Stations Learn From Hawaii Quake

When two major earthquakes rocked Hawaii on Oct. 15, broadcasters scrambled to get the news out. As other stations that have recently been hit by hurricanes and blizzards can attest, broadcasting in the wake of a natural disaster can be a nightmare.

In Hawaii, quake damage made it difficult to dispatch crews, while power outages limited the ability to broadcast and to update Websites. For that matter, it wasn’t even clear if anyone in the market could watch the news.

With cleanup under way across Hawaii, Honolulu stations are reevaluating disaster plans. Although some of the lessons learned are specific to the tropical-island setting, many will resonate with broadcasters in any environment.

The quakes, the most powerful to hit the state in more than 30 years, struck 11 miles off the coast of the Big Island. Hawaii’s stations are located in Honolulu, on the island of Oahu. That island was mostly spared damage, but the quakes knocked out power, which would not be restored until much later in the day. That left broadcasters to rely on generator power—if they had it at all.

Hearst-Argyle–owned ABC affiliate KITV switched to a generator and stayed on the air. NBC affiliate KHNL and Fox affiliate KHON also had generator power and continued to operate.

But CBS outlet KMGB, one of only two stations still owned by Emmis Communications, was not so fortunate. Without a generator, the station was unable to broadcast.

Even stations with trusty power sources had to improvise. When KITV broke in with news coverage around 8 a.m., it also started streaming the news on its Website, drawing 2.5 million page views that day—about what the site typically draws in a month. It was KITV’s first time streaming breaking news, and it was the only Honolulu station to do so after the quake.

Unable to send reporters to the Big Island right away, the station relied on user-submitted pictures, video and phone reports. “Viewer calls and e-mails kept us alive until we got more video,” says General Manager Mike Rosenberg.

KITV provided wall-to-wall coverage much of the day and was simulcast on CNN for several hours.

At KHON, the Fox affiliate aired hourly updates. General Manager Joe McNamara and one of the anchors happened to be visiting the Big Island and phoned in news. McNamara also shot video himself until the station got crews on the scene. KHON’s coverage ran on CNN and Fox News.

Station managers say coordinating with the parent station group is critical to staying on the air during a disaster. “We live in one of the most isolated places,” says KHNL General Manager John Fink. “It’s important to have allies outside the market.”

Much the way its sister station WLOX Biloxi, Miss., did after Hurricane Katrina, KHNL rallied other Raycom outlets. With its Internet network down, Raycom’s KLTV Tyler, Texas, took over updating the KHNL Website. KOLD Tucson, Ariz., readied crews to fly in and assist KHNL; they ultimately were not needed.

Other lessons were logistical. Communications were spotty, with cell networks jammed and some landlines knocked out. Broadcasters say walkie-talkies and two-way radios were most reliable, much as they were during Katrina. With the airport closed, broadcasters turned to private air services to ferry crews to the Big Island.

“It’s important to have those arrangements in advance,” says Fink.

Of course, the most essential component of the emergency plan is a reliable power source. While KHNL had a generator at the station, it did not at its transmitter site. To get over-the-air coverage, it ran news and updates on sister station KFVE Honolulu.

Lacking a generator, KGMB sent crews out to collect video for when power was restored. By early evening, engineers had rigged a link to Oceanic Cable, and the station broadcast its news from the parking lot, using a satellite truck to transmit and generators to power editing equipment. Power was restored in time for the 10 p.m. news.

“We had to be very creative,” says General Manager Rick Blangiardi.

As Emmis shops the station, emergency plans are sure to be discussed with KGMB’s next owner. Says Blangiard, “A generator will be part of the conversation for any buyer.”

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