Front Page Splash
Turley Publications Makes an Award-winning Recovery from the Flood of ’05
By mid-morning on that fateful Saturday in October 2005 when the Quaboag River spilled over its banks, Pat Turley had called his wife to tell her he thought they’d lost everything. But then, the water that had invaded the publishing company Turley and his brother started 43 years earlier — and now threatened millions of dollars worth of printing equipment — stopped rising, and it receded almost as quickly as it had risen. The problems facing Turley Publications had really only started, but what would become an award-winning process of disaster recovery was already well underway.
Pat Turley remembers retiring to his office for a private moment, but not before locking the door.
He feared that he might get emotional, and didn’t want any of his employees, including his two sons, walking in. It wasn’t that he didn’t want anyone to see him crying — he just didn’t want anyone to think things were “really bad.”
Which … they were.
It was Saturday, Oct. 15, 2005, mid-morning by Turley’s recollection. The flood waters that hours earlier had just started to approach the headquarters building of Turley Publications Inc. in Palmer, the business he started with his brother, Tom, some 43 years earlier, had by that time crashed through air conditioners in windows on the lower level, nearly reaching the ceiling tiles in the seven-foot-high newsroom/production department.
The water was still rising, Turley recalled, and no one knew how high it would go. “If it flooded the upper level, where our printing presses were, we were dead,” he told BusinessWest, admitting that those thoughts, facilitated by the knowledge that he lacked flood insurance, were already crossing his mind. But by the time Pat’s son, Keith, knocked on his father’s door to tell him that things would be OK, the water had started to recede.
“I thought I was seeing my life’s work floating away before my eyes,” the elder Turley recalled. “This was my baby, and it was disheartening to see what was happening to it.”
By nightfall, the waters of the Quaboag River had retreated across Water Street, and the Turley company had already shifted gears — from disaster-watching (and praying) to disaster recovery. That Sunday was spent cleaning and mopping up the press room, said Keith Turley, the company’s executive vice president, noting that print deadlines for the Monday editions of the UMass-Amherst and Boston University daily newspapers were met.
“The presses never actually stopped,” he told BusinessWest, adding that it was only through a heroic effort involving everyone from reporters, editors, and truck drivers to the Palmer Fire Department, that the company was able to make that statement. And there were many other times when that phrase would be put to use, both on that first weekend and months after the waters had receded.
Indeed, the contributions of many individuals, municipal departments, and local, state, and federal agencies would combine to create an inspiring business-recovery story. So good, in fact, that it recently earned the company the 2007 Phoenix Award for Small Business Disaster Recovery from the Small Business Administration (SBA).
The award, presented last month in Washington, D.C., was granted in part because the company’s presses, which print 15 weekly and three monthly publications for the Turley chain and a host of other newspapers and magazines, including BusinessWest, kept running. But the bigger story was that Turley achieved its recovery without laying off any of its 230 or so full-time employees, although times would become tough for the business, which was facing $1 million in damages and would wait six months for a disaster-recovery loan from the SBA.
“We had graphics people working at six-foot-long tables — they were working elbow to elbow and doing it for six months; they were tremendous,” said Pat Turley. “How are you going to lay off anyone like that?”
Beyond the award, the flood has given those at Turley some practical lessons in disaster preparedness. The business is now the proud owner of flood insurance — it was purchased within days after the water receded — and central air conditioning. It also has a series of contingency plans in place if disaster strikes again.
Some of the bullet points in that plan were being contemplated just a few weeks ago, when the Quaboag River again spilled over its bank.
“We didn’t need to implement any of those contingencies,” said Keith Turley. “But we had them if we needed them. We were ready.”
He couldn’t say that when the subject turned again to that fateful Saturday morning.
The younger Turley recalls thinking that he suddenly knew what it must be like to live in a fishbowl.
