Local Stations Brace for Hurricane Florence

WILMINGTON, N.C.—It was more than a week ago when forecasters first predicted the Carolinas could take the brunt of Hurricane Florence. That’s when WWAY-TV's general manager opened the station’s hurricane preparedness plan — a strategy established in 1964 — to begin preparing station infrastructure and personnel for what looked to be a monster storm.

“This storm isn’t like anything that has ever hit here,” says Andy Combs, general manager of the Morris Multimedia-owned ABC/CBS/CW-affiliate station. “[Hurricane] Hazel in 1954, might be a better comparison, or even [Hurricane] Diane [in 1955], but I really don’t think it is fair to put this storm in the same category. This is going to be a rain producer.”

The station is planning on getting hit by 20 to 30 inches of rain over a 48-hour period, Combs says.

Combs calls the plan the “Holy Grail” of preparedness, a step-by-step guide to making sure no detail is overlooked as WWAY readies for hurricanes. Those steps include: sandbagging and barricading entry points to the station’s six-month-old studios; securing local and out-of-state fuel sources to keep the 2,000-gallon fuel tank for station’s transmitter generator juiced in the event of a power outage; and keeping a road crew on standby should they need to repair the track through the swamp that surrounds the station’s 1,996-foot tower.

WWAY has taken many other important steps, including deciding who will leave and who will pitch in to help. The station staffs about 70 people, including news personnel and engineers— 28 will have to stay to line up a tower crew to inspect the structure once the storm has cleared. Others will help to secure a backup generator and antenna if needed. And of course the station needs to make sure its reporters stay safe -- they'll take to bunkers, secure shelters and the station’s studios.

The station shares its tower and transmitter site with WECT and WSFX, Raycom Media’s NBC and Fox affiliates, respectively.

“Right now, we are focusing our efforts on WECT and WSFX in Wilmington, WMBF in Myrtle Beach, and WCSC in Charleston,” says Steven Ackermann, vice president of news at Raycom. He added that the group’s stations in Savannah, Ga. and Charlotte, N.C. are also getting special attention because of the latest forecast and uncertainty over the exact track of the hurricane.

Raycom has what Ackermann describes as “a pretty elaborate procedure” honed over many years for the group’s regional stations to back up their sister stations as needed. “If needed, we bring in corporate resources and extend the reach beyond the region,” he adds.

The group has moved assets into place, with a focus on protecting its coastal stations in the direct path of the storm. It also has plans to ensure the safety of the Raycom employees who stay to maintain their stations’ over-the-air, cable and digital distribution paths to viewers.

“Those are our two primary focuses: safety and sustaining our audiences,” Ackermann. Raycom drills employees, especially field personnel, on the importance of staying safe.

“There are plenty of ways to get pictures of wind blowing and waves and everything else. But our mission as local broadcasters is to be there for the duration for our communities,” he says. “Standing on the beach in the middle of a Category 4 hurricane doesn’t necessarily provide anybody with useful information. But keeping our infrastructure in place and getting that mission critical information out does perform a real community service.”

Even if Hurricane Florence forces personnel at Raycom’s coastal stations to evacuate, the group has contingency plans to control those stations remotely. If the towers and antennas remain intact, Ackerman plans to continue broadcasting to viewers.

The same is true for Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns multiple stations in the hurricane track, including WCTI and WYDO in Greenville, N.C., WLFL and WRDC in Raleigh, N.C., WCIV in Mount Pleasant, S.C., WPDE and WWMB in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and WACH in Columbia, S.C., says Scott Livingston, senior vice president of news at Sinclair.

Sinclair demonstrated the benefit of remotely controlling a station during Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, when its station in San Antonio took over control of its Corpus Christi, Texas, station to provide 36 hours of continuous coverage.

For Florence, Sinclair will produce around-the-clock hurricane coverage from WJLA in Washington, D.C., and a special feed from the station that will stream across all of its websites.

“That stream will also be a backup for our stations in South and North Carolina if we need to completely shut down operations and evacuate, which would be the worst-case scenario,” says Livingston.

The station group has already allocated additional resources to augment hurricane coverage from its affected stations. “We’ve mobilized more than 25 journalists from across Sinclair sister stations to work with our local stations,” he says.

More than 50 LiveU IP newsgathering units, along with people and other resources, will assist with coverage. “It’s a great example of leveraging our resources to provide what we think will be unmatched coverage across the group,” he adds.

Gray Television is preparing WITN, its NBC affiliate in Greenville, N.C., which is in the direct line of the hurricane, as well as surrounding stations in Augusta, Ga. and Virginia for the storm, says Mick Fass, vice president of broadcast technology for the station group.

“Based on where they are located, we are specifically concerned about flooding and the reality they could be stranded there for days,” he says.

The group is checking generators and making sure fuel tanks at its stations studios and transmitter sites are fully stocked. Gray also plans on bringing along extra resources, including an IP satellite truck to maintain internet connectivity in the event Hurricane Florence knocks out service, says Fass.

Gray’s strategy is to set up the resources it will need to maintain coverage in the areas likely to be affected by the hurricane. “Our biggest fear is that once the storm hits, we will not be able to get resources into the community,” he says.

At Capitol Broadcasting Company (CBC), preparations have been ongoing for more than a week, at both WILM in Wilmington and WRAL in Raleigh, N.C., says Peter Sockett, director of engineering and operations.

“We carry six days of fuel at the studio,” says Sockett, who adds both stations have generators at their studios and transmitter sites.

“If everything goes well, we won’t touch it, but we have deals with local diesel guys to top it off daily if we need fuel and they can make it to us,” he says.

At WRAL, three uninterruptible power supplies, any two of which can carry the full load of Capitol Broadcasting, are in use, adds Sockett.

Sockett has already had telephone calls from GatesAir and ERI, assuring him that both vendors are prepared to supply backup transmitters, antennas and other RF components in the event of a catastrophic outage, he says.

As for its actual storm coverage, WRAL has deployed three SNG trucks to the coast and has 20 LiveU IP newsgathering backpacks, as well as ENG microwave units at the ready.

“All the trucks are fueled up and tested. All of the event sites are tested, and the shop truck has 100 gallons of diesel so we can go out and top off the live trucks so they don’t have to leave their locations,” says Sockett.

However, there is one unexpected wrinkle in the station’s preparations, he says. The CBC office where WRAL is located is undergoing a renovation, and the front wall of the building has been temporarily replaced with plywood. Construction workers have feverishly been reinforcing the plywood, adding additional braces, to sustain the temporary wooden wall in the storm.

“I’ve brought in a truckload of sand, and we have put in 300 sandbags in various places,” says Sockett. “We’ve also brought in those big two-inch firehose pumps and cut some holes for the water so we can pump it out if needed.”

And it’s this sort of unpredictability that all broadcasters in the region are now grappling with.

“I feel like we are as prepared as we can possibly be at this point,” says WWAY’s Combs. “But there are certain things that are out of our control. Mother Nature ultimately has the final say.”

Editor’s note: NAB has sent out an email with helpful information for stations affected by the hurricane. It is available online.