Television stations ride out the storm


Just as they did three years ago when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, broadcasters in New Orleans were wall-to-wall with emergency information as Hurricane Gustav came ashore. This time, unlike three years ago, government agencies were much better prepared. They 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. Television stations were once again doing their 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. At last word, it appeared that all transmitters had stayed on the air. Belo’s WWL-TV (which was never knocked off by Katrina), Hearst-Argyle’s WDSU-TV, Tribune’s WGNO-TV, Louisiana Media Company’s WVUE-TV and other stations in the area were all live with non-stop coverage as Gustav came ashore yesterday and the overabundance of water overtopped some levies. But at last report, none had actually been breached and there was nothing approaching the flooding of three years ago.

Meanwhile, as citizens of New Orleans fled the city, reporters and emergency personnel poured in. “The only people on the streets are New Orleans Police, National Guard soldiers, really freaky people and television news crews,” said WWL’s Logan Banks in a story posted on the station’s website as he and others awaited Gustav’s arrival.

Delaying plans to anchor live from the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, MN, Brian Williams, Charles Gibson and Katie Couric all landed at the other end of the Mississippi River to anchor their network newscasts. Katrina veteran Shepard Smith of Fox News Channel was also back in the Big Easy to anchor live coverage. CNN, MSNBC and The Weather Channel also had extensive live coverage from New Orleans.

In addition to carrying live coverage from multiple broadcast and cable channels, DirecTV launched a dedicated 24/7 Emergency Information Network on channel 363 – available to all subscribers, regardless of tier package – providing information on the storm and where to find assistance.

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.

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.

Lifetime Networks, Rock the Vote, RightNOW!, and clothing retailer White House Black Market had planned to reprise their Democratic National Convention party last night in Minneapolis. Instead, “Political Chicks a Go-Go” was transformed into a fundraiser for Gulf Coast relief, with donations accepted at the door as guests arrived at Bar Fly to hear Country star John Rich and rising trio Carter’s Cord.

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.