Hard News the Hard Way

When Hurricane Rita crashed ashore in southwest Louisiana Sept. 24, anchors from KPLC, the NBC affiliate in Lake Charles, huddled around a single microphone in a local hospital. Reporters were dishing out scraps of news they gathered on cellphones and a lone laptop. To assist hearing-impaired viewers, producers placed handwritten messages in plastic frames on a table.

Fears of flooding had forced the station to evacuate its downtown studio and a primary backup site. The only suitable place left in town to ride out the storm was originally their third option: Christus St. Patrick Hospital.

“It was very low-tech. We called it 'Caveman TV,'” says General Manager Jim Serra. But having a second alternate site allowed Liberty Corp.-owned KPLC to broadcast throughout the storm.

Learning from Katrina

Since Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the Gulf Coast in late August, broadcasters across the South like KPLC have been fine-tuning their emergency plans. The devastation created problems some stations didn't anticipate. Fuel was scarce, and communications were spotty. Buildings buckled under hurricane-force winds or flooded. Employees were victims, too, and needed to sort out personal matters.

When Hurricane Rita hit just four weeks later, it once again tested broadcasters' technical capabilities and professional resolve. The powerful storm threatened Houston, the 10th-largest TV market, but pummeled the much smaller Beaumont, Texas, and Lake Charles markets. All three Beaumont affiliates were forced to evacuate and were knocked off the air. As of press time, they had not restored broadcasts.

In Houston and Lake Charles, though, broadcasters were well-prepared. Twenty-five KPLC staffers transformed the hospital-staff break room into a makeshift studio, with one camera and a microwave link pointed out a window.

Other stations stockpiled supplies and prepositioned reinforcements, including satellite trucks, engineers and crews from other stations, to ease the workload. The FCC helped stations secure letters from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) to assist them in navigating checkpoints and accessing scarce generators and fuel.

Fine-Tuning Emergency Plans

Belo Corp.-owned CBS affiliate KHOU Houston carefully studied its sister station WWL New Orleans' experience with Katrina. “One of the most important lessons was that gas would be at a premium,” says Executive News Director Keith Connors. The station stashed away a reserve; crews traveled with extra gas cans. KHOU sent a crew to Belo's regional cable news network TXCN in Dallas, its backup broadcast site, and another to its small bureau in Galveston, Texas. KPRC, Post-Newsweek's NBC affiliate in Houston, readied water pumps and trucked in 3,000 gallons of fuel.

For four days, both outlets, as well as ABC-owned KTRK Houston, streamed wall-to-wall coverage online. “We had 3 million people leave the city, and they could still pick up their news live,” says KPRC General Manager Jim Joslyn.

In Lake Charles, KPLC streamed its coverage until the eye wall passed over and knocked out the Internet. After that, producers at sister station WAVE Louisville, Ky., updated the site remotely.

By Sept. 27, KPLC staffers were able to return to the studios and resume broadcasts. There was minimal rain damage, but power was still out. Serra has opted to leave some supplies at the hospital, in case generators fail and the station must once again use the break room for broadcasts.

In the next storm, “we'll go to plan C right from the start,” Serra says. “Having a hardened infrastructure like the hospital is so important. And we're both trying to serve the community.”