Disaster Planning Put to Good Use

October 1, 2004

Most broadcasters have some idea of the steps they will take during emergency situations, especially in the post-9/11 era in which we all now live. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires and hurricanes can be planned for in general terms, but how these disaster events play out over the course of time can make the best thought-out operational plan a work in progress. The ability to make adjustments and decisions on a minute-by-minute schedule can be the variable that will determine the success or the less-than-desirable outcome of any plan.

The Florida broadcasters' recent experience during Hurricane Charley was a case study in how reaction and preparation can affect the outcome of a disaster plan. Like most experiences, much can be learned to improve and to make the next experience a better one for the broadcaster and the public that it serves.

One of the more severe effects of Hurricane Charley. This tower supported two-way communications in Punta Gorda.

West central Florida

The Tampa Bay area is situated on the central west coast of Florida and is especially vulnerable to a hurricane. The geography of the region consists of low, flat coastal communities that are situated around the Pinellas County peninsula. The area has been spared from a direct hit from a large hurricane for many years, and the ongoing development has made it especially vulnerable to the effects of one now. The shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico are conducive to a rapid rise in water temperatures over the summer months, and this same lack of depth to the water provides little ability to absorb the tremendous energy build up and resulting storm surge that occurs as storms cross through the region.

Every year, emergency operations officials host seminars and informational sessions that attempt to train the media and the public on how to best plan for a hurricane and what to expect, if and when the evacuation orders are given. Because most evacuations in this region will take place across long bridges and congested highways, these orders need to get to the public quickly and clearly so that the hundreds of thousands of residents in the area can get to higher ground well in advance of a storm's landfall. Getting accurate information from the Emergency Operations Centers to the public is where the media comes in, especially radio because of its mobility of receivers.

The storm

Cox Tampa''s crash box uses retired PC hardware with some new audio components. The basics for broadcasting are now in a portable package.

Every year in the informational conferences held at the Tampa Bay area EOCs, the description of the “big one” is discussed. The worst-case scenario is of a higher category rated storm passing just north of the Tampa Bay area. This scenario awakens even the most jaded listener. Landfall of such a storm, just north of the mouth of Tampa Bay, would allow the counterclockwise circulation of the hurricane to shove the storm surge into Tampa Bay where there would be no outlet for the water. This surge, coupled with the high winds and heavy rainfall would place most of the modern structures in the community under several feet of water.

On Thursday, Aug. 12, 2004, Hurricane Charley was predicted to come ashore just north of Tampa Bay as a category 4 storm on the following day: Friday the 13th.

What's the plan?

A yearly review of a written Emergency Operations Plan is a good idea. For Cox Radio Tampa, this year was no exception. Ironically, as the review of the Cox Radio Tampa Plan was completed with Sterling Davis, the vice president of engineering for Cox Broadcasting, we had to begin implementing our plan for Tampa. It is surprising how many small details change or evolve over a year, as we began to discover rather quickly.

Cox Radio's Tampa studio facility is located in evacuation zone B, or the second level that will receive evacuation notices. This can be a little deceiving, because across the street from the building is evacuation zone A. Usually both zones are called at the same time, which virtually guarantees that we will fall under an evacuation order for most hurricanes. For this reason, we have set up emergency broadcasting facilities inland to support station operations. Instead of trying to weather a storm at the transmitter site, (not exactly a safe place to be in such conditions), a reciprocal agreement was crafted with two of the area EOCs that allow us to set up temporary studios that can support the basic needs for broadcasting. The EOCs are the center for all disaster information at such times, and the ability to originate from the site also ensures the safety of the on-air staff. In return, we provide access to our SCA channels and all the related communication equipment to support EAS for the local emergency management area. This arrangement has tremendously improved the infrastructure and delivery of EAS messages to local area broadcasters and ensures that a direct connection to radio is available to the public in times of crisis. (See the MSRC Final Report for details at www.fcc.gov/MSRC.)

Studio for WWRM-FM.

Although the emergency studios are tested for functionality on a routine basis, they have never been fully activated. It was time to see if the plans held up under pressure.

Hard drive automation systems have been refined to the point that it is possible to copy an entire radio station's audio library onto a USB drive and walk out the door with it. This, in fact, is part of our plan.

