The Mountain Times

°F Wed, April 23, 2014

Central Vermont's Most Popular Weekly Newspaper

A year after Irene, newspaper’s flood edition stands as a high mark

For 30 years, Publisher Phil Camp's life was dedicated to reporting the news of Woodstock and the surrounding Windsor County towns in his paper, the Vermont Standard.

On Aug. 29 last year, Camp became part of the news in the sweep of a few wet muddy and hours. He also became one of the myriad casualties of one of the biggest stories the state has seen,  the devastating flooding brought on by Tropical Storm Irene.
Unlike others who lost their belongings and businesses, Camp had an added burden. The Vermont Standard, the state's oldest weekly, founded in 1853 by Thomas Powers (best known as the architect of the state capitol building), had never missed an edition during its 158 years. Despite losing everything in his business to the raging Ottauquechee River, he felt a solemn and passionate responsibility to put out a paper.

 "I refused not to publish that week," he recalls, saying, "I'm not going to let 158 years of publishing go down the drain."
Looking back a year later from the comfort of a spacious new rented office a mile up Route 4 from where his old office stood, the 76-year-old Camp still gets animated thinking about the events of that historic day. His memories flow back and forth between emotional low points and high points, revisiting mental landmarks that Irene imprinted deeply in his brain. For someone with printer's ink in his veins - the paper's offices used to be located below his grandfather's funeral home and he first worked at the paper back in 1952 - there's no doubt that the best memory is how his small staff of eight pulled together to meet deadline and produce a minor (paper) miracle.

Just five days after the flood, Vol. 158-No. 35 hit the streets of Woodstock, printed as usual by the Valley News, which was unaffected by the flood. 

The headline was: "We Shall Overcome."

Which is what he and so many others did after Irene. In Camp's case, that meant some staffers, photos and correspondent reports came in by ATVs because it was the only way they could get to Woodstock, and work went on without phones and power for a while.

A key hurdle was finding a new office, since the single-story white office building that housed the Standard was deluged with muck and had its walls blown out by the river, which rose over five feet high inside at the peak. The river inundated 10 new iMac computers and all the technology Camp used to publish, from printers and copiers to backup drives.

Worst of all, the river carried away decades of family history, memorabilia and artifacts of Camp's previous life as the founder and director of the New England Ski Areas Council, a loss that still resonates today.

"It makes me sad," he says, pausing as he chokes up at the thought. Then he continues: "But the fact of the matter is when you go in the next day and see it's all gone, it's just stuff," he says.

Today Camp can laugh at his careful emergency planning for Irene. Thinking wind and electricity outages would be the problem, he went out and bought electrical generators and gasoline to run his office. The river took it all, sweeping them into a bobbing parade of propane tanks, trees, construction materials, piping and who-knows-what that the water grabbed and hauled away down this east-west valley along Route 4 between Bridgewater and Quechee.

Camp, who says he "nearly drowned" wading into the building to foolishly try and save things, recalls the feelings that swept over him when the waters receded.  He felt sorry for himself. And he was mad.

"I was angry. I had worked all of my life to run this business," he says, noting he was debt free and he and his wife MaryLee had sunk half their retirement money into the paper.

But that lasted "for about two hours," and then he was galvanized by his responsibilities: There was a paper to get out.

"I could go out on the yellow line and hope a truck runs over me," he jokes, recalling the massive parade of heavy equipment that flooded the area after the waters receded. Instead he found some miracle workers like Justin McCoart,  a whiz with computers whom Camp turned to in desperation. McCoart, who owns Up and Running in Woodstock, salvaged data from his soggy hard drives.
"He saved our bacon," says Camp.

Camp then found temporary office space and bought six new iMacs and the staff settled in using donated card tables, plastic lawn chairs and even plastic crates as furniture. Somehow, the paper managed to publish a (slightly) late edition that included a 36-page special supplement planned long before Irene hit. 

Getting his financial house in order took a little longer. Camp collected  $50,000 from a flood insurance policy and took out a $100,000 loan from his local bank ("with a handshake") and $100,000 loan from the Vermont Economic Development Authority. Putting his house up as collateral to cover the debts, he recalls today the odd euphoria of having put it all on the line and finding himself suddenly with the money to refinance the paper.  

"I had $200,000 in a sense, in my pocket, and we've paid  every cent back," he says proudly.

The payback he remembers most, though, is the incredible support that fellow Vermonters gave him and the paper, sustaining him as he and his staff struggled through three and half months in a cramped temporary office trying to get back to normal. That sense of "brand loyalty," a reminder of the weekly's important ties to the community, was measured in impromptu thumbs up folks gave him on the street and the dollars and cents in donations and unsolicited ads that flowed in his office door.

He is still astounded at a local business owner who showed up with a $3,000 check, announcing that he'd never advertised with the paper before  but figured now was a good time to start. He told Camp to take the $3,000 and he'd draw down from the credit when he took out future ads.

Asked what lessons he takes from the disaster, Camp hesitates only long enough to organize his thoughts.

"I've got a great staff," he says, who did whatever needed to be done and so much more. He also rediscovered in so many tangible ways the heart-warming sense of community that even a river can't sweep away.

"I learned that every Vermonter is concerned for his neighbor," Camp says.

With his now silver-white hair and glasses, Camp looks like a kindly grandfather and talks as if the staff, now up to nine, are like members of the family. There is no doubt the one-year anniversary of Irene on Aug. 28, 2012 carried a little extra meaning for a publisher who is 76 and withstood the worst that nature could throw at him.

"I set the record this year - 31 years, the longest as a publisher (of the Standard)," he says proudly.

Tagged: The Vermont Standard, hurricane irene