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A tornado hit an Oklahoma newsroom built in the 1920s. The damage isn’t stopping the presses

By GRAHAM LEE BREWER, Associated Press
Published: May 3, 2024, 7:50am

SULPHUR, Okla. (AP) — When Oklahoma and national officials held a press conference Monday to discuss the scale of devastation following tornadoes two days earlier, Kathy John did what she always does: She showed up to report on it for the town’s weekly newspaper, the Sulphur Times-Democrat.

But before she could write her story, John had to help her staff salvage computers from the newsroom, which was at the center of the path of destruction on April 28.

“We’re gonna get a paper out. It may be a day late, but we’re gonna get a paper out,” John said from in front of the brick building built in 1926 that houses the newsroom.

Sulphur suffered Oklahoma’s worst destruction during an outreak of severe weather when a tornado plowed through downtown in the community of about 5,000 residents south of Oklahoma City. Four people were killed across the state, including a woman who was in a bar near the newspaper’s offices.

Kathy John’s husband, James John, joined the staff in 1968, after his father ran it for 27 years. Together, the pair have been covering Sulphur, the county seat, for more than 50 years.

In the 83 years their family has owned the paper, it has never missed a printing, Kathy John said. It has come close before.

There was the time about 20 years ago when an overnight freeze followed torrential rains that caused trees and power lines to snap in two. Some residents were without power for weeks, but running on a generator, the newsroom of the Sulphur Times Democrat continued to churn.

But this week has tested the paper’s staff of three.

“I’ve been trying to write a headline all day, but you just can’t put into words what happened,” James John said, looking at the paper’s layout on a computer on his kitchen table.

Their newsroom downtown is without power, so the Oklahoma Press Association delivered a wifi hotspot and other equipment to help the staff put out the paper from the John’s home a few blocks away, where they rode out the storm and thankfully took no damage.

The newsroom was built in 1926, the same year the newspaper started printing, and they’re likely the original tenants, although no one can say for certain. The building was once a fallout shelter and might be one of the few buildings that will survive. But they worry the town may condemn the structure and raze it with the rest of downtown, James John said.

Several buildings have completely crumpled. Others show the strange precision of tornadic winds, like a shop that is missing its front wall while the clothing inside remains neatly folded or hanging on a rack.

Not far from the newsroom, a sports grill was flattened underneath its roof. One resident, Sheila Hilliard Goodman, died there Saturday night while sheltering from the tornado.

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Brick, wood and metal rubble has been pushed to the curbs and maintenance trucks line most of the downtown’s modest five blocks, where disaster relief workers attend to downed power lines or sweep debris from the few remaining rooftops. Business owners and their families salvage what they can by loading truck beds and trailers.

Some of the buildings in Sulphur’s downtown predate statehood in 1907, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The town is built on tourism for Chickasaw National Recreation Area, a nearly 10,000-acre (4,046.86-hectare) park across the street with natural springs that travelers once believed had medicinal qualities.

Visitors often compare the smell of the sulfurous water in the springs to rotten eggs. But on Monday, the rich smell of leather hung in the air, wafting down the block through the busted windows of Billy Cook Harness & Saddle.

Sulphur is crawling with reporters from all over the state and country, so the newspaper staff decided they could serve their community best by writing about its strength and resiliency.

“This week we’re trying to focus on all the people here helping and the helpers and how blessed we are that we only had one fatality,” Kathy John said. “I just think it’s the most integral thing to do.”

By Tuesday, the Johns had decided to publish the newspaper on Thursday, one day later than usual. The paper is printed in a nearby town that wasn’t hit by the tornado.

It had been a tough few days and their heads were still spinning while trying to keep up with the location of the next FEMA press conference or whether the city would let them back into their building to retrieve their archives.

As the recovery continued around them, James John was still working on writing that headline.

“It was a treasure,” he said of the old downtown, thinking perhaps that was the angle. “Something along that line, you know: ‘Treasure Lost.’”