Katrina Sends TV Stations a Lasting Signal

Oct 23, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Sharon M. Goldman

Special to TelevisionWeek

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, the employees of NBC affiliate WDSU-TV in that city had already relocated to their sister station in Jackson, Miss., to continue their hurricane coverage away from the eye of the storm. Eventually, the wall of water that flooded most of New Orleans also left the station’s transmitter underwater, taking out WDSU’s signal as well as its radar equipment.

That didn’t stop the station from covering the storm, however, with station reporters documenting on videotape the water rising as it started pouring into the St. Bernard Parish area of New Orleans. That footage later became part of a WDSU-produced documentary on the storm, “Seven Days That Changed New Orleans,” narrated by Chris Matthews, that was created for the one-year anniversary of the storm.

More than a year after the tragic events of that week, the Hearst-Argyle-owned station has made a remarkable recovery. WDSU still relies on a makeshift transmitter that sits on a flatbed truck and isn’t strong enough to get a digital signal-that will return sometime next year. But the station has new advanced live radar that is better able to punch through major tropical activity, as well as a new VIPIR 3-D weather-analysis system. WDSU’s news director, Anzio Williams, says the station is going strong.

“We were very aggressive on the front end of Katrina about weather coverage,” he said. “In fact, Tropical Storm Cindy and Hurricane Dennis came right before and were like a little warm-up for us.” Now, he said, the station is happy to have the “best radar out there,” and a fourth meteorologist is on board. “Now someone can be on staff at all times, so it’s easier for us to cover breaking weather,” he said.

For television stations on the Gulf Coast that were affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, considering the future of weather technology and assessing weather coverage has been an essential part of getting back to full strength. Both WDSU in New Orleans and KRIV-TV in Houston have upgraded their systems and addressed other operations issues.

KRIV had already planned weather equipment improvements before Hurricane Rita hit Sept. 20, 2005, but according to General Manager D’Artagnan Bebel, investing additional capital in upgrades moved significantly up the station’s priority list.

“Our corporate parent decided to move it up on the queue,” he said, “because they realized the importance of cutting-edge weather technology in our region.” A new million-watt, dual-polarity live radar system is considered the best broadcast radar in the country and provides the station with more power than all of Houston’s other radar systems combined, and a new 3-D live rendering program helps create sophisticated-looking graphics quickly.

“It’s very exciting,” said KRIV Chief Meteorologist Cecilia Sinclair. “We waited a long time to get where we are, and we’re so grateful we’re finally at this point.”

The new radar systems are from Baron Services, which provides meteorological analysis tools and weather display equipment to more than 200 television stations around the United States. Baron Services CEO Bob Baron said these tools are meant to make it easier for viewers to understand what’s going on in an era of “consumer-driven weather.”

“We’ve become more sophisticated in what we do over the years but much more simplified in the images we display,” he said. “We’ve been very pleased with the performance that our clients who have gone through hurricanes and other severe weather have had.”

Baron Services supported both WDSU and KRIV during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, providing backup capabilities with extra people and equipment. “Katrina was the first time we couldn’t actually get people into the city that was affected, but we had people where the television stations moved their resources, in Mississippi, Florida and parts of Texas,” Mr. Baron said.

The hurricanes brought about changes in weather coverage that go well beyond equipment, said WDSU’s Mr. Williams. “Since Katrina, our tone of voice has changed,” he said. “There’s no need to hype anything up anymore, because people are automatically attentive to what we do.”

The station has a greater responsibility now, he said, to keep everything in perspective now that it has seen the worst. “This year, for example, we were forced to be the voice of reason when it came to storms forming in the Gulf or the Atlantic Ocean,” he said. “We’d be the ones to say, come on, it’s 1,000 miles away-you don’t need to worry about it, but we’re still watching it.”

In addition, environmental issues in the Gulf have become a regular occupation for the station’s producers and reporters, Mr. Williams said.

“People are very interested in the environment now-they’re more educated and more in tune with how levees are built, how Louisiana is structured, how we continue to sink every year if we don’t get some money to stop coastal erosion,” he said. A WDSU reporter even traveled to the Netherlands to do a series of reports on the Dutch flood prevention system, and reporters have made a point of becoming educated about environmental issues such as the proper disposal of Freon from hundreds of thousands of abandoned refrigerators.

For KRIV, looking toward the future has meant learning from the station’s experience with Rita and laying down additional contingency plans. “If Rita had been a long-range event, or it had hit Houston directly, we would have had problems,” said Ms. Sinclair. “We had 200 people locked up in a building trying to work, trying to sleep, with kids and, in some cases, pets. It was physically taxing. We needed to have an additional stove, and I was concerned about the bathrooms.”

Dealing with the emotional aspects of the trauma turned out to be an important aspect of planning, and the station brought in a psychologist to talk to the staff. “We needed someone to talk to us about how we would experience feelings we never anticipated, like panic, or fleeing, or guilt, and that this was normal,” she said. Like WDSU, the Houston station has also added a full-time meteorologist to the staff since Rita, she said, to help bear the burden during future severe weather events.

As for the future of weather technology, Mr. Baron said dual-polarity radars are certain to become essential as demand increases for timeliness and accuracy in estimating rainfall, discriminating between rain and hail and warning of possible flooding. “It gives us a much better opportunity to say, `This is where flooding will occur and this is where it won’t,”‘ he said. And presenting it in a consumer-friendly environment on TV is key. “There’s a wonderful market ahead in terms of television displays and Web pages that make it very clear to the consumer that this is something that will be affecting you,” Mr. Baron said.

For the meteorologists and other staff at WDSU in New Orleans and KRIV in Houston, dealing with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was dramatic and traumatic. But examining the weather coverage of last year’s events will help prepare the Gulf region for future severe weather coverage, Ms. Sinclair said.

“I look at Rita as a gift to us,” she said. “It gave us an opportunity to find out where we had weaknesses. It was a learning experience.”