Saturday, October 29, 2005

Back Home

I am jumping ahead because it has been an eventful week. I am finally back in New Orleans for the first time since Katrina.

I got in Sunday Morning, 10/23/2005. I returned to the home I was renting in the 9th ward. For those NOT from New Orleans, the national media has presented the 9th ward as the slum. That is not the case of all of the 9th ward. New Orleans neighborhoods are very different from anywhere in the country. Two blocks from a beautiful area, you could be a not so grand area. Just the way the city is/was after 200 years. The house I was living had been restored, built in 1807, just plain beautiful. Needless to say it will have to be restored again after the storm. I had already figured out that my personal effects were gone, still hard to see 15 years of personal and professional effects laying on the street in a mound of garbage. If anyone comes across a picture of me and Joe Sakic drinking champagne out of the Stanley Cup please let me know.

The rest of my day was spent trying to accept what I was seeing. Until your on the ground here, you really do not understand what the city is facing. One of the many things I have always loved about New Orleans proper is that it's a metropolitan area but had not become a concrete jungle. By that I mean, trees, grass, shrubs etc have always been in abundance. The first thing I noticed as I went around town was the brown. Everything is brown. Grass, trees, shrubs, things that should still be green are all dead. Salt water does that. The beauty of Esplanade Ave. of old has been replaced with brown trees, no grass and refridgerators everywhere. Cars parked on medians covered in a brown/gray haze from sitting in water for weeks. Is the ENTIRE city this way? No, but the majority of the city is. It's difficult to see but is also adds strength to me anyway because I will be here as the city rebounds too. Yes it will take years but those of us who love New Orleans will rebuild the city.

I was in St Bernard Parish for most of the week getting things moving at the radio station's transmitter/tower site. As a radio station, we lost 3 of our 4 towers plus the entire transmitter building, including equipment. I had seen pictures of the site after the storm but again until you are on the ground here, the destruction is just that, pictures. Walking around the site I was amazed and shocked at the damage. The building looked like a giant foot came from the sky and stepped on top of the structure. The 3 towers that went down were twisted like a ponytail in a young girls hair. The backup propane tank, which in my guess weighs over 500 lbs was found over 300 ft away. The roof of the building was found over 400 ft away. It is just amazing to me still the power and destruction that the storm caused.

I spent most of the week again in St Bernard Parish, Chalmette, Arabi and that area of New Orleans. I have friends and employees from the area so I know what the area was like BK- Before Katrina. That's a new phrase for locals now....BK, before Katrina. Sadly St Bernard Parish sustained some of the worst damage I have seen since I have been back. The East and the Lower 9th ward are basically ruined as well but I have not seen one home or business in "the parish" that will be able to be saved. Mud still cakes the majority of the area and as you walk it sounds like your crushing egg shells. I have lost nothing compared to the citizen's from these areas and at times I have felt guilty for worrying about the station and my personal loss when compared to these good people. Nothing can be said or done to make them feel complete again except time. I pray for all my fellow New Orleanians daily and hope all of our pain will someday be gone.

Even with all of the destruction, I have to say I am so happy to be home. The last 8 weeks of travel and living in hotels has been difficult but getting back to New Orleans, even with the state of the city, has been a life saver for me.

I have a letter from 2 Australian tourists that I will post next time. They were inside the Superdome for 5 days AK, After Katrina

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Monday-Tuesday Night

After about 2 hours of trying to get the station back on the air, I finally gave up. I knew it had to be something at the transmitter site. The generator at the site was full, I knew that. My initial thought was our phone "circuit" service. I could not reach the transmitter site by phone at all to see if either the main transmitter or back up was available or if I could switch. I finally gave up. I had been awake at this point for around 30 hours straight. I awoke Sunday morning at my usual 5 am time (yes, I'm only 37 but I rise very early) and had been at the radio station studio since then. The on-air staff had been rotating shifts to try and stay fresh but I just could not sleep while we were broadcasting. I think I fell asleep Monday morning around 11. I talked to Rob Hunter later that day and he and Shane had both stayed awake through the entire storm.

When I awoke, (sleeping on the floor, I got about 3 hrs) the weather was still bad, but I knew we were on the back side of the storm. I went outside to see if the studio building had been damaged. Windows on the building had been broken on all 3 floors but the location of our studio had been spared. It's strange how all other areas of the building had received broken windows but the one area that was occupied. Someone watching over us possibly.

