Planning Pays Off as New Orleans TV Stations Sail Through Gustav

Sep 2, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Television stations in New Orleans learned a lot from Katrina three years ago, when some stations were forced off the air and out of town by the hurricane that flooded the Crescent City.
Some of what the stations had implemented since Katrina came in handy Sunday and Monday as Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast and moved inland.
Here are some of the stories that emerged Tuesday, after Gustav had moved on.
Belo-owned CBS affiliate WWL-TV had enough diesel fuel stored to run the 1.5 million-watt generators at the station in the French Quarter and at its transmitter to run 15 days at full power. However, it lost power and had to use its generators for less than a couple of days. It was operating on normal power Tuesday and had remained on the air throughout the storm.
Belo’s KHOU-TV in Houston and WFAA-TV in Dallas ran WWL’s digital signal on their subchannels to keep New Orleans residents who were forced to flee informed about the situation back home. Residents were asked by authorities not to return until the clean-up and restoration of services had made headway.
Katrina had knocked out cell phone service, so WWL had spent $300,000 to install a radio system. Cell service was intermittent throughout Gustav, and in some cases had not been restored Tuesday morning. However, WWL’s crews in the field were able to stay in touch easily with their newsroom and their colleagues in the field via the radio backup.
WWL President/General Manager Bud Brown was pleased to report Tuesday morning that no station personnel had been hurt, no equipment had been damaged, the electric toilet purchased after Katrina wasn’t needed and no Meals Ready to Eat had to be consumed.
The station had stocked up on hundreds of gallons of bottled water and fresh food, a market on the corner had remained open until Monday and a restaurant in the French Quarter had delivered hot breakfasts Tuesday morning to a staff that was still operating on very little sleep.
Even when people were told to take eight hours off, they generally were back in three or four hours because they couldn’t stay away from the story, which still involved actual hardship for many, such as widespread power outages, and further potential damage from Gustav’s rains.
Katrina knocked out water service and residents were asked not to flush toilets. That situation forced the station to create a sort of outhouse, something employees had asked management to address in plans for future storm plans. That led to the purchase of the electric toilet.
Katrina also left so much debris in the streets that some of WWL’s trucks suffered four flats within an hour. This time all the station’s vehicles were stocked with multiple aerosol fix-a-flat devices, as well as food and water in case the crews got stuck.
“We’ve been rehearsing ever since Katrina,” Mr. Brown said. Monthly meetings about such emergences were stepped up during hurricane season the last three years. The result: “We covered the story. We did remarkably well.”
Mr. Brown said the same was true of efforts by the local, state and federal units that had fared so miserably during and after Katrina.
The biggest hit to WDSU-TV, Hearst-Argyle’s NBC affiliate in New Orleans, as a result of Hurricane Gustav has been its commercials.
The station hasn’t had carried any commercials in its continuous coverage since Thursday morning, and it intends to remain commercial-free “as long as it takes,” President/General Manager Joel Vilmenay said Tuesday. “We’re going to see this coverage all the way through the re-entry point.”
People around the country could follow the station’s coverage on DirecTV, thanks to an agreement put in place for Gustav. Mr. Vilmenay is exploring a long-term version of that arrangement.
Mr. Vilmenay, who took over the station five months after Katrina unleashed killer waters that broke through the levees and flooded New Orleans three years ago, said station management staff from that time are still with Hearst-Argyle and shared what they had learned.
One of the things WDSU did post-Katrina was to establish a permanent bureau in Baton Rouge, the seat of state government, designed to function as a day-to-day bureau and as a fall-back position for the station if needed.
WDSU chief engineer Greg Turner said the station rebuilt its transmitter platform 27 feet above sea level to flood-proof it.
It had a generator at the transmitter and enough fuel to run it for a little more than two weeks without any outside power.
There were satellite phones at the station’s main locations and crews had text-capable cell phones, in addition to spare tires, industrial-strength fix-a-flat devices, first-aid kits and food and water.
On Tuesday afternoon, shops and businesses in the studio’s downtown area still had not started to reopen.
Hurricane Gustav was the first test of the symbiotic approach to big stories covered by hastily assembled SWAT teams composed of personnel from TV stations owned by Tribune and Local TV.
Steve Charlier, the Chicago- and Cincinnati-based senior VP of news and operations for the two partners, brought in reporters, photographers, anchors, meteorologists, engineers and equipment from nine or 10 cities throughout the country, swelling the news staff of ABC-affiliated WGNO-TV by about 50%. That “helped sustain about three days of coverage” (about 48 hours of it commercial-free) as well as expand the territory covered.
“It wasn’t bad,” Mr. Charlier said by cell phone as he made his way to the airport in Mobile, Ala., where outbound flights were said to have plenty of open seats Tuesday afternoon. “I couldn’t be happier in the end.”
“We served 42 different [sets of] call letters, 35 different newsrooms,” he said. “We basically serviced all of our stations just like a CNN would, where we did triple generics off the tops of the hours and worked custom live shots and ran a couple of reporters and anchors. The other night we started with live shots in the Bourbon Street area, moved out to a remote location in Arkansas for a second live shot, and then ended with a reporter in Minneapolis at the Republican convention and did that with a triple satellite shot.”
They repeated the sequence for late local newscasts in every time zone as well.
One imported meteorologist serviced 30 different live shots and a couple dozen stations throughout one day, Mr. Charlier said.
WGNO “probably could have used a lot more support during Katrina,” the news executive said. “We wanted to make sure they didn’t have a need for resources.”
Mr. Charlier said there were no injuries or equipment damage, “just a lot of wet photographers and just normal wear and tear with that much water. You have the cranky satellite trucks when you get that much moisture in the air.”
The local staff taught the out-of-towners “some neat little tricks that they learned during hurricane coverage about how to keep things dry. They had a very good hurricane plan that they had executed over the years.”
This was the first hurricane covered from the facilities that house WGNO and sister station WNOL-TV and that replaced what was lost to Katrina.
If Gustav provided the first test of the SWAT concept, Mr. Charlier said, “Hopefully three, four, five years down the road, it’s an everyday call about who needs help and where can we send the resources.”
“We really feel strongly the way we’re going to be able to survive a tough economy and to grow and to build, we’re going to have to look for efficiencies and partners and a different way of doing business. We laid the groundwork for what’s to come,” he said.
“It’s not about allocations. It’s not about overall corporate strategy. It’s more about—I’ll give you the quote. I don’t know if you want to use it or not. We have a motto. It’s ‘AFDI. Actually F—ing Doing It.’ If you would ever apply that to an instance, it’s a hurricane. We had a couple of hours to just do it. We got a few people on the phone and we were able to dispatch a team.”
(4 p.m.: Updated throughout)


