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Station Execs: Tips on Tackling The Next Super-Storm

Station executives thought they’d picked up a few
once-in-a-decade lessons from Hurricane Irene last
year. Then Sandy came rumbling across a frighteningly
wide swath of the country, pressing stations’ emergency
plans into play, and forcing station chiefs to go with
their guts on the matters their plans didn’t cover.

If there was any golden lesson to emerge in Sandy’s
wake, it is that planning can’t be too exhaustive—lining
up personnel, hotel rooms, satellite time, gas and food
well in advance of the storm —and can’t be drilled too
many times. Even then, have a backup plan for the plan,
and be prepared to improvise.

“You have to say, what if the worst case scenario happens—
hurricane, re, earthquake—and don’t wait until
it happens to put a plan together,” says Peter Dunn, president
of the CBS Television Stations. “You’re responsible
for keeping viewers’ safety in mind, and you can’t do that
without the right plan.”

Indeed, the best planning for Sandy came not when the
storm was rolling out of the Caribbean, but months, or
perhaps years, before that. For WBOC Salisbury (Md.),
it meant arranging a condominium near the ocean in
Lewes, Del. days before the storm to set up the station
for some gripping live shots. With WCBS New York getting
assists from CBS station siblings as far away as Sacramento,
Los Angeles and Miami, it meant booking 50-70
hotel rooms in Manhattan before they went scarce.

Lew Leone, vice president and general manager of
WNYW-WWOR New York, has learned from experience
that when rooms are hard to come by, some of Manhattan’s
more celebrated hotels have occupancy due to the tourists
that never arrived. “Sometimes there are rooms available
at a hotel you wouldn’t normally even think of,” he says.

Covering a storm that in some places made Irene look
like a summer shower required way more resources than
any station in Sandy’s path possessed. Stations took lessons
learned about gathering user-generated content
during Irene and applied them to Sandy. WNYW set up
a Twitter hashtag, #SandyOnFox, that sent users’ tweets
and images straight into the station’s feed.

WBOC got some jaw-dropping images from Chincoteague
Island, which reporters could not enter, from people
stuck on the island. “There were a lot of times where
you couldn’t get to the news,” says GM Craig Jahelka. “The
nature of citizen journalism has really changed.”

WBOC’s use of the increasingly popular video-overcellular
LiveU packs was
spotty around the DelMarva
region, though Jahelka’s
GM colleagues in the largest
DMA said the mobile
technology was a key element
of their coverage.
“Using microwave trucks,
satellite trucks, during an
actual hurricane, with the
wind blowing and the rain,
is difficult,” says Leone. But
“the signal was great, even
in a moving vehicle,” for
WNYW’s LiveU backpacks,
he adds. “We had more experience
with them than
during Irene.”

Stations used all available media, with much of their
viewing base lacking electricity, such as news simulcasts
on radio for WBOC, the CBS owned stations’ sister radio
outlets in New York and Philadelphia and Boston, and
stations’ smartphone and tablet apps. “Working closely
with our Web team was essential in a storm like this,”
said David Friend, senior VP of news at the CBS owned

Even the best laid plans will require improvising, especially
with a storm that was, in many ways, and by many
accounts, unprecedented. Instinct and experience then
kicks in for the local TV leaders. “I got some advice a long
time ago: In times of crisis, ask yourself what a leader
would do, and do it,” says Jahelka.

At times like this, he adds, the revenue side of the business
does not come into play. Providing pinpoint information
for viewers in a crisis will, in the long run, prove to
be good business. “Budgets and concerns over revenue go
out the window,” says Jahelka, who shelled out $13,000
in satellite time for WBOC. “Do what’s right, and I think
viewers will reward you.”