Everyone at the station thought we still had a possibility of getting broadcasting capabilities back. If you are a broadcaster, you understand what I mean. If your not, your probably thinking "Get the heck out of there". Broadcaster's are a different breed- all we want to do is broadcast, just ask my girlfriend.

As Monday afternoon grew into Monday evening, everyone was upbeat but still concerned. We could not reach anyone. We charged all the cellphones with generator power just to make sure we had the ability to try and call out. We as a staff discussed the situation and all decided to wait and see what might possibly be done to get the transmitter back up. The winds/rain with the storm finally tapered off around 6pm. We entertained ourselves with board games. Thank goodness for Rob and Daniel's girlfriends, they brought the games.

We went to the roof after dark to see what could be seen. Beauty and tragedy. The night was possibly the most beautiful evening I have ever seen in New Orleans. No area had power so all that could be seen in the sky were stars. I don't mean 10 or 100 stars. I mean thousands upon thousands of stars. Little dipper, big dipper, you name it, on the night after Katrina, the sky had more stars than I have seen in my entire life. That's the beauty. The tragedies were the fires. Everywhere. From our rooftop location at I-10 and Clearview, we saw atleast 5 HUGE fires. 1 in Kenner, 1 towards the East, 1 near the Lakefront (we thought) and 2 others close to the city. We called Government Agencies to alert them to the fires. The response? "There's nothing we can do". This was the first time, but not the last, that government told us they couldn't help.

We monitored the Emergency Management Station to find out what was going on around the city. They had no more information than we did. Daniel and I were the last two people awake, I went to sleep, ready to get back up Tuesday.

When we awoke Tuesday, information was slowly coming in. We got our TV service back up and monitored Fox News. Some of the levees had broken. I knew this was a disaster. When I saw that St Bernard parish had received major damage, I knew our transmitter site could be in trouble. I spoke with my boss in Atlanta. He advised to evacuate the staff. The station staff including myself did not want to leave. I argued, cajoled and almost begged to no avail. He demanded we evacuate.

The station staff had been monitoring the only remaining radio station on the air. That station did not have phone service whatsoever. I made the decision to contact them by cellphone to advise that our phone system was working and that if they wanted to use us as a phone service for people/government needing assistance to do so. It took some time for them to decide to do it, but they finally gave the station numbers out for people needing assistance or for government personel needing to get emergency information out.

The phones blew up. Within a 2 hour span we had over 150 calls of people/families trapped in their homes and attics. Families with children, elderly, some homes with 15 people there needing medicine. Our plan was to take down all of their information (address, phone, # of people in the house, etc...) and then relay that info to FEMA. We had three people taking down info and two people attempting to contact FEMA. My staff and myself felt overwhelmed frankly. It's extremlly difficult to speak with people on the phone who were in a critical state. The staff handled it very well. I cannot say enough about the job they did.

FEMA was another matter. Our first attempts to get them the information we met with "We're not ready to start rescuing people". What? We couldn't believe it. We attempted again only to be told, "Can you e-mail the list?". We all were frustrated at this point. Trying again, we were told that "We're not sure where that street is" or "Can you call them back to get directions"!! I could not believe what was happening. Trying again, we were transferred to a woman who did not speak English. After all this frustration, we were able to get the names,addresses and such to FEMA but the process took entirely too long. I just pray that the citizens we spoke with were saved.

I knew at this point we would have to leave. We could do no more. We were all frustrated at the inability to help more. Justin got a friend of his on the cell and asked him to search for hotel rooms in Houston. His friend was able to reserve 3 rooms for us on the internet. I did not think it would be wise to leave without somewhere to stay.

We had been in contact with the 1 remaining radio station on the air in New Orleans. We offered our studio to them if they needed to broadcast from there. We offered our services as a on-air team to give some of their people a break. We offered to do anything we could to help serve our city. It was beyond competition to us at this point. It was about saving New Orleans. We never got a response to our offers to them. If the roles would have been reversed, we would have gladly accepted their help for the good of the city. As we were driving into Houston around Midnight, they announced their partnership with the other "Corporate Radio Group" to simulcast their resources.