We built a few crash boxes by re-using retired Dell workstations, a good mid-grade Audioscience card and the Henry Studio Drive mixer package. Not counting the cost of the Dell workstation, in this case a GX150 that was a few years old, the total system can be built for less than $2,000 for what amounts to a complete radio station in a box. The beauty of using USB drives is that the inventory can be easily brought up to date within minutes and made available at the remote location. We deployed three crash box systems that became the disaster studios at the EOCs. Friday morning, the programming for the Cox stations was switched to full tilt disaster information originating directly from the EOC studios.

Another reciprocal arrangement with the local NBC TV affiliate was called into action as well and we began simulcasting WFLA-TV News Channel 8 on Friday from the EOC studios when they converted to full hurricane news coverage. The ability for radio to reach traveling listeners and those without power nicely complemented the massive information gathering power of the TV station. Because we had switched to direct origination from the EOCs, we could break away from the TV coverage with our additional information as we needed to. Maintaining control of our program channel was a key goal of our plan from the beginning.

The Cox emergency studio at the Hillsborough Emergency Operations Center.

As Charley marched up the west coast of Florida heading for Tampa Bay, the discussions at the EOCs turned to planning for the effects of the storm. Discussions over blood bank supplies and body bags made the looming threat real and sobering. Larry Gispert from the Hillsborough County EOC and Gregg Feagans from the Sarasota County EOC continued the activation of the EOCs. As weather information poured in, adjustments and announcements were crafted and released for broadcast to a population that was sitting on the edge of their seats. According to Gispert, the broadcasters were efficient in getting the messages out to the public without causing undue panic, but with enough urgency to cause people to take action, which is always a delicate balance.

Change of plans

On Friday the 13th the 2 p.m. weather briefing, announced that the storm had taken a turn to the right and would be coming ashore at Charlotte harbor, a 90 minute drive south of Tampa Bay.

The Charlotte harbor area is not unlike the Tampa Bay region geographically. Downtown Punta Gorda often floods in afternoon summer thunderstorms. The main difference is that it is not nearly as built up as the Tampa area. Unfortunately, the advance notice and preparation time that Tampa had for the storm was not a luxury that the southern area had. By the time the updated track was announced, there were only a few hours to prepare for the full force of a category 4 hurricane.

Hal Kneller, a veteran broadcaster who lives in Punta Gorda, managed to escape to higher ground but had little time to prepare his stations for what was due to come ashore soon.

The change of the storm's course also brought about a change in focus at the EOCs. A new balance was struck between preparedness and relief and recovery mode for the northern counties while the southern counties braced for the storm and quickly switched to preparation mode. Conversations between Cox station groups in Tampa and Orlando changed in terms of who might need to help and who may need the help. Long term contingency plans for possible broadcast originations via ISDN from either market were up in the air. On the local TV channels, the phrase “hunker down” became a common term which effectively described the position most were in.

Devastation at ground zero in Punta Gorda.

The storm moved quickly (25 to 30 mph) over the coastal areas and into the interior of the state with a direct path over Orlando. It exited the state south of Jacksonville. The intensity peaked just as it made landfall but fortunately, the storm center was relatively small and the storm surge did not build up as high as expected. Because of the intensity of the core of the storm, damage was excessive to anything in the storm's path.

The Punta Gorda-area stations suffered roof damage and STL tower failures. The intensity of the storm was strong enough the knock STL dishes out of alignment in Orlando, 130 miles northeast of Charlotte Harbor, according to Cox Director of Technical Operations Steve Fluker. Power and phone services were taken out and numerous cell towers were also damaged in the storm's path. The Charlotte area EOC suffered damage extensive enough to require the Sarasota EOC to temporarily take over its operations. Fortunately, the Sarasota EOC was one that we had an emergency studio in that supported one of the stations that served that area, so critical information was able to continue to reach the area.

What about EAS?

When there is an emergency, there usually is a question about the performance of the EAS. Although hurricanes are not events that are sudden in nature, there are numerous events associated with the storms that are routed through the EAS. More than 33 tornado warnings, flash flood warnings and other messages for the area passed uninhibited through the EAS because of the direct connection from the EOCs to the tower sites for the LP stations. The system worked well enough that a local news cable channel now boasts of the Emergency Alert System information that it has available to its viewers.

