As Hurricane Ike swirled toward the Texas coast on Friday, Sept. 12, more than 20 staffers of HoustonPBS and KUHF-FM hunkered down in the Melcher Center for Public Broadcasting on the University of Houston campus with their dogs, cats, children and air mattresses.
HoustonPBS suspended its fund drive after raising $270,000, half of its goal, and programmers were revising their schedule.
Before the coming ordeal was done, the public TV station would lose almost $800,000 in revenue and suffer damages north of $1 million, and the storm would rage northward, silencing broadcasters along its path toward Ohio.
KUHF, a news/classical station, had fielded reporters and begun wall-to-wall news coverage at 4 p.m. that day. Webmaster Patrick Hoyt had created a hurricane area on the website, with a news ticker, but Ike would soon take over the entire site. Late Friday night, as winds rose up in Houston, the TV and radio transmitters both lost power. HoustonPBS’s generator kicked in, and KUHF switched to its auxiliary transmission site, which has generator power.
After 2 a.m., the western wall of Ike’s eye blew in, bringing 90 mph winds for at least an hour. “You could feel the desks shuddering and shaking,” says Hoyt.
The radio news and web teams began collaborating more closely than ever, fielding calls together and even checking each other’s e-mail. No one on the three-person web team had reported through a hurricane. In the next few days, KUHF’s online news ticker would report curfews, school closings, places to go for help and important phone numbers.
Without an emergency online plan, the website — sporting a crossed-out “I Like Ike” button — evolved as needed, expanding to a wider-screen format to accommodate the onslaught of information.
No other website—not FEMA’s, not the city’s—was reliably listing this information, says Hoyt. That Friday night, about 4,000 Houstonians went to the KUHF website, soon to become the station’s only way to reach them.
At about 2 a.m. Saturday, the TV station went off the air. Execs later learned their generator’s fuel filters had gummed up. About an hour later, the FM transmitter also stopped. KUHF’s only generator was at its backup transmitter site, says Station Manager Debra Fraser, and it had shorted out. KUHF couldn’t restart it remotely by phone, because the lines were down. (Fraser is now applying for emergency federal aid to help buy a generator at its primary transmitter site.)
The radio station was still streaming online, but most people didn’t have electricity to listen. For five hours, Fraser recalls, a terribly sad and disappointed staff stared at the floor and waited. The upside: they had time to grab naps on mattresses in the performance studio.
No one inside knew that the storm had also peeled the waterproof membrane off the building’s roof, exposing the roof decking. TV Station Manager Jack Neal was strolling through the TV studios when he noticed water pouring through the ceiling, streaming off soundproofing and light fixtures. Buckets and squeegees couldn’t contain the downpour. [Neal leads a video tour.]
By 9 a.m. on Saturday, engineers got the TV and radio stations back on the air with generator power. Across the metro area, some 3 million people were still without power.
KUHF began announcing the number for its recently installed $5,000 studio phone system. The station had bought the system with improved audio and call-screening for talking on-air with sources outside the studio. With the ability to broadcast several callers at once, the station hoped to provide “a picture of the community from the community,” Fraser says. Calls came pouring in from listeners, officials and relief workers, many listening on battery-powered radios. Listeners answered other listeners’ questions. People called who had never listened to KUHF but couldn’t find any other source of community info.
One woman couldn’t see her dial in the dark and asked what station she was hearing. Another listener was trapped in his house by downed power lines. Fraser called the power company, which came to the caller’s house the next morning. In these situations, says Fraser, “You run on adrenaline and altruism.”
Hoyt and his team set up a mobile version of the website, used by an estimated 400 people a day. One woman checked the site on her cell phone and relayed news to everyone on her street. The station tried crowdsourcing — asking listeners to report which stores had ice and gas, for example, and posting the findings online.
Downtown at the convention center, officials displayed the KUHF website on the facility’s big screens for first responders.
Reporters and the web staff foraged for information on other news sites, and the web team assisted with fact checking. They began creating lists—of area curfews, for example. If they couldn’t verify information — such as where water was safe — it didn’t go on the site. The stakes were high, says Hoyt. Everything posted was time-stamped with “last updated” or “confirmed.” In the midst of information overload, Hoyt wished they’d called for more people, even interns, to help.
