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U.S. broadcasters provide world with live hurricane coverage

Television stations along the eastern coast of the United States scrambled earlier this week to bring coverage of Hurricane Irene as it made its way northward from television market to market. By most accounts, they did a good job of keeping viewers informed and ultimately saving lives. They also reminded people of the importance of local broadcasting public service.

From the region where Irene made its first landfall, WITN, in the Washington/Greenville, NC market, provided around the clock coverage. Bob Prather, Gray Television’s president, said in an internal memo to Gray’s management “this kind of coverage of natural disasters is what keeps our stations first in the hearts and minds of our communities.”

WITN stayed on the air despite water streaming in through leaks in the roof and its staffers sustaining serious personal property damage at home.

“Pretty much everybody has issues back home,” said Chris Mossman, vice president and general manager.

About 95 percent of the viewing area lost power and phone service was spotty, said Lyle Schulze, vice present and general manager of WCTI-TV in New Bern, NC. The station is on the Inner Banks of the eastern part of the state.

Schulze said his station endured 12 hours of the strongest winds and heaviest rain of the storm as the eye wall passed. While his crew could not do live shots in the worst of the storm, a roving crew did collect video and file reports for when the eye had passed through the region.

During the storm, conditions for reporters on the scene were clearly challenging. In Washington, DC, a local news reporter was covered in what appeared to be remnants of raw sewage as he delivered live hurricane reports from Ocean City, MD. WTTG-TV reporter Tucker Barnes was providing live updates for stations around the country as a wall of what he described as sea foam poured over him.

Barnes noted that he was immersed in organic material. That “organic material” was most likely the effects of raw sewage pouring into the water during the storm.

“It doesn’t taste great,” he said. He said it had a sandy consistency and added, “I can tell you first-hand, it doesn’t smell great.”

The foam is often a toxic mix of pollution and cyanobacteria. Sixty mile per hour wind gusts sprayed the toxic mix across the reporter and the boardwalk and coated buildings on live TV. Bubbles and foam in the ocean can be caused by several other things, including oils from decomposing animals.

In New York, another reporter, from WCBS, was thrown around by the surging waves, yet continued to report with her wireless microphone.

Also in New York, WABC-TV rolled out its “Roadcam 7,” basically, a reporter with a Sony HDV camera hooked up to a laptop computer with Skype and a wireless data card. This allowed the reporter to send in high-quality video while driving around the affected areas. WCBS used a similar system — called “Mobile 2”— during the storm, enabling them to go where traditional microwave trucks could not..

Television stations that used bonded cellular devices during the storm probably had spotty coverage. Mark Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T, said Irene battered the company’s network in several areas, including North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Delaware. The company is still working to assess the storm’s effect in New York, he said.

Representatives at T-Mobile reported similar findings, stating that the damage to their networks was minimal.

“We’re seeing, on average, a 10 percent impact across the East due to power outages and flooding,” said Troy Edwards, a spokesman for T-Mobile. “The majority of these outages are in our Virginia and Carolinas footprint.”

Crystal Davis, a spokeswoman for Sprint, said wireless service was spotty in parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut because of a loss of commercial power and local landline service.

Verizon’s network was “performing well,” said a spokesman, Howard Waterman. “Some cells in areas that lost commercial power have backup generators helping us continue to deliver wireless service,” he said.

Many people who lost power and access to news on television could view news over the Internet on battery-powered computers or cell phones. Viewers with mobile battery chargers in their cars could recharge their media devices.