(SoapBox Moment) This is why corporate radio has ruined what I call real radio. I've worked for some radio corporations before. Never again. It's my view that, as the only other legitimate news/talk station in the market, we were seen as competition, even in this most dire time for New Orleans. The decision was made to use FM Dj's as information dispensers instead of a staff that was versed in newstalk. I have no proof, but for what other reason would help not be accepted?

We arrived at our hotel around 12:30, checked in and crashed. Next I'll share some stories of people we met in Houston who had gotten out of the Superdome.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Sunday Night- Monday Morning

After most of those who had vehicles or other ways to get out of town, everyone at the radio station began focusing on what the rest of the night and Monday had in store for the city.

Rob, Shane, Daniel and Justin were handling all of the on-air duties at this point. I would guess it was around 10 pm that we started getting word from Accuweather that this might be a direct hit on the city. We were also in constant contact with elected officials in some of the lower-lying areas of Southeast Louisiana. We began getting reports out of Plaqumines Parish around midnight of higher storm surges and the winds at that point had really picked up. We also were talking calls from area residents who decided to ride out the storm. The one that stands out to me more than the others was Bert. Bert was from St Bernard Parish, Arabi actually and was in constant contact with us at the station.

The studio in Metairie lost electrical power around 2 or 3 in the morning. Obviously, it was pitch black around our area. When we lost power, I had the generator ready to go so it was rather quickly that we got back on the air. We had received reports that the Government Designated Emergency Management Station had went off the air around 11p and that they were still not up. It was everyone at the stations understanding that we were the only AM station in New Orleans still broadcasting and that we were the only broadcast entity still remaining in the New Orleans area. We understood how important the information we were broadcasting was to the area and in my opinion, the station staff was fantastic.

When power is lost at a radio station, generally all heck breaks loose. In this case, it was even worse. Phones systems, TV Monitors, computers, anything that runs off of electricity started buzzing. While we got back on the air quickly, getting power to just the essential pieces of equipment was a challenge. With only a flash light to work with, no "fresh" air at all, I think I might have sweated 20 lbs out within an hour trying to make sure that we would not waste any back up power feeding non-essential equipment. It was a continuing process throughout the morning.

Around 4am we began receiving phone calls from around the country and across the globe. Radio stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington Dc, Chicago, etc.... along with the BBC Australia, BBC Europe, Denmark, Mexico, Canada were all in constant contact with us as we reported to the world what was happening to New Orleans.

The winds picked up considerably as we got closer to day light. I went outside around 5 am (which in New Orleans is usually the beginning of the day brightening up) but on this day, the sky remained pitch black.

Our Accuweather Meterologists were on top of this storm from the get go and around 5 ish I think (please forgive my unsureness about some time's) they told the Station Staff and our listeners that Katrina had made somewhat of a "eastern" turn. We all took a big sign of relief - a direct hit on the city was everyones major concern. As the eye passed Buras LA, which we think was around 6 30 am, I saw some things that still baffle me. Never before in my life had I seen rain drops being suspended in mid-air. Yes, I could actually see the rain drops frozen in time for a second or two as the winds (which were swirling now at angles and strength that shacked me) would "hold" the raindrop as it was heading to the ground. I have never seen anything like it before.

We were continuing our broadcasting in the New Orleans area as well as doing live reports for radio stations around the world. Daniel did a live report with a station in Brazil I think. The only problem was his spanish was very limited. He got through it but there is no telling what listeners to that radio station heard. Hahahaha

The morning became a little brighter around 730. We were doing a simulcast with Neal Boortz out of Atlanta at that time and we could see some of the damage in our little area in Metairie. The water had already risen at that point to about 2 to 3 feet close to I-10. In the Clearview Mall shopping center, water was around 5 feet probably. The Mall sits lower that where we were located. Being able to somewhat look around, I knew that this was bad.

I've been through Hurricanes all of my life. I grew up in Louisiana and have lived most of my life there. I knew that if the water was already this high and the eye of Katrina was just getting close, that major damage was in store.

I had a battery operated radio always close by so we could monitor our own on-air status. At about 8:30 am CST Monday Morning, AM 690 WTIX stopped broadcasting Hurricane Katrina Storm coverage. I wouldn't know why until many days later. The stations towers and transmitter building had been completely destroyed.

Monday afternoon till Evacuation in my next update.