He was looking out the wide but shallow windows of the newsroom/production area, where 40 people worked, soon after being summoned to Palmer at 6 a.m. … and seeing nothing but muddy water. It had risen well beyond the tops of the those windows, Turley remembered, adding that while there wasn’t much water inside yet, perhaps a few inches, he understood that it was only a question of time — and probably not much of it — before that would no longer be the case. So he, his brother, Doug, several employees, and some firefighters scrambled to get whatever they could to higher ground.
They grabbed computers, servers, production equipment, some paper records, and whatever else that was easily transportable, and made several dozen trips each up the short flight of stairs to the upper floor of a building Turley compared to a split-level ranch. Only some phones, a few laptop computers, and one desktop model were lost as the water eventually broke through those windows.
That was just one of the impossible-to-forget scenes that played themselves out over a 48-hour span that began just past 5 a.m. on Oct. 15, the day when a week’s worth of heavy rains that pummeled the Pioneer Valley finally came to a merciful halt — a least a few hours too late.
“Most of it is a blur,” Turley said of that first weekend. “But there are many things I won’t forget, especially how people came together to help.”
Turley told BusinessWest that, ironically, among the things lost in the flood of ’05 were the company’s archives on the famous flood of 1955, which devastated many communities in the Pioneer Valley.
That was the last time the Quaboag River, just a few hundred yards from the company’s front door, had gone over its banks, he recalled, adding that the building on the aptly named Water Street became Turley’s home in 1962, and until the disaster of two years ago there wasn’t anything approaching a flood at that address.
“That’s why we didn’t have flood insurance — it never entered our minds,” he said, adding that, on a few occasions, there had been flooding of the athletic fields across the street from the plant. So when those fields were again covered with water in the early morning of Oct. 15, there was no immediate cause for alarm.
But all that changed when the water reached the street, and then started lapping at the building itself. “It was a very fast-moving event,” said Turley, noting that the flood waters rose three feet in one hour that morning and, overall, about 12 feet over three or four hours, and then receded just as quickly.
Pat Turley also remembers the fast pace of events, and recalled thinking just how quickly all that he had built appeared to be lost.
“It took me 40 years to build the business, and I thought it was going to be gone in a minute,” he said. “We kept watching the stairs … the water kept climbing up them.”
Eventutally, though, it would start to retreat, leading to a huge sigh of relief, but also realization that the problems had only begun.
The Beat Goes On
Jen Hoboth, editor of the Journal Register, the weekly paper devoted to coverage of Palmer, didn’t witness the flooding of her offices first-hand.
Like many employees of the company, she had difficulty getting to the plant because the streets surrounding it were flooded and closed off to traffic. And besides, she had work to do; Palmer’s most severe flooding in nearly a half-century would certainly dominate the front page of an edition that would hit the streets a few days later.
But while gathering news around town, Hoboth also received some from the Turleys, with whom she kept in touch via cell phone. When told that the space in which she worked was now underwater, Hoboth created a mental picture of what she thought that would look like; it turned out to be quite inaccurate.
“I thought everything would be just where it was before, but under water,” she said, adding that when she was finally able to see the damage, the reality was much different. “This was river water, and there was a lot of mud; the water pushed everything around, and desks were on top of one another. It was a mess.”
There wasn’t much time to contemplate the scene — again, because there was a newspaper to put out. Working from their homes, where they could write and also download photographs, reporters, editors, and photographers managed to get the Journal Register and the company’s other publications out on schedule.
While doing so, Hoboth said she and others could easily relate to the situations that faced journalists in Florida during Hurricane Andrew, in New Orleans during Katrina (only a few months earlier), and other disasters where writers and editors weren’t just reporting news, they were part of it.
“This was a little different because our homes weren’t destroyed and our personal lives weren’t turned upside down,” she said. “Still, our offices were flooded, and we couldn’t work in them. It was surreal.”
Like Hoboth, Keith Turley told BusinessWest that, for much of that first week after the flooding, he and others were preoccupied with various tasks that were right in front of them. “There just wasn’t much time to think,” he said, adding quickly that when there was time, there was plenty to think about.
