Like the rest of the world, news organizations were caught off guard Dec. 26 when a 50ft wall of water devastated a swath of the earth from southern Asia to the eastern coast of Africa.
The tsunami, which as of last week was responsible for killing nearly 150,000 people, devastated some of the most remote areas of the world, presenting those delivering relief assistance as well as reporters, producers and news organizations with difficult challenges to surmount.
NBC sent several crews to cover the devastation. “NBC Nightly News” anchor/managing editor Brian Williams and a crew traveled with a fly-away SNG package to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, one of the areas devastated most by the killer wave. A second NBC unit was sent to Galle, Sri Lanka.
“It was very difficult to set up in Banda Aceh,” explained Marc Weinstock, manager of NBC’s satellite operation. The scene of devastation and human misery was so great that leaving the confines of the Banda Aceh airport was not possible. “The scene was so bad that they started building up the fly away right there,” he said. Reports from Banda Aceh were sent to PanAmSat’s teleport in Napa Valley, CA, where it did the turnaround for NBC.
The conditions in Banda Aceh were harsh. Refugees looking for food greeted NBC’s crew at the airport. According to Weinstock, the crew responded by giving away their food and ready to eat meals. Initially, the network planned to keep its fly-away –sans Williams who was always scheduled to return the United States - in Banda Aceh for a month. However, NBC pulled the plug on the Banda Aceh fly-away several days after the crew arrived. NBC still has camera crews, reporters and producers there working with agency fly-aways like APTN and the EBU.
The effects of the devastation on news coverage were felt in London and the United States as well, said Weinstock. In London, NBC beefed up its staff on its satellite desk to handle the heavy traffic for “The Today Show,” MSNBC, CNBC, “Dateline” and “NBC Nightly News.” The London site provided booking and coordination for feeds from the network’s crew in Sri Lanka sent via EuropeStar back to London and then on to the United States. An SNG truck at NBC’s London warehouse was hastily put into action to provide communications to the crew in Galle. At the network’s satellite desk in New Jersey, additional staff was brought on as well.
“My group in particular has been dealing with many of the foreign bookings, which we don’t often do, as well as the satellite engineers to design satellite plans and obtain licenses to get the fly-aways up and running” he said. “We also have to deal with several bookings for other divisions of the company that are working to produce a telethon scheduled to air across all NBC Universal properties on Jan. 15.”