By Allison J. Waldman
Special to TelevisionWeek
When the roof blew off WLOX-TV’s building at the height of Hurricane Katrina, the news staff stayed at their posts and kept the station on the air. “To be honest with you, during that time everybody was so focused on what we were trying to do that we weren’t really worried about our safety as much as we worried about trying to keep the broadcast going,” recalled David Vincent, news director for the Biloxi, Miss., ABC affiliate.
In recognition of the staff’s achievement in keeping WLOX on the air continuously before, during and after the storm, the station has been named one of the winners of the 65th annual Peabody Awards.
The news staff at WLOX, as well as the rest of Biloxi, watched with trepidation as the monster storm approached in late August 2005. It had been almost 40 years since Hurricane Camille laid waste to the beautiful Gulf Coast beaches and historic homes, and many residents didn’t believe another hurricane could ever match Camille’s fury. They were wrong.
Biloxi had thrived in the years since Camille. The region was burgeoning with new construction and exciting projects, including a magnificent Frank Gehry-designed museum celebrating Mississippi artists such as George Orr, the “mad potter of Biloxi.” Hotels, casinos and beachfront mansions were going up on the scenic coastal landscape. The only controversy was whether to allow developers to gobble up the pristine white sand shores for tourist lures such as the Hard Rock Casino and the Beau Rivage Hotel.
However, as the force of Hurricane Katrina bore down on the city, the prospect of an exciting, cosmopolitan Biloxi was in serious jeopardy. As Gulf Coast residents boarded up and hunkered down for Katrina’s worst, so did WLOX. The news team had been deep in preparations since well before Katrina reached New Orleans on Monday, Aug. 29. They knew they had a brief head start, and they still hoped the storm might veer off toward Pensacola. It didn’t.
“Starting that Saturday night we geared up big time,” Mr. Vincent said. “By Sunday morning we were going around the clock. I’ve gone through many storms, starting back in ’79 with Hurricane Frederick; ’85, Elena; ’98, George; and then a lot of other scares and minor storms in between. But no doubt about it: Katrina was the worst storm ever.”
Before Katrina hit Biloxi, WLOX had broadcast warnings and urged people to evacuate. As the storm raged, WLOX continued in service to its viewers. “We became a hand-holding service while the storm was hitting us, letting people know we were still here and giving them as much information as we could. There wasn’t much more we could do during the storm because we were hunkered down as much as they were. Our building was being destroyed around us. We were telling people to be calm, and we were trying to do it ourselves,” Mr. Vincent said.
In addition to WLOX’s roof blowing off during the storm, one of the station’s two transmitting towers toppled. But WLOX never stopped broadcasting. As the Peabody committee pointed out, “These courageous employees of the station broadcast 12 consecutive days of life-saving news and information to its storm-shocked Gulf Coast viewers.”
When Mr. Vincent speaks of those days, it’s difficult for him not to get emotional: “Our staff did a hell of a job. It’s really hard to put into words what they did and what they went through. You have to understand, we had people coming in going on the air right after the storm, and they were walking through a newsroom that was just mud … ceiling tiles down on the ground, water everywhere. When the roof blew off, all this water came down and we had to save as much as we could. We got the muck out in the next two or three days, but the newsroom was still in a shambles for weeks.”
The staff knew their jobs and did them. And on the WLOX Web site, live streaming video kept the world informed about what was happening in Biloxi.
“We set up a temporary newsroom,” Mr. Vincent said. “Our IT, Mark Pardee, put up a temporary newsroom in about two or three days, but it was amazing. It was small space, but we operated that way for months. One thing I learned out of this is that you can really do a lot more than you think you can as a person when you really face it.”
The Peabody Award recognized the individual staffers’ extraordinary efforts as broadcasters, but Mr. Vincent believes the committee saw something else. “I think they saw an entire station coming together for the betterment of the community,” he said. “We put our own lives on the line to make sure our community was served during the worst catastrophe in the nation’s history. I think they saw that under incredible problems the station and its people were able to band together for the sake of the community.”
The station remains a fixture in the community, on-air and off. It has a new roof and a reconstructed newsroom. “We got it pretty well rebuilt,” Mr. Vincent said. “We still have some work to do to the outside. We’re pretty well there.”
The station’s well-deserved Peabody Award will decorate its hall. “Our newsroom was really excited to have a big award like this for a small market like us,” Mr. Vincent said. “I think it shows that we did something right.”