CNN cameraman Scott McWhinnie (left) and correspondent Jeff Koinange (right) in the flooded streets of New Orleans, nearly two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck. Photo courtesy Radhika Chalasani, Getty Images for CNN.
Desperate people pleading for help from roofs of flooded homes. Mile upon mile of devastation. Water pouring through broken levees. Fires, looting, a cry for help. Each snapshot of Hurricane Katrina evokes memories sure to live in the nation's consciousness for generations to come.
Broadcasters also have mental snapshots of Hurricane Katrina: climbing atop a downtown tower to see if the station's transmission tower 7mi away is still standing; caravanning to a distant city to set up temporary news operations; or abandoning a studio out of fear of flooding, looting or both. Katrina even uprooted a 16,000lb concrete tower anchor and flung it into a second-story office.
All of these images and thousands more build a mosaic of what broadcasters experienced and did to fulfill their primary mission: public service. It's impossible to chronicle each broadcaster's story, but knowing even a few reveals just how seriously the broadcasters of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast states take their obligation to serve their communities.
HD eye in the sky: Helinet Aviation Service
Sunday, Aug. 28, at about the time Katrina was upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane, Helinet Aviation Services headed to Lafayette, LA, with an HD-equipped newsgathering helicopter. What followed were 13 12-hour days of aerial reporting.
The first look the nation had at Hurricane Katrina's destruction came from taped footage shot by Helinet Aviation Services. Flying behind Coast Guard helicopters, company owner Alan Purwin and chief technology officer J.T. Alpaugh reached New Orleans about two and a half hours after Katrina hit. They quickly surveyed the damage from the air and realized the historic importance of what they were witnessing.
“I felt it was important to report on what I was seeing. By trade I am not a reporter, but this disaster had to have a voice, so I started reporting,” says Alpaugh who sat beside Purwin in the Cineflex HD equipped chopper.
“One of the first things we saw was the amount of flooding, and it was substantial even before the levees broke,” he recalls. “Numerous people were on rooftops trying to signal us by waving flags and towels and makeshift signs stating ‘Help us.’ People were on rooftops everywhere.”
Initially, the pair flew to a fire burning in the marina on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. “There weren't just a couple of things to shoot,” Alpaugh explains. “There were thousands upon thousands of things. You didn't know where to start.”
For two hours the pair documented the immediate aftermath of Katrina. As fuel ran low, they flew to Baton Rouge, where they met up with a satellite truck. “Right as it went up, numerous networks were taking it raw,” he says. “It wasn't five minutes after we had landed and the images were going out to world.”
Share and share alike: WPXL
SNAPSHOT: WPXL's transmitter site sits on the west bank in New Orleans, a higher area less prone to flooding. That left the station in a position to help the swamped local WDSU and WGNO stations get on the air after losing their transmitters to flood waters.
Debris-strewn roads limited access to WPXL's transmitter site, so it wasn't until Sept. 1 that Paxson vice president of engineering Dave Glenn and a crew made it to the site. When they arrived, the access road was completely blocked off with fallen trees. Working with a tower crew they had met in Tallahassee, FL, they cut and dragged trees for hours to clear the 1000ft transmitter access road.
When the crew made it in, the site's generator was barely running. It was almost out of fuel, so the first job was to fill the tank with fuel brought from Florida. Next, was a site inspection.
Before arriving at the site, the staff was confident the transmitter sustained limited damage. When they tuned to WPXL, all they saw was black. Their suspicion bore out. A damaged, misaligned STL had taken the station off the air. A couple of hours of repair to the STL re-established the link.
Then Glenn could begin assessing the rest of the damage. “Our main NTSC antenna looked like it was bent; 3in HELIAX was wrapped around guy wires (see photo), and whole arrays of cellular antennas were destroyed,” he says.
Prior to going in, Paxson had agreed to carry Hearst-Argyle's WDSU news coverage once the WPXL transmitter was operational. Taking down WDSU's signal at its operation center in Clearwater, FL, Paxson retransmitted it to its own transponder to be received at WPXL and transmitted to New Orleans.
A few days after getting WDSU on, Glenn and his staff returned to the transmitter site to assist Tribune Broadcasting's WGNO in putting the station up on one of its DTV sub-channels. Tribune rolled in a satellite receiver at WPXL's transmitter site, and they put the station on the air.
On the road again: Harris Broadcast
SNAPSHOT: Knowing the potential devastation Hurricane Katrina might inflict, Harris Broadcast readied a team to help broadcasters in the hurricane's sights. Tribune Broadcasting's WGNO in New Orleans benefited from that preparation.
