" blogger, thinks he lost his house. He got a half-block away, saw part of his roof and his "Drive By Truckers" CD on the ground and realized he wasn't ready to see any more. So he threw himself into the job, "working so I wouldn't have to go to sleep." At a staff meeting, he asked if he could use the paper's address temporarily for his mail, then broke down.

"The passion for their work is there," on-site psychotherapist Joyce Aron said, "but it's all mixed up in their own sense of loss."

After a handful of reporters stayed in the building throughout the storm, the paper kicked into action. Digging out from the rubble of their homes, staffers headed for 205 DuBuys Rd. in Gulfport and found the newspaper building intact except for a few leaks and busted windows.

"You know, journalists always think worst-case scenario, so I had no idea what to expect," said Executive Editor Stan Tiner, an affable, baby-faced ex-Marine whom the staff calls Coach. "I was desperate to get to the paper. As I drove, I saw looters, I saw cops arresting people. By the time I got there, reporters were already out and the story was starting to emerge: This was going to be bigger than anyone had imagined."

The paper's corporate parent, Knight Ridder, the nation's second-largest-circulation newspaper publisher, sent help. With top managers, editors, photographers and others rolling up their sleeves, Tiner said, "the Knight Ridder cavalry had arrived."

As Tony Ridder, the company's chairman and chief executive officer, huddled over a laptop for an online tour of the devastation in photos from the Coast Guard, Publisher Ricky Mathews spotted what had been his mother-in-law's house, now wiped off the map. Then he got back to work.

"I think we've shown that no matter what happens to this community, we'll be there for them," said Mathews, 48, who nearly lost his own house in the storm surge. "Being there for readers every day is part of being a newspaper."

Sun Herald and Knight Ridder editors who'd been dispatched to a sister paper in Georgia to use its printing plant cranked out the Aug. 30 edition. It arrived in the Biloxi-Gulfport area at midday the day after the storm and was handed out free at intersections and homeless shelters, anywhere people needed news, which was everywhere. People such as customer service rep Renee Bolton were pressed into action as hawkers, giving away papers.

"One guy was so happy to get a paper he asked me to marry him," Bolton said. "I felt like the paper was this light shining in all this darkness."

To Tiner, seeing people step out of a bottled-water line to grab newspapers "was powerful proof that we are needed. It was like we were shaking a fist and showing Katrina she hadn't kicked our butts."

But each new edition also delivered new pain: Bolton discovered in The Sun Herald that one of her best friends and his 2-year-old son had drowned.

In the following days, a rough-edged routine settled in, as the list of missing staffers decreased, food and fuel streamed in to the loading dock, children of employees played in a makeshift day-care center and thousands of e-mails nearly swamped the paper's Web site.

"I sit in front of my computer with the tears rolling down my face," one woman wrote from Alabama. "But it's so much better to have certainty than doubt. I am also certain that there's a special place in heaven for journalists."

One day last week, longtime reader Frank Yates, 80, stormed through the front door, haggard and unshaven, demanding his paper. He said he'd been reading it since 1967, that his house had 7 feet of water in it and that he couldn't live without his Sun Herald.

Then he started ranting about Tiner's editorial columns.

For a moment at least, things seemed to be getting back to normal.

———

(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KATRINA-SUNHERALD

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