One of the key facets of a disaster plan is what steps to take during recovery. Because every disaster is unique, the available services dictate what steps can be taken. For the Punta Gorda area, the damage was extensive and help from abroad was called in. One of the benefits of consolidation is the ability to tap into distant resources quickly. Wilson Welch from the Clear Channel stations in Tampa began delivering assistance to the cluster in the affected area soon after the storm had passed. Items such as diesel fuel and satellite dishes had to be brought in to keep the stations running. Damage to some of the studio areas had to be secured. Later on, a sugar grower arrived at the studios with a diesel tanker truck ready to fill the station's generator supply because he heard on the air that there was a shortage.

WZSP''s temporary transmitter setup after its transmitter building was damaged.

The creative problem solving of radio engineering once again became evident after the storm passed. For example, because the area communication systems were so damaged, the Heartland Broadcasting stations operated by Kneller had to use the Marti equipment that would normally be used for sports remotes and place it into service for communications links to the two inland area EOCs in Arcadia and Wauchula. The EOC officials were able to directly feed the station updates, which broadcast in English and then translated and rebroadcast in Spanish to serve the large Spanish population in the area.

Other interesting solutions to communications challenges included the use of IP phone sets over point-to-point wireless network connections according to Welch. As part of the relief effort sent down to the area by the Cox stations, an ISDN satellite phone was shipped from the Cox stations in Atlanta by Charles Kinney and used at what was referred to as ground zero. In an area that lacked even basic cell phone service, a solid ISDN connection could be easily established that allowed full-duplex G.722 broadcasts to be available. Broadcast audio was delivered to the Tampa and Atlanta markets using the equipment.

Relief efforts

Of course, the ultimate goal of creating the communications channels and broadcasting areas was to get information and relief to the affected citizens in the disaster zone. The ability for terrestrial radio to survive such a tremendous challenge and to also quickly and effectively serve the local public interest was simply amazing to witness.

Once again, the power of consolidation came into play on the relief efforts. The Cox stations began fundraising campaigns immediately after the storm passed with on-air auctions and collection centers set up to send food and cash to those affected. Within hours, more than seven semi trailers were rolling south from Tampa to distribution centers and thousands of dollars in donations were collected and earmarked for distribution.

Lessons learned

The best teacher is experience and the reflections of those in the path of the storm are the most vivid. According to Kneller, the small market stations such as those in Punta Gorda have perhaps fewer resources to draw from compared to major markets.

Hurricanes are typically thought to be coastal events; however, this particular storm brought more damage to inland facilities than expected. The first few hours of broadcasting after the storm were lost because of inadequate preparation. Those first few hours are the most critical for the public to hear the stations. Also, a tower inspection for structural integrity is something that should not be overlooked. Quite often, it is the STL tower, the generator or the critical satellite dish that receives the least amount of attention. Loss of such resources during an emergency situation can be disastrous.

The temporary communications setup from the Charlotte County EOC for WZZS.

Some Orlando stations lost power and phone service for days. Human resources are in short supply thanks to consolidation and the ability for automation systems to do the work of several people. In times of disaster, there is no way that a computer can replace a good broadcaster. They are probably the most valuable resource you need to be aware of. Basic communications are also a necessity. We were reminded how much we missed our two-way system when we had no cellular service. The repeater system may need to be reactivated.

Perhaps the greatest lesson learned was that the power of radio to motivate and help people should not be underestimated. People react to help others when asked and terrestrial radio is where people expect to find the information they need to make decisions on what to do and where to go for help. For this reason, a reliable broadcasting operation needs to be planned to not only remain on the air but be able to have a good connection and relationship with the emergency planners and other sources of information, such as TV stations in the area of license.

Hurricane Charley reminded Florida broadcasters that although the weatherman gets better every year, Mother Nature is always ready to throw a curve ball.

While it's impossible to plan for every emergency situation, some of the planning for Charley was put to good use when Frances and then Ivan ran their courses. The time between the storms was barely enough to prepare for the next one, but the stations made due with what they had. The emergency plan is already in place, there just isn't any dust on it.

Clark is the director of technical operations for Cox Radio's six-station cluster in Tampa, FL.

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