Monday, October 27, 2008

Dr. Starr on 1954 Pulitzer-winning storm coverage

I checked in with Dr. Starr about his Distinguished Achievement Award (story here) and also asked him, just out of my own curiosity, for a little background on the Pulitzer. Here's what he says:
There is no finer award for a teacher than one that comes from the students. That award brought honor not for me alone, but also for the Department of Leadership, Education, and Communications.

Yes, I was a reporter, one of the team that helped the Vicksburg MS Post-Herald win the Pulitzer Prize in 1954. All of the reporters -- there weren't that many -- were assigned to cover the aftermath of the tornado. For my part, it was 48 hours of combing the streets, interviewing victims, and law enforcement officers, and national guardsmen about what they saw and heard, and describing the destruction that I saw.

I visited hospitals and interviewed the injured and the survivors (a difficult task for a reporter new to that situation), the doctors, the paramedics, the police, and sheriff's deputies. And I lived on Red Cross coffee and doughnuts.

What impressed me was the number of volunteers, ordinary citizens, who came from up to 200 miles away to help "because I figured they needed my help." That was the days before the special teams that we have today.

True, the power was down, but the telephone lines were out of whack. For some reason, the cityroom telephone was connected to the switchboard of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To make a telephone call, we had to get an outside line from the cityroom and another outside line from the Engineers switchboard.

No matter how good a job we reporters did, the major credit goes to the backshop crew who somehow got power to the presses and put out the newspaper when it was needed.

A year after -- this did not figure in the Pulitzer Prize -- I did an anniversary piece and found that life had returned to normal, except that some families had fewer members. One of the buildings that collapsed was a movie theater. The roof fell down on the matinee audience that consisted mostly of children. Those who hid under the seats survived because the seats held off the roof. Fortunately, not many died.

Similarities are that people, teams and volunteers, helped those in need then and help now, without waiting to be called into action. I saw that in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Bonfire.

Differences are that, in those days, since there was no television to speak of, people depended upon radio and the newspaper, and both worked to provide what was needed.