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Hurricane Katrina Tests Broadcasters - TvTechnology

Hurricane Katrina Tests Broadcasters

Gulf Coast area stations improvise in order to stay on the air
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Gulf Coast area stations improvise in order to stay on the air

NEW ORLEANS

Winds and water from Hurricane Katrina left a wide path of destruction in the Gulf Coast area in late August, inundating many television stations as well. However, most TV stations in the storm's path managed to stay on the air, broadcasting news reports of the devastation.

Landline and cell phone communications to much of the disaster area remained out at press time, but there were sketchy reports.

Some of the storm's highest winds battered Biloxi, Miss., but the city's WLOX stayed on the air despite losing parts of its roof over the news and sales departments. Although the station did lose an old STL tower, "we were fortunate that our [main] tower was not damaged, and our emergency generators both at the tower and at the station functioned as planned," said Jim Keelor, president and COO of owner Liberty Corp. He said all employees were reported safe.

The station's master control was operable, and news employees were able to move to hallways and other undamaged parts of the station to do their work. Keelor said the group's corporate plane made trips to Biloxi "to take in some essentials such as water, food, batteries and tarpaulins to cover the roof."

Satellite trucks from other markets were staged in Jackson and Hancock counties, where station bureaus were destroyed. A fuel truck was driven in from Texas.

As water poured through broken levees in New Orleans, it flooded stations in the low-lying city. "[At WWL] we were on the air continuously since the hurricane occurred," said Carey Hendrickson, vice president for corporate communications for owner Belo Corp.

"We were kind of hodge-podge in where we operated from," he said. "We originally had some coverage out of our television station in the French Quarter until flood water started coming in, and then we had to get out of that facility."

They were able to operate from an emergency broadcast facility at the transmitter site, located on higher ground. For a while, news operations were done in a broadcast facility at Louisiana State University and later moved to PBS station WLPB in Baton Rouge.

WDSU RELOCATES TO JACKSON

As floodwaters inundated New Orleans' WDSU, 19 of the station's employees set up shop at WAPT, its Hearst-Argyle sister station in Jackson, Miss. A makeshift WDSU news set was constructed to give the newscasts their own identity, and the signal was sent back to the New Orleans' transmitter via satellite.

WDSU engineers stayed behind in New Orleans to carry equipment up to the second floor, according to Dan Milham, WDSU chief meteorologist. The station's main transmitter was under water, but a backup TV transmission facility allowed the station to continue broadcasting.

The presence of WDSU staffers in Jackson also beefed up WAPT's coverage of the hurricane aftermath, and provided familiar faces for the thousands of New Orleans residents who took shelter in Mississippi.

"Stations in the Hearst family usually end up supporting each other in an emergency such as this," said Greg Shepperd, producer for WDSU.

New Orleans' WVUE lost power to its transmitter about 9 a.m. on the day of the storm. "When we evacuated our studios, there was over a foot of standing water," said Marty Draper, vice president of engineering for owner Emmis Communications Corp. "In regards to the transmitter site, we had no visual confirmation about any status out there."

DAMAGE FEARED AT PBS STATIONS

PBS has stations throughout the hurricane-affected area, and had received sketchy or no reports from areas hardest hit. "The biggest issues were [with] WYES in New Orleans," said Edward Caleca, senior vice president of technology and operations at PBS.

"The station itself was in an area of New Orleans that would have been affected by the levee, so the best guess is that the station will have significant damage to it, because it's probably under about five feet of water, at least, at this point."

A second station in New Orleans, WLAE, is located on higher ground, but Caleca, when interviewed, suspected it might also have been flooded when the majority of the city was inundated with water.

PBS has seven television stations in Miss-issippi, and at presstime, Caleca had not heard from those in the hardest hit areas. When a public radio station in Biloxi had run low on fuel for its generator, a Good Samaritan brought a gift of more gas to keep them on the air.

Many station employees in coastal Louisiana and Mississippi were also reported to have lost their houses to the storm.

Alabama stations that were hard hit by Hurricane Dennis in July fared better with Katrina. Because of spotty electrical utilities, many stations remained on generator power, but there were no reports of stations being off the air.

FCC, NAB & SBE RESPOND

In the days following the disaster, the FCC approved an emergency petition from the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS) to allow public television stations to perform limited hurricane relief fundraising activities. The commission also suspended rules to allow noncommercial educational radio and TV stations in New Orleans to rebroadcast programming from commercial broadcasters to get essential information to area residents.

The FCC also extended the deadline from Sept. 7 to Sept. 28 for stations in the hurricane-affected area that were scheduled to submit certain filings and pay annual regulatory fees.

The NAB organized a campaign for the American Red Cross to provide PSAs about how to donate money for hurricane victims, and asked members to donate equipment to the television and radio stations affected by the disaster.

The SBE provided a clearinghouse on its Web site to put those who could offer assistance in touch with those who need aid.

Editor's note: Due to changing conditions in the region devastated by Hurricane Katrina, facts reported at presstime may not reflect situations existing when this issue of TV Technology reaches subscribers.