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Storm Stories

As the Gulf Coast region slowly begins to rebuild, local broadcasters are restoring their operations and tweaking emergency plans for the next big storm. When Hurricane Katrina hit Aug. 29, all the New Orleans TV stations were forced to abandon their facilities, and crews are just now going back.

WWL, which never lost its signal, has been operating out of the PBS station in Baton Rouge, La. On Monday, Sept. 5, a crew of technicians and engineers ventured back into its French Quarter headquarters to survey damage and refuel the generator. The facility was unscathed, and WWL is now waiting for permission to return.

In the meantime, WWL’s news is being beamed across the country, to PBS stations in Louisiana and Mississippi and to sister Belo outlets, such as WFAA Dallas, KHOU Houston and KVUE Austin, Texas. In New Orleans, Viacom-owned UPN station WUPL—which Belo recently agreed to buy—has been simulcasting some coverage. Around 30 stations in markets where Belo does not own an affiliate, including WHDH Boston and WPLG Miami/Fort Lauderdale, are carrying the New Orleans station on secondary digital channels. WWL is also streaming its news live online.

Through it all, station execs are trying to move forward. “This is a work in progress, and each day there is a new bright spot,” says Rick Keilty, senior VP of Belo Corp.’s TV group.

Hearst-Argyle-owned NBC affiliate WDSU has also cobbled together a distribution network. After losing its transmitter, the station has been simulcasting its news online and on Pax affiliate WPXL New Orleans. The Pax outlet in Houston is also carrying WDSU’s news in early mornings and evenings, and Hearst is seeking a Baton Rouge outlet.

When floodwaters threatened its New Orleans facility, WDSU moved its news production to sister stations WAPT Jackson, Miss., and WESH Orlando, Fla. The broadcasting is going smoothly, despite makeshift conditions. On some WDSU newscasts produced in Jackson, anchors sit in folding chairs in front of a blank white wall with a TV borrowed from the lobby sitting between them.

WDSU managed last week to get some staffers back to its New Orleans headquarters, which were not damaged. But employee safety is a priority: A security team guards the facility, and WDSU crews travel with two armed guards when they go out to report. WDSU’s biggest obstacle remains its damaged transmitter, which Hearst estimates will take as long as a month to repair.

For now, Fox affiliate WVUE, an Emmis Communications station, is making Mobile, Ala., its home. The station’s transmitter went down in the storm, and the news operation has relocated to sister station WALA Mobile, where it is building a temporary newsroom. The station is starting up an online newscast, and, at press time, Emmis was expecting its TV signal to be on-air by Sept. 10 with a low-power transmitter. Tribune Broadcasting’s ABC affiliate WGNO also remained off the air. But it is producing newscasts with WBRZ Baton Rouge, and Tribune says the station could resume broadcasting over-the-air within a month.

When WVUE gets back on, it plans to air a 15-minute newscast that will repeat in a loop and be updated every two hours. It will be carried on DirecTV and online.

As they work on their facilities, Gulf Coast broadcasters are looking ahead and fine-tuning their disaster plans for future storms. “Every time you go through this, you learn something,” says Terry Mackin, executive VP for Hearst-Argyle TV, which owns CBS affiliate WWL. “We already learned from past storms that you need big generators, but this time fuel was an issue.”

The hurricane left more than 2 million people in four states without power, and, in many places, officials had taken control of fuel supplies. Mackin says finding fuel to power generators and satellite trucks was nearly impossible. After a day of calling fuel companies, he tracked down a vendor in Ruston, La., who sold him 95,000 gallons of fuel.

Communications were another major obstacle. Across the region, cellphone service was spotty, and landlines were dead, forcing crews to rely on satellite phones in their trucks. Blackberrys worked intermittently, and some Belo crews managed to communicate via Nextel two-way radios.

No station felt more isolated than WLOX Biloxi, Miss. The Liberty Corp.-owned ABC affiliate lost parts of its roof and, for days, had only a lone satellite phone. “I’d like to get some push-to-talk radios and more satellite phones,” says News Director David Vincent.

Another problem was feeding and housing staffers. A dozen people at WLOX lost their homes, and most New Orleans broadcasters have not been able to even check on their property. Station groups have cobbled together fleets of RVs and rented apartments for temporary housing, and some WWL employees are sacked out in dorms at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. WLOX hired local caterer Norbert Keptner, who previously ran a well-known local German restaurant, to cook for its troops.

Such preparations help ease the working conditions. “I’ve forecasted weather across the planet, and I have never seen anything like the devastation and the intensity of this storm,” says Robert Knight, meteorologist for WLOX.

Signs of Normalcy

WLOX is rebuilding, though slowly. A temporary roof is shielding the news staff, power is back on, and a local automobile dealer donated a car to help replace the station’s destroyed vehicles.

There were other signs of normalcy. WWL began airing Late Night With David Letterman again on Tuesday, Sept. 6, its first entertainment programming in more than a week. Later in the week, the station planned to add The Oprah Winfrey Show and syndicated fare such as Live With Regis and Kelly. “It is a nice opportunity to give people a break,” says Keilty, referring to both viewers and the WWL staff. WUPL planned to resume regular programming this week.

WVUE was planning to air the New Orleans Saints’ first NFL game Sept. 11, though it will be available only on DirecTV. During the game, instead of commercials, the station will insert news.

Station managers say 30-second spots and regular commercial pods do not yet feel appropriate, although they are exploring other options. WDSU is considering sponsorships from large corporations, such as Wal-Mart and Exxon. WWL is running interstitials that highlight its news coverage and is contacting advertisers to discuss alternate opportunities, such as advertising on its Web site.

Reporters from outside the region continue to stream in. More than a dozen stations, including KABC and KNBC Los Angeles and WBBM Chicago, have dispatched reporters to Louisiana and Mississippi. They are tracking local angles, such as hometown rescue workers and National Guard troops, and are trying to convey the scope of the devastation to their viewers.

Even seasoned reporters say the wrath of Katrina is unlike anything they’ve ever experienced. “Steven Spielberg could not have put together a film as dramatic as this,” says WFAA Dallas reporter Brad Watson, who reported from New Orleans. “To see people wading in poisonous water, coming into the downtown area with families, asking 'Where do we go? Where are the police?,’ and people sleeping on highway ramps—no one expected that.”