Following the blackout period after the hurricane, one New Orleans broadcaster in need of help was WGNO. A helicopter survey of its transmitter site showed a watermark 6ft high on the doors, indicating the transmitters had been submerged.
“The first priority was to get the analog WGNO on the air,” says Joseph Seccia, Harris Broadcast's Katrina project manager. “Unfortunately, we did not have a transmitter in storage or on our test pad that was suitable.”
However, WGNO's sister station WTIC in Hartford, CT, recently went on-air with a new PowerCD transmitter and donated its older unit. “In the digital transition era, we are often asked to convert analog transmitters to digital. The task with this transmitter was the opposite,” says Seccia.
Tribune contracted United Concrete Products to build two 8ft × 20ft shelters that would be shipped on air-cushioned trailers to New Orleans, where they would be joined to form a temporary transmitter structure.
As work progressed on the shelters, Harris got an exciter and re-tuned the WTIC transmitter. Before decommissioning the transmitter, it was changed in place. Then it was shipped to United Concrete Products.
“The other heroic vendor here was Dielectric,” says Seccia. “One of the long lead-time items in a typical IOT transmitter installation is the RF system. A typical six-week item, they built in four days.”
Managing this recovery project for Harris has left Seccia with a valuable perspective on disaster response. “What's important in these situations,” he says, “is learning to be as flexible as possible with what you have within reach.”
Anchors away: WLOX
SNAPSHOT: With pieces of the station coming apart around them, the 50 employees inside the WLOX building in Biloxi, MS, managed to keep the station on-air, broadcasting vital information to the people of southern Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina.
Throughout the day, we experienced hurricane force winds and at some point began to lose pieces of roof over the newsroom,” says WLOX vice president and general manager Leon Long, remembering the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall. “We had to evacuate the newsroom, and then we began to lose some areas above the control room. Some of the roof began to disappear.”
Things deteriorated even more when an STL tower outside the studio fell and unearthed a 64cu-ft block of concrete, which held a guy wire anchor in place. In the process of falling, the tower's guy wire did not break. As a result, the collapsing tower catapulted the massive piece of concrete — estimated to weigh 16,000lbs — through the second-story roof of the building. Ultimately, it came to rest on the floor of an unoccupied sales office.
“As we started to lose pieces of the building, we moved to the center of building to find the safest possible spot,” says Long. “There were 50 people in the building at the time.” Through it all, the staff of WLOX kept the station on the air.
While the WLOX studio sustained severe damage, the station's transmitter 27mi away remained unscathed. Much work remains ahead for the station in rebuilding its studio, as it does for most of the station's employees whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Katrina.
In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, station owner Liberty sent crews from other stations to Biloxi to give the exhausted WLOX staff some relief. “We received a lot of help post Katrina,” he says. “Had it not been for the relief crews, this ordeal would have been substantially worse.”
Sinking feeling: WDSU
SNAPSHOT: New Orleans' WDSU temporarily handed its operations to sister-station WESH in Orlando, FL, as its staff moved to WAPT in Jackson, MS. The station resumed operations from Jackson for 10 days before moving to WESH. Photos courtesy Dan Highland.
After disassembling edit bays and servers and moving them to the second floor of the station's studio the night before Hurricane Katrina struck, WDSU chief engineer Chet Guillot and two-dozen station employees waited in New Orleans.
By 6 a.m. Aug. 29, the station was feeling the full force of the hurricane. Guillot and a few others stepped outside into a protected alcove. “We'd never seen these kinds of winds before,” he recalls. “They were taking 6ft × 8ft metal sheets, and the buildings were falling apart and flying through the air.”
The crew was watching the tower camera when Katrina took the station off the air at 9:20 a.m. At noon they attempted to drive to the transmitter.
“We weren't even on the road six minutes, and the water in New Orleans was up to the roofs of residential houses,” he says.
Unable to proceed, the group returned to the station. In an effort to learn whether Katrina had taken down the tower, Raymond Williams, a WDSU engineer, climbed an ornamental tower on the studio building with a digital camera in tow. From there, he snapped a picture of the station's transmission tower 7mi away.
Video from a helicopter revealed that the transmitter building was submerged beneath 5.5ft of water.
With nowhere to go, the station's crew spent the next few days re-installing the equipment on the second floor. On Aug. 31, the need to evacuate became clear. “There was no water in the building,” he says, “but we didn't want to wait for it to arrive or have gangs break into the building.”
See ya later alligator: WGNO
SNAPSHOT: Hurricane Katrina and the broken levees in New Orleans destroyed the transmitters of WGNO. The station moved critical news functions and personnel to WBRZ in Baton Rouge, LA.
