MIAMI--Broadcasters in Florida and throughout the southeast are bracing for Hurricane Irma, as the monster hurricane takes aim on the Florida Keys and Miami with an expected arrival Saturday night as a Category 4 storm.
“We are prepared as we possibly can be,” says John Heislman, GM at WFLX, the Raycom Media-owned Fox affiliate in West Palm Beach, Fla. “The infrastructure is there. Fuel, technology and fuel delivery provisions are locked into place.”
Heislman is no newcomer to hurricane preparation. Following Hurricane Wilma, the Category 5 storm in October 2005, hurricane prep is a process the station has chosen to begin every year in April, he says. “Nothing is left to chance,” he says. “We used to wait till a watch was issued and then check out the transmitter site and fuel level. What we learned from Wilma is there is no such thing as a surprise. Assume you are going to have a hurricane every year.”
LESSONS LEARNED FOM ANDREW
Pat Roberts, president and CEO of the Florida Association of Broadcasters, says that although it’s been about 20 years since the state has experienced a crippling storm, local television and radio stations fully understand the important service they provide the public during events like Hurricane Irma. “People start watching network television five or six days out from the event,” says Roberts. “But the last three or four days, they rely on their local stations.”
Since Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, television and radio stations have created informal partnerships to keep the public informed during hurricanes, says Roberts. “During hurricanes people often lose power so they will rely on their radios. Television stations generally have bigger newsrooms than radio stations, so they will provide reports to those stations to relay to the public.” For example, Heislman says his station will be providing ESPN Radio with a simulcast.
Media cross pollination to reach Florida residents with storm-related warnings extends beyond these types of informal partnerships, however. The Florida Public Radio Emergency Network, a collaboration of 13 public radio stations provides information to member stations during statewide emergencies like Hurricane Irma. The network is equipped to stay on air during hurricanes and other disasters and provide live coverage from the governor’s emergency operations center in Tallahassee via broadcast and free iPhone and Android mobile apps.
According to Randy Wright, executive director, Division of Media Properties at the University of Florida, tens of thousands of Floridians have downloaded the apps to access storm tracking, evacuation routes, emergency shelter locations and other information.
The Federal government is also taking steps to assist. The hurricane has prompted the FCC to activate its Disaster Information Reporting System, which broadcasters and other communications providers can use to report the status of their infrastructure. Details are available via a special FCC Hurricane Irma web page with links to the DIRS web page and other resources that may be helpful to broadcasters.
For station group behemoths like Sinclair Broadcast Group and Nexstar Media Group, Hurricane Irma will likely threaten multiple stations as it makes it track northward. “We are in full Irma proactive mode,” says Blake Russell, senior vice president of station operations at Nexstar. We start as far south as Tampa [WFLA and WTTA] and extend northward through Savannah, Ga., [WSAV]; Charleston, S.C., [WCBD]; Myrtle Beach, S.C., [WBTW]; and Greenville, S.C., [WSPA and WYCW].”
The Tampa stations reside in a multistory building right on the water. “We have not owned them in times of flooding, but the entire tech core is built on the second floor,” says Russell. In the event of a storm surge swamping the studios on the first floor, on-air operations can move to the second floor without interruption, he adds.
Nexstar has been conducting morning calls with every station likely to be affected by Hurricane Irma, addressing personnel and equipment requirements and staging personnel and resources, says Russell. “We are making sure everyone has the telephone numbers for tower crews, tower companies and being as proactive as possible,” he says.
Sinclair Broadcast Group faces similar challenges with multiple stations in the projected path of Hurricane Irma, says Del Parks, Sinclair SVP and CTO. Its southernmost station exposed to the hurricane is WPEC in West Palm Beach. To the north, WTGS in Savanah, Ga., WCIV in Charleston, S.C., and WPDE and WWMB in Myrtle Beach, S.C., are in the storm’s expected path, he says.
“A hurricane is not a new phenomenon,” says Parks. “All of those stations along the coast have hurricane plans in place and are proactive in their preparations. Now it is a matter of monitoring the situation.”
For example, WPEC has provisioned for hurricanes with food, water, cots and other “necessary life support systems” for its personnel who will ride out the hurricane and its aftermath at the station. Additionally, “parts of the building” are capable of withstanding hurricane force winds, says Parks. “They actually have hurricane drills that they practice,” he adds. At a group level, Sinclair has “go teams” that can quickly be sent to stations impacted by Irma or other hurricanes to enhance coverage, provide support and assist as necessary, he says.
Sinclair station personnel who live and work in areas typically affected by hurricanes “know how to gauge things,” says Parks. “They are a dedicated bunch of people, especially in news. Everybody wants to stay on air and deliver life and safety information to the public. “In many ways they are like first responders because they choose to stay and do their jobs,” he says.
Russell echoes Parks’ observation. “It is at times like these that all hands are on deck, working 12 hours on and 12 hours off. This is who we are,” he says. “We are supposed to be the voice local communities. Like emergency responders we are running into the danger. We have to stay in the mix.”