Thirteen years ago I rushed to San Antonio to help set up back facilities for Telemundo Network as Hurricane Andrew approached South Florida. Over the last two weeks, as I watched local newscasts from WTVJ as Hurricane Katrina approached Miami and later from WWL-TV as the hurricane hit Louisiana and Mississippi, it was obvious that while broadcasting technology has changed greatly in the last 13 years, broadcasters commitment to serving their communities in times of crisis has not. When the phone lines are down, cable TV is out, and cell phone sites flooded, local broadcasters provided critical information not only to the affected area, but now to friends, family and others throughout the world by Webcasting.
WWL-TV's transmitter was located on high ground and was, as far as I can tell, the only TV transmitter facility in New Orleans not taken off the air by Katrina. Belo, WWL-TV's owner, realized, perhaps after seeing the millions of hits on WWL-TV's Web site (www.WWLTV.com) and overloaded streaming video servers, that people outside New Orleans cared about what was happening there and wanted more information. Belo made this programming available by satellite for Belo stations and stations in non-Belo markets to air as a multicast DTV channel. If you were in one of these markets and had a DTV set you could keep up with what was happening in New Orleans with far better picture quality than streaming video over the Web and without overloading the servers WWL-TV was using to deliver Web content.
I think this is a sign of things to come. As more viewers purchase DTV sets and--if the FCC requires cable companies to carry non-duplicative multicast programming from local stations--the viability of ad-hoc DTV networks such as the one that Belo set up for WWL-TV will grow. NBC's Weather Plus, a multicast service available on NBC owned and operated stations and many affiliates, is another example. It provided updated information, including maps, before, during and after the hurricane.
Other New Orleans stations did not fare as well as WWL-TV. The transmitter building for Tribune stations WGNO and WNOL was flooded. NBC affiliate WDSU was also off the air due to damage to the transmitter site. All three stations were able to continue providing hurricane coverage over the Web and through stations in nearby markets. Public Broadcasting station WLAE received severe damage to its facility.
While most media attention has been on New Orleans, coastal communities in Mississippi also suffered. The Clarion Ledger article Stations share news, supplies by Gary Pettus has an excellent description of the sharing between stations in the area, including WHLT, WJTV, WLOX and WLBT.
Shortages of housing and essentials such as food and water are likely to slow broadcast recovery efforts. Companies such as Tribune (owner of two TV stations in New Orleans) were working to arrange shipment of prepackaged transmission systems to the area. Radio broadcasters Clear Channel and Entercom joined together with local independent stations to form United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans. An estimated 15 stations are pooling programming and engineering resources to provide emergency information to residents. The stations are sharing a helicopter to transport engineers to transmitter sites and to assist in the evacuation of employees as needed. For more information this group, see Radio Groups Come Together to Form United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans.
The Society of Broadcast Engineers is coordinating broadcast engineering relief efforts through its web site at www.SBE.org.
Intel announced it would provide 1,500 PCs, wireless access points and technical support for disaster relief efforts. It is working with Tropos Networks, MCI, SkyTel and other partners to bring Wi-Fi connectivity to New Orleans relief efforts. The initial donation includes 50 Tropos 802.11 Wi-Fi mesh transmitters for locations in the New Orleans Airport and around downtown New Orleans that will provide free Wi-FI service.
One thing that surprised me as I watched Hurricane Katrina coverage was, that with few exceptions, TV stations Web sites had only limited information on damage to their facilities and the efforts underway to reconstruct them. As recovery progresses along the Gulf coast, I expect more stories will emerge about the challenges engineers at the affected stations faced during the Hurricane and afterward. I look forward to hearing them!
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