Three years ago, broadcasting was about the only thing that kept working properly as Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans and left a path of devastation and death. Yes, some stations were knocked off the air, but those that survived the hurricane landfall were then the only source of emergency information to people in the wind and flood damaged areas and a vital link to relay information to and from government authorities. This time it was different. Government agencies moved to evacuate low-lying coastal areas well ahead of the storm’s landfall, most residents heeded the evacuation orders instead of trying to ride out the storm, and emergency services were poised to go into action just as soon as the dangerous winds had passed. Radio, though, was just doing its job, providing vital information to citizens before, during and after the storm, and kicking into action emergency plans to serve their audiences and keep staffers safe to fulfill their public interest role.
Entercom’s WWL-AM New Orleans won numerous awards and citations for its role three years ago as the central clearing house for anything and everything to do with the city’s emergency needs after Katrina struck. It was one of the few stations that managed to stay on the air as the storm knocked out power or flooded other stations. Clear Channel and other local broadcasters joined with Entercom to form the United Broadcasters of New Orleans to keep information flowing to the public via WWL as engineers worked to get other local signals back on the air.
This time, Entercom went into the storm as the hub of the 2008 WWL Hurricane Coverage Network. Christened the “Gustav Radio Network,” it was delivering full or partial simulcasts of WWL coverage via KANE-AM New Iberia, LA; KZMZ-FM Alexandria, LA; WMXI-FM Hattiesburg, MS; KMLB-AM Monroe, LA; WQFX-AM Gulfport-Biloxi, MS; WAML-AM Laurel, MS; WCOA-AM Pensacola, FL; and KVPI-AM & FM Ville Platte, AL.
Clear Channel and Citadel also dumped regular programming on their New Orleans stations to go into full storm coverage mode as Gustav hit the Louisiana coast yesterday. We listened via the Internet yesterday as Clear Channel’s WRNO-FM broadcast a live report of the Industrial Canal being topped by flood waters – and anchors noted that at that time, 10:00 am CT, the storm was still expected to batter the area for another six hours. Citadel had teamed up with Hearst-Argyle’s WDSU-TV to provide live hurricane news coverage.
The FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau activated its Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS), created after Katrina, to monitor the status of communications systems in the face of a disaster. Broadcasters, cable TV providers, and telephone companies, both wireline and wireless, are asked to voluntarily report on the status of their systems, restoration efforts for those not working, whether they are using grid power or generators, and whether they have access to fuel to keep operating. DIRS is accessed on the FCC website. If you do not already have a User ID, you will be asked to provide contact information the first time you access the site.
Satellite radio is also providing emergency information for areas in the path of Gustav. XM Sirius has its 24/7 operation on the Sirius Weather and Emergency Channel 184 and the XM Emergency Alert Channel 247.
Today will likely feature damage assessment and search and rescue efforts for the relatively small number of people who foolishly stayed put in largely evacuated communities. As they did with Hurricane Katrina, radio professionals in New Orleans will be on top of the news and telling listeners where and how to get needed emergency assistance. It is, after all, what radio people always do.
Meanwhile, broadcasters in Minneapolis-St. Paul found their big news story of the week changing before their eyes. Republicans gathered in the Twin Cities to nominate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) for President and Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) for Vice President put most of the gala on hold to avoid taking any attention away from the hurricane emergency at the other end of the Mississippi River. Instead, delegates were being urged to rework planned celebrations to either raise relief money for hurricane victims or to actually gather up relief supplies. Speeches by President George Bush and VP Dick Cheney were scrubbed and day one of the GOP convention was reduced to a limited session focused only on dealing with official convention business.
RBR/TVBR observation: Once again we salute the broadcasters of New Orleans. We hope the toll of deaths, injuries and illnesses won’t rival Katrina. Stay safe, folks, and keep making us all proud to call ourselves broadcasters.