By Sunday afternoon, Ike was bringing down trees, power lines and transmitters in the country’s midsection. Kentucky Educational Television’s Louisville transmitter went down for several hours, and the transmitter for WMUB-FM in Oxford, Ohio, operated on generator power for several days.
In the Cincinnati/northern Kentucky area, where winds of 50 to 75 mph wiped out almost all electric service, WNKU-FM, which had no generator, left the air for about six hours, according to Chuck Miller, g.m. Power returned to the transmitter before the studios, so a deejay set up camp at the transmitter site, playing music off his laptop and relaying as much storm info as he could muster without Internet or phone access.
For Miller, who managed WWNO-FM in New Orleans during Katrina three years ago, the situation was familiar, but the massive blackout was new to Cincinnati. In landlocked Kentucky, Miller admits he wasn’t thinking much about disaster preparation, and he didn’t expect to have listeners eager to know where to get ice or what to do at a four-way stop. There was no disaster plan in place to remind the staff what to do.
Unable to report from their studios, HoustonPBS producers began work Monday on short station-break reports about severely flooded East Texas communities. One producer went to Chambers County, which lost two entire towns. Another visited two low-income African-American communities in Houston that were badly flooded and lacking food. Producers also created interstitials with a University of Houston law professor about legal issues such as what to do if a neighbor’s tree falls on your house.
On Wednesday, Sept. 17, HoustonPBS and KUHF went back on the power grid, just as the TV station’s generator was running short of fuel. Unable to find another source of diesel, the station had been shuttling fuel from the stations’ 2,000-gallon holding tank to the transmitter site. HoustonPBS General Manager John Hesse is now considering increasing backup fuel capacity at the transmitter site.
HoustonPBS execs found out the water damage to the studio ceilings was worse than expected and the lighting grid and soundproofing material will have to be removed. Workers have already repaired the roof, removed damaged carpets and sheetrock and pumped out the studios, scene shop and control rooms. Hesse hopes the university will roll HoustonPBS’s losses into one big university-wide FEMA relief claim.
The TV station is sticking with normal programming plans as much as possible. Its upcoming candidate debates, aired in the politics program Red, White & Blue, will originate across the street in the School of Communications’ studio.
KUHF has produced more than 50 stories about Ike and returned classical music to its schedule the middle of last week. When its on-air fundraising begins Oct. 23, it will ask donors to add $10 to their pledges for a citywide Ike relief fund.
In Louisiana, which is still recovering from Hurricanes Gustav and Katrina, Louisiana Public Broadcasting President Beth Courtney wants to see more joint disaster planning and collaboration among pubcasters. Stations across the country need to anticipate emergency needs, such as sharing information if some stations are forced to evacuate and operate remotely. Courtney, who is vice chair of the CPB Board, says CPB will look into funding test projects.
At WWOZ in New Orleans, General Manager David Freedman has been talking with area pubcasters about sharing a mobile studio that could serve three to five displaced stations at once. When Gustav required evacuation, an engineer operated WWOZ’s transmitter via Internet from Lafayette, and when Gustav headed toward Lafayette, another engineer controlled the signal from Greenville, S.C.
Ike reminded Hesse of the value of backup generators. Stations with old generators need to do regular maintenance and testing, he says. “With all of our digital assets and the digital emergency alert system we’re a part of,” he says, “everybody needs to make it a priority to have reliable backup generators and delivery systems in place.”
KUHF’s Fraser realized many people depended on the station’s website. Next time, she says, the station will have a plan in place to collect emergency information. She also learned the staff would need more than two wireless cards for laptops next time.
As Fraser warns, “Disaster can mean so many things because a major power outage can happen to anybody.” The amount people depend on you in those situations, she says, is almost scary.
East of Houston in Beaumont, Texas, NPR affiliate KVLU-FM, on the campus of Lamar University, left the air around noon on Saturday, Sept. 13, when the transmitter’s generator stopped working.
The station had been operating on remote control from its chief engineer’s home, and usually operates on automation at night, but Station Manager Byron Balentine had been adding live voice reports as needed via a second telephone line.
With no generator power, KVLU didn’t get back on the air until Friday, Sept. 19, when power was restored.
Web page posted Sept. 29, 2008
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