We had just finished reinforcing our tower, hung new guy wires at the top level and a new antenna,” recalls WGNO vice president and general manager Larry Delia. “After Katrina, we found a small alligator, nutrea and fish stuck in chain link fencing around the building. The building and its contents are a total loss.”
On Saturday, Aug. 27, Delia called Rocky Daboval, general manager of WBRZ in Baton Rouge, LA, and worked out an agreement to allow his news department to work from WBRZ. With satellite trucks on their way from Houston and Dallas, backhaul of their signal to WGNO's transmitter would not be a problem.
At 2:30 p.m. Sunday, WGNO moved forward with its plan. Five hours later, all but a small contingent of journalists and engineers who volunteered to stay behind were in Baton Rouge to resume their work.
“We ended up integrating both news staffs,” says Delia. “It was unprecedented putting two news staffs together that had nothing to do with each other and for eight days put the joint product on my station and theirs, as well as streaming on our Web site.”
Relying on others for help extended beyond WBRZ. In an effort to get his station back on the air in New Orleans, Delia made a personal appeal to the president of Entergy, the regional utility, to re-establish service to the New Orleans World Trade Center, where the station had an old transmitter. Within a day, power was flowing, and 12 hours later WGNO engineers had the old unit operational.
Today, WGNO produces its newscasts from two double-wide trailers parked next to its old headquarters. The station's building won't reopen, and a new studio is 18 months away.
An ounce of prevention: WWL
SNAPSHOT: Belo-owned WWL stayed on-air in New Orleans throughout Hurricane Katrina. Although rising flood waters came within a few blocks of its studios and forced personnel to relocate, the station's transmitter building and tower remained intact.
Eight years ago when WWL director of technology and broadcast media Rick Barber moved to New Orleans, he quickly realized something many Big Easy natives lose sight of: The city is below sea level.
“When you are in New Orleans, you are sitting in a bowl with water around it,” he says. That knowledge and the opportunity to redesign the station's transmitter site to prepare for digital broadcasting gave Barber the chance he needed to extract WWL from the bowl.
Drawing on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' studies about the effect hypothetical hurricanes would have on New Orleans, Barber began his transmitter site design. “After I read that data, I became even more concerned about the vulnerability of our studio and transmitter site to the effects of a severe hurricane,” Barber says.
His design called for the transmitter building to be elevated on concrete columns 14ft high. He specified solid concrete, tilt-up walls and a double-T concrete roof.
Envisioning loss of utility service after a hurricane, he specified an additional elevated concrete room to house a 1MW generator with a 1500 gallon feed tank and a separate 10,000 gallon reserve tank. To protect the station's new 1049ft tower, Barber insisted it be built to withstand maximum foreseeable wind speeds.
Uneasy about the vulnerability of the station's headquarters in the French Quarter, Barber added a room to the transmitter building to serve as a small production space to keep the station on-air if a hurricane knocked out its studios.
As it became clear Sunday, Aug. 28, that Hurricane Katrina would strike New Orleans, the station executed its emergency plan. Barber and a small group, including talent and production personnel, drove to the mass communications department at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, LA. After meeting an SNG truck sent from KHOU in Houston, the crew set up an auxiliary studio and a satellite link directly to WWL's transmitter site.
The station sent another crew and talent to the transmitter production room. The setup allowed the station to stay on the air while staff at the main studio could evacuate to a downtown hotel.
For 36 hours, the LSU crew helped keep the station on the air in New Orleans. However, as WWL's evacuated staff began to assemble in Baton Rouge, it became clear a bigger facility was needed. Working out an arrangement with Louisiana Public Broadcasting (LPB), the station set up a temporary facility at the LPB studios in Baton Rouge.
As the WWL news team settled in at LPB and continued its coverage, Barber — escorted by a Belo-hired security team armed with semi-automatic rifles — returned to the transmitter site with a fuel truck to top off the generator's tanks. They met with no problems.
Once Katrina had done her worst, Barber and assistant chief engineer Bob Grass worked with other engineers and technical staff to assess and repair damage to the site. The whole experience has left Barber with a tremendous sense of admiration for his fellow WWL employees — 75 percent to 80 percent of whom lost their homes during the hurricane.
The hurricane has also impressed upon him the vital role of over-the-air broadcasting. “The FCC needs to understand the importance of local over-the-air broadcasting in times like this,” he says.
Above all, the experience confirmed the fundamental truth of a motto Barber learned as a young man. “I was taught in Boy Scouts to be prepared, and it paid off,” Barber says.
Phil Kurz authors several Broadcast Engineering e-newsletters, including “News Technology Update,” “HD Update,” “RF Update” and “Sports Technology Update.”