For starters, the news/production area, while now dry, was completely unusable, and it was clear to all concerned that it would be so for several months. The first priority was to find more permanent places for people to work.
Some were relocated to other offices — Hoboth, for example, was given desk space in the company’s Ware facility, and others went to one in West Springfield — while others were squeezed into every usable space in the building’s upper floor.
The conference room was soon home to five production personnel, while every bit of floor and wall space was put to use. “We had people working shoulder-to-shoulder and back-to-back,” said Hoboth. “You had to be pretty skinny to get between the chairs.”
While shuffling personnel into new workspaces, the Turley company started replacing lost equipment and rebuilding damaged space. The process was costly, and money was tight, said Keith Turley, adding that the company was helped through it all by vendors, customers, employees, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), MEMA (its Baystate counterpart), and the SBA.
“This wasn’t long after Katrina, and FEMA was still getting heavily criticized for how it handled that disaster,” he said. “But they were great with us; they helped us get back on our feet.”
As part of that effort, the agency connected the company with the SBA, which eventually granted it a $977,000, 30-year, low-interest loan that has greatly facilitated the recovery process.
Both Keith and Pat Turley said the company would have survived without the loan, but it made the process of recovery easier, and without any staff reductions.
To say that the loan probably saved 25 to 30 jobs wouldn’t be a stretch,” said Keith.
The Turley company now has a wood-and-glass award for its front lobby as a testament to its inspiring recovery story. Pat Turley went to Washington to pick up the hardware and say a few words.
Not a polished public speaker, by his own account, Turley said his task was made harder by the fact that he had to follow Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to the podium. He said he told the audience the same thing he was now telling BusinessWest:
“People are good … their basic instinct is to do good; when they see someone down, they want to help,” he said. “We had employees who were scaling fences — they could have been hurt — to get inside the property and help us. Townspeople helped, and employees from all across the company came in; we had people in the newsroom hauling muck out of the press area.
“That phrase ‘family business’ is overused somewhat,” he continued. “But that’s how we’ve always run this business; yeah, you’re looking out for the Turleys, but you’re also looking out for 250 families.”
His son, Keith, agreed. “When adversity strikes, you learn a lot about yourself, and also about who your friends are,” he said. “It’s the same for a company. My father runs this company to high ethical and moral standards, and on the 15th and 16th of October in 2005, that paid us back.”
Beyond the gleaming award, Turley has taken home many other things from its experiences during and following the flood of ’05. First and foremost, there is respect and gratitude for everyone who helped. There is also a deep appreciation for the need for businesses to think about disaster prevention and recovery — and to ultimately do more than think about it.
The Turleys shared some of these thoughts in a trade industry magazine piece on that subject. But they told BusinessWest that these lessons, pertaining to everything from back-up generators to the need for regular insurance audits, apply to businesses across every sector.
The Palmer plant now has thicker windows that will better withstand flood waters that reach them, said Keith Turley, also noting the aforementioned central air conditioning and other steps designed to prevent future calamity. For example, important documents are now stored well above floor level, and the company’s vans and trucks are now moved to a higher, safer location at the first hint of flooding.
“We’ve changed things around a lot since the flood,” said the elder Turley. “We’re not all set, but we’d do better another time with the same amount of water.”
While the company has contingencies in place, its larger plan is to move to higher ground — literally, said Pat Turley, noting that he is searching for a site in Palmer that has both the requisite space and desired distance from the Quaboag River.
What happened at Turley Publications during the flood of ’05 was downplayed somewhat in the Oct. 20, 2005 edition of the Journal Register. It was, as they say in the business, below-the-fold news.
The bigger, better story, the one about the company’s recovery, will likely see even less press coverage, which is regrettable, because it is inspiring and provides valuable lessons for all businesses.
As Pat and Keith Turley said, the waters from the flash flood went as quickly as they came. But the lessons — and memories of unselfish acts — will always be there.
George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]