[Editor’s note: The following is the Foreword from the 2011 book The Wrath of Irene, a staff-written account of Tropical Storm Irene, published by The Public Press in 2011. A foreword is a (usually short) piece of writing sometimes placed at the beginning of a book written by someone other than the primary author of the work, it often tells of some interaction between the writer of the foreword and the book’s primary author or the story the book tells.
The foreword is sometimes confused with the preface, which is written by the author of the book and generally covers the story of how the book came into being or how the idea for the book was developed, and may include thanks and acknowledgments to people who were helpful to the author during the time of writing. Unlike a preface, a foreword is always signed.]
The Boss Takes a Vacation
Rule #1 of basic journalism: it’s never good if the reporter becomes the story. Corollary of rule #1: it’s ok of the reporter’s boss becomes the story.
The boss in this case is M. Dickey Drysdale, also known around the office as “MD,” “Dick,” “M. Dickey,” “Doc” (get it?), “The Absent-Minded Professor,” and, of course, the “Boss.” Not that he’s very authoritative; that’s not his style. He’s more absent-minded than authoritative. He’s also more frugal than authoritative, and for that reason he doesn’t take a lot of vacations, but when he does, I sometimes get the call to be his stand-in. That mostly means I get to “ride the roll top,” meaning to sit at his desk (and probably his father’s before him).
It’s always a fun time for me. The veteran staff, some of whom have been there since Gutenberg invented the printing press, are politely tolerant. Some of them even pretend to consult me when making decisions on what goes in The Herald.
The week for me starts on the Thursday preceding the Boss’s vacation week with the editorial meeting where the staff hashes out the hot new stories, the follow-ups, the maybe stories, and the need for fillers. The headline story of the previous week was the earthquake that gently shook Vermont. Not quite a natural disaster, but a natural phenomenon.
The assignments are parceled out, followed by the obligatory small talk. Someone asks MD, Dick, etc. what he is doing for vacation. He responds that he and his wife, Marjie, will be going over to attend a musical retreat on Mt. Desert Island off the coast of Maine. They will be camping out in tents.
“Uh, you might want to bring some rain gear,” said Sandy Cooch Vondrasek, his managing editor.
“Hurricane Irene,” says Martha Slater, the copy editor. “It’s supposed to bring heavy rains on Sunday.”
MD shrugs, so, mentally, did I. So did everyone in Vermont. Hurricanes don’t threaten us. We scoff at hurricanes, as we do at earthquakes, tornadoes, and tsunamis. We’re a little afraid of ice dams … and mud, of course, but we can handle just about everything else nature can throw at us.
So editorial assignments are completed. I have a roster of hardball journalism stories that would bring lesser reporters to their knees, including a report on the anniversary of the Boy Scouts, a look at the Barnard General Store installing WiFi, and a profile of an apple farm in Vershire. Someone is given the task of following up on the previous week’s earthquake, but no one is assigned to cover Hurricane Irene. At the end of the meeting we wish The Boss safe travel and joke about him forgetting his rain slicker.
On Friday Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York, notches up the Irene alert when he orders the city to be evacuated and closes down the public transportation system. But there’s a political element here. He had been criticized for under-reacting the previous winter when the city was slammed by a snowstorm just after Christmas, and seems to be going to great lengths to make sure that experience is not repeated. The forecast for Vermont is for high winds and rain, but hurricanes always lose their teeth when they make it this far inland. No one seems worried.
On Saturday I am surprised to learn via Facebook post that the Drysdales have canceled their trip to Maine. (Facebook, along with the branches of the White River watershed becomes one of the surprising characters in this book.) I email Dick, expressing my sympathy and volunteering that maybe the Herald does not need a substitute editor if the real one is available. He responds that it was the campground that had canceled their workshop. He and Marjie were all set to go and not about to be deterred by a little rain. As far as he is concerned, he is still on vacation and only the venue has changed. He and Marjie will be spending the week visiting Vermont’s beautiful state parks. He will check in at the office on Monday morning, but otherwise is “outtahere.”
I arrive at the office bright-eyed bushy-tailed, tankard of coffee in hand, and armed with my little storm vignettes to swap with others. Most of us have lost power or witnessed some storm-related damage, so we know that Irene is a bigger story than anticipated, but no one is prepared for the enormity of the scale.
News travels at warp speed in a newspaper office.
The next two days are a blur of rumors, dramatic reports, blind alleys, heroic actions, and misinformation. We instantly get busy trying to sort out the fact from fiction. to determine what is, in fact, news. The task is made the more difficult due to some staffers being literally among the missing, living in those communities that were isolated from both the world and the twenty-first century. It is controlled chaos.
Most everywhere is without electricity and phone service. Amazingly downtown Randolph is largely spared any disruption. The dramatic and complex story of Tropical Storm Irene unfolds over the next hours, but then keeps unfolding in the following days and weeks. As the only person in the office with no defined role I become the official repository for things that no one else knows what to do with. I interview a town manager who admits to being bewildered and overwhelmed, yet who is composed enough to return a call to the local newspaper. I take a call from a near hysterical lady from the devastated Stony Brook community who provides first-hand reports of houses washed away by raging waters, but who refuses to give her name due to fears of attracting looters. I talk to a fish hatchery supervisor who is in shock from the loss of 90,000 trout that he had spent the last two years raising. I follow up on a report of a dairy farmer who watched part of his herd float down the White River. Amazingly, he answers the phone in his barn, and tells me that in addition to his livestock losses, he has lost his home, and much of his equipment. And what was he doing in the barn?
“Milkin’,” he says without missing a beat. Tropical storms don’t affect the milking schedule.
Nor do they affect newspaper deadlines. Everyone is on information overload, but there is still a paper to get out. The Times-Argus, we learn, can’t be delivered, due to roads being out. Their own pressroom had been flooded out earlier in the summer. TheVermont Standard, published continuously for the last 158 years, loses their offices to the Ottauquechee River, yet publisher Phil Camp vows to publish on schedule.
In one rare, quiet moment on Wednesday morning, I look up from the desk I had commandeered from Martha Slater who is among those stranded in Rochester, and see Dick, whose vacation has now been officially blasted to smithereens. “I lay awake a lot last night thinking about all this,” he says, “and I can’t help but think people in Vermont will be affected by this for a long time.”
It was, then and now, both prophetic and an understatement. While the pain of this disaster will be felt for many years to come, it is matched by tales of inspiration, re-birth, and the human spirit that also parts of this fascinating and multi-hued story. Irene, the storm, was history by Monday morning, but Irene, the story, continues to evolve.
Stephen Morris, 2011
[M. Dickey Drysdale passed away last week, leaving a legacy of selfless contribution to the greater Randolph community. I can think of no higher compliment than to say that Dick Drysdale was in every way, shape, form, spirit, and manner, a Silverback. SB SM]