  1. WWL is not an ABC affiliate; it’s CBS

  2. Uhhh…last I checked, KHOU was in Houston, hence the HOU. Hello!!!!!!

  3. Pitiful. A quick check on Google, Wikipedia or even the station’s own web site would of been nice to verify their affiliation or location.

  4. Mason Granger was still the WDSU gm five months after Katrina. Joel didn’t take over until at least a year after Katrina.

  5. The bigger the storm, the harder it will be for viewers to watch local stations as many will lose power. Radio simulcasts are useful but of course you lose the visuals. Battery powered TVs are very handy but when the TV signals change next year, those sets won’t be able to pick up the stations. So a station may be doing great work but no one can watch it.

  6. New Orleans Fox affiliate WVUE doesn’t even get a mention!!??!! Michele, your reporting is seriously lacking, madam. Its one of the reasons the public’s distrust of the media continues to rise – not telling the full story. What are you, an intern at TV Week?

  7. WDSU coverage on Directv channel 361 was a nice alternative to national new channel coverage. My friends who work in New Orleans were able to keep updated while temporarily relocated in another state. Hopefully this will be the start of similar actions in the future during major extended regional emergencies.

  8. FYI Robert and Aaron…KHOU, WFAA, and WWL are all owned by the same company. So, during major events such as Hurricanes they shares resources, reporters, etc. Subsequently, the article above is correct in its mention of the other stations regardless of city of network affiliation.

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