New Orleans Stations Reborn After Katrina

In late August, with Hurricane Katrina bearing down on the Gulf Coast, Tribune's New Orleans TV stations, WGNO and WNOL, worked out a comprehensive plan to continue broadcasting despite having to deal with what turned out to be the worst natural disaster to hit the United States in modern times.
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Tribune carries on with help from Harris, Helinet

NEW ORLEANS: In late August, with Hurricane Katrina bearing down on the Gulf Coast, Tribune's New Orleans TV stations, WGNO and WNOL, worked out a comprehensive plan to continue broadcasting despite having to deal with what turned out to be the worst natural disaster to hit the United States in modern times.

"It was a very anxious time," said Larry Delia, general manager of Tribune Television New Orleans, speaking of the days before the hurricane made landfall.

"You know you have a job to do, to provide news, entertainment, and then it becomes emergency news to the market," he said. "And at the same time you're responsible for everybody who works with you, for their safety."

With that in mind, officials from the company's two New Orleans stations put a three pronged plan into effect: continuing news coverage from a base in Baton Rouge; continuing station operations from remote master control sites; and preparing to rebuild after the storm.

EXODUS TO BATON ROUGE

In talking to TV Technology for this article, Delia, his chief engineer and his news director recalled the resources group owner Tribune Broadcasting and its stations around the country brought to bear for the aftermath Katrina.

Not the least of them was the Helinet helicopter bound for Los Angeles' KTLA that was diverted to New Orleans just ahead of the storm's landing. Its first order of business was to evacuate WGNO's chief meteorologist Bruce Katz to Baton Rouge where he anchored the pre-Katrina coverage while the rest of the news staff convoyed to the city.

"We made plans with the ABC affiliate in Baton Rouge, WBRZ, to work out of their office," said news director Bob Noonan. After the storm knocked Tribune's two New Orleans stations off the air, their news staff teamed with WBRZ for 10 straight days of 24-hour-a-day storm and aftermath coverage on the Cox Cable Channel in Baton Rouge.

"It is estimated about 400,000 New Orleanians had gone to Baton Rouge, so we were reaching our viewers up there," he said. They also fed solid news as the program stream.

At the same time, the New Orleans stations were relocating their master control operations to Tribune stations in Chicago (WGN) and Indianapolis (WXIN), along with their master control operators.

With the New Orleans transmitters down, Tribune engineering implemented a plan to deliver both stations' programming via satellite to DirecTV, EchoStar and any cable companies that were still operating.

That left the third part of the plan, preparing for the rebuild.

"We had some great vendors," said Delia. "We had transmitter vendors, structural engineer vendors that called us ahead of time saying 'hey, can I do anything for you, just in case?'"

Tribune New Orleans chief engineer Steve Zanolini contacted Andy Bater, director of RF systems engineering for Tribune Broadcasting.

"I called them in advance and asked them to review and ready any available inventory that we would need for broadcast restoration," Zanolini said. "We asked Harris to put together what we'd need for transmitters as quickly as possible. They started working on our recovery before the storm even started."

Tribune rode to the rescue here as well. Harris Sigma transmitters from the company's Hartford and Albany stations were designated to replace equipment that the company expected would be ruined by Katrina.

EXCLUSIVE AERIAL COVERAGE

As the storm hit, the Helinet chopper sat safely on the ground an hour or so away from New Orleans. Tribune had sent digital receiver equipment that was installed on the New Orleans satellite truck to downlink images from the helicopter. Other satellite trucks from Tribune stations in Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. were staged outside New Orleans for coverage.

When the storm passed the city, the Helinet copter came in and was designated the aerial FEMA feed source, its images seen worldwide on any number of broadcast and cable networks. For a time it was the only source of aerials.

Until the floodwaters receded, news crews fed their reports back to Baton Rouge where the coverage was anchored. Once there was dry ground to be had, Tribune shipped in two doublewide trailers, sitting them next to the Superdome, where they currently house the stations' setup.

"One of the trailers is our newsroom, has all our equipment in there," said news director Noonan. "The other trailer is our control room and a makeshift studio where we do weather.

"Otherwise, we're taking our anchors and reporters out in the field, where the story of the day is happening, or where we're showing where the disaster happened, or where the recovery is occurring. That's our backdrop every night."

He said it gives the station a distinctive look from its studio-anchored competitors.

"The reaction has been very positive. Reporters out in the field and even the sales people are coming back and telling us people are watching us just to see where we are, to see what the big story is."

Operating out of the doublewides will not be as temporary as the news staff might have hoped. Before the hurricane, the stations had combined their operations into the top floor of the three-story New Orleans Center near the Superdome. Falling glass from the nearby Hyatt Hotel punctured the building's roof, and the owners terminated all leases. Zanolini estimates it could be 18 months to two years before the station has a permanent home.

On the transmitter front, the company contracted with Hartford-based United Concrete to build two 22-by-16-foot pre-fabricated concrete buildings. "We actually had Harris outfit those buildings with the transmitters before they were shipped down here," he said.

Tribune station engineering teams from Chicago and Los Angeles pitched in with local engineers to put the broadcast and production infrastructure together.

"There's no way to describe it, nothing short of a miracle," Zanolini said. He compared it to their New Orleans DTV build out, which included an upgrade on the analog side as well.

"It took six months to equip the building for two DTVs and two analogs," he said, "and that was with six months to a year's prior planning. Imagine that from the day before Katrina hit to three weeks after the storm had passed, we had accomplished half of that in those three weeks."

A permanent home for the transmitters is also on hold, awaiting agreement from myriad government agencies on new floodplain benchmarks.

Amazingly, the towers were still standing. "Both towers sustained a whole lot of wind torque," said Zanolini. "They're operational and they're OK for now.

"Most of the seven-foot faced towers on up survived the storm, with estimated winds-aloft in excess of 135 mph. It's not that any of the members are broken, but you can see the bow in those members where the forces caused them to distort."

Replacement of the distorted steel and guy wires is scheduled for January.

"All of our antennas, remarkably enough, are in good shape," Zanolini said.

Just as Tribune Television New Orleans moves slowly back toward normal, so is the rest of the city. Local advertisers are starting to buy commercials again, which have to be transmitted up the same ATM network the news productions travel to the master controls in Chicago and Indianapolis.