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HD technology plays lifesaving role in New Orleans

The Helinet Cineflex HD camera system uses a 1140mm lens, every bit of which was needed to “dig out whatever detail” could be found in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The first images the nation saw of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina came from a special HD-equipped helicopter from Helinet Aviation Services.

While the country watched downconverted images, a small crew from Helinet chronicled the destruction, the flooding and the rescues in HD and in so doing created a visual record with an unprecedented level of resolution and immediacy.

High Definition Technology Update spoke with Helinet Chief Technology Officer J.T. Alpaugh who found himself in the role of impromptu TV reporter in the helicopter — rolling tape, capturing shots and providing descriptions from the skies above New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region.

High Definition Technology Update: How soon after the hurricane struck New Orleans were you gathering footage?

J.T. Alpaugh: It had been about two to two and a half hours since Katrina had blown through. We were behind it. When we got into the area we were absolutely astonished by what we saw. My first instinct was to roll HD tape and use the Cineflex to start looking around to see what we had. Even though the receive truck (which would be used to backhaul live shots) had not yet arrived, it was important to put on tape.

HDTU: What did you see?

Alpaugh: One of the first things we saw was the amount of flooding, and it was substantial even before the levees broke. Numerous people were on rooftops trying to signal to us by waving flags and towels and makeshift signs stating ‘help us.’ People were on rooftops everywhere.

We came in behind four or five Coast Guard helicopters. 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. Little did I know it would last 12 hours per day for 13 days.

HDTU: What role did the helicopter’s HD Cineflex camera play in that initial coverage?

Alpaugh: We were documenting the effects of Katrina for everyone to see and using our HD Cineflex camera system and technology to identify where survivors were. There were arms hanging out of holes in attics waving for help. We used our HD technology to see people that we would not have been able to see with SD. At that point, we would radio in GPS coordinates of what we were seeing to rescue helicopters with hoist equipment. We did that countless times. The Cineflex HD camera system has a 1140mm lens on it, and we were using every bit of it to dig out whatever detail we could — not just for history but for spotting and rescue.

HDTU: What was your initial goal in covering the devastation? I would think the scale of the destruction would make it difficult to know where to start.

Alpaugh: There wasn’t just a couple of things to shoot. There were thousands upon thousands of things. You didn’t know where to start. We rolled two hours of tape.

There were no other media in that area — basically us and four other Coast Guard helicopters. We wanted to make sure our images reflected the enormity of the damage. We wanted to make sure the world saw what was happening so state and federal authorities could get a grasp of what was happening.

And we later learned that was a big factor that helped to establish the rescue efforts that came in later.

We had about three hours of fuel on board. We spent one and a half hours documenting and immediately flew back to Baton Rouge, where we met up with the satellite truck at the airport and fed the tape raw on the bird. Right as it went up numerous networks were taking it raw. It wasn’t five minutes after we had landed and the images were going out to world.

HDTU: So your technology not only provided news footage but information for emergency responders to act on?

Alpaugh: We were most proud of being able to use our technology, and we honestly believe our technology helped save lives. The quality of images and stability of images had a big part to play in painting a picture for people who had to make decisions. We are very, very proud of that, and the technology crossed over to help do that. (It) was extremely gratifying — not only providing news but a service that helped save those people.

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