Updated at 4:35pm Central
As sunrise came to Southwest Louisiana, the intensity of Hurricane Laura, churning in the Gulf of Mexico, increased dramatically.
By mid-afternoon, it was a Category 4 hurricane, sending local media in Lake Charles, La., into emergency mode as residents quickly bolted out of town on Interstate 10 or hunkered down to ride the storm out.
They’ll all be tuned to Gray Television‘s NBC affiliate in the market, even when Townsquare Media and Cumulus Media acquiesce their airwaves to keep their staff safe while offering all vital information that could prove life saving.
As of the 2pm hour, local time, Townsquare Media’s Lake Charles station group was largely in automation mode. The lone exception: Hip-Hop KJMH-FM “107 Jamz,” known to be a personal favorite of CEO Bill Wilson.
According to SVP of Local Media Operations Todd Lawley, who is based in Dallas, afternoon talent and Director of Content Erik Tee is the lone remaining staff member in Lake Charles.
“The storm has dramatically picked up energy, and we have one person left at the stations right now,” Lawley said mid-afternoon Wednesday. “We’ve been talking to local law enforcement, as the city is basically evacuated. Our remote vehicles are in a remote parking garage, at a casino, nice and high. And, the good thing is all of our talent is on social media, while Erik Tee is on the air.”
Lawley spoke with Erik Tee at 8:30am. The air talent’s statement: I’m not leaving and I owe it to the audience.
“He has number for the sheriff’s office and [law enforcement] patrol boats and had it all planned out,” Lawley said. “Then, as storm intensity picked up, he said he would stay as long as humanly possible, shifting to social media as needed.”
As of 3:30pm Central, that was now a go, as Gray Television’s KPLC-7 was poised to start simulcasting across all Townsquare stations, Lawley said.
That would put the audio of KPLC across every rated station in Lake Charles, as Cumulus Media will do the same once the winds surpass 40 MPH, expected later this evening.
Communication with Cumulus’ Lake Charles and Beaumont, Tex., VP/Market Managers was difficult, as storm preparations were underway. At 4:30pm CT, RBR+TVBR received e-mail communication from Elizabeth Blackstock, VP/Market Manager of Cumulus’ Beaumont, Tex., and Lake Charles, La., stations.
“Our singular focus is the safety of our staff and our community,” Blackstock said. “We have been broadcasting remotely since the start of COVID and will continue to do so during this storm but have advised our teams to evacuate to safety and broadcast from there. We are also working with local news partners and adjacent Cumulus markets to provide the best updates for our community as possible.”
In the 2pm CT hour, top-rated Country KYKZ-FM in Lake Charles was still live and local. Rachel, who hosts the midday shift, was on the air. Among her statements to listeners at 2:12pm CT: If you haven’t left town, don’t … and stay home.
Rachel also alerted listeners to a 3:20pm CT interview, pre-recorded, with the CEO of Entergy, the local power company, on storm preparation.
And, importantly, Rachel told KYKZ listeners that it would shift to full coverage from KPLC once winds got to Tropical Storm force later today.
For Gray and KPLC, the delivery of information couldn’t be of greater concern.
Gray SVP Sandy Breland, who was an News Director in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago and today is a Regional SVP, says, “KPLC is preparing its own building and fallback space at a nearby hospital, in case that’s necessary. A news director and other resources from nearby Gray stations are on the way to help out during the storm, and additional stations are ready to assist after the storm passes.”
Should a worst-case scenario occur, another nearby Gray station will be ready to handle the broadcast for KPLC, should conditions require, Breland adds.
Gray stations in other markets are prepping as well, as Laura will still be a big hurricane when it passes through Alexandria, La. (where Gray owns KALB); Shreveport, La. (home to Gray’s KSLA), and even Lufkin, Texas (where KTRE is a Gray property).
As the 4pm CT hour approached, it also became known that some KPLC news crews, along with assistance from WVUE-TV in New Orleans and WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge, are staying in Lake Charles to cover the storm from fortified locations. Other KPLC staff are heading to WAFB and KALB, where they will broadcast back to Lake Charles.
“We are starting to get some bad weather in parts of the state now, and Baton Rouge is dealing with multiple tornado warnings,” Breland said at 3:45pm CT.