The effort of covering the historic storm fully tested Houston stations’ technological and logistical prowess and planning, while straining their human resources. With power and cable outages prevalent, the broadcasters also streamed their coverage continuously over Facebook Live so that folks with a charged smartphone could watch, too. Above, KHOU broadcast news temporarily from the facilities of noncommercial KUHT.
Most of the local TV broadcasters in Houston will likely never cover a bigger story than they found themselves in the middle of this week after Hurricane Harvey came ashore south of the city, parked itself above the region and dumped more rain in a single storm than has ever be recorded anywhere in the lower 48.
The deluge flooded large parts of a sprawling metropolis, rendering thousands of homes and businesses uninhabitable, making roads impassable and driving citizens out of town or into over-crowded shelters.
As of this morning, it had claimed the lives of at least 38 people, including a police officer on his way to lend a hand. Damages were running into the many billions of dollars.
The broadcasters’ response was massive, nonstop coverage by land (where they could find it), by water (where they had boats) and, to a limited extent, by air.
“We think of ourselves as first responders because we are there warning people, giving them the information they need to make critical life and death decisions,” said David Loving, GM of the Univision TV duopoly and four radio stations in Houston. “It’s an amazing situation and everybody is working at full capacity.”
The effort fully tested the stations’ technological and logistical prowess and planning, while straining their human resources.
Working in long shifts and in some cases, hunkering down within their stations overnight, the broadcasters carried on, keeping one eye on the fate of their own homes and families.
“We are here, we are sleeping on floors, we are doing whatever it takes,” said Sally Ramirez, news director at Tegna’s CBS affiliate KHOU Houston. “But it really doesn’t matter when you see the stories of people who have lost their homes.”
In addition to the normal challenges of reporting a major breaking news story, station managers had to rustle up cots and blow-up mattresses, book nearby hotel rooms and figure out how they were going to feed everybody.
“They have got to have something to eat,” said Charles Hughes, VP of engineering operations at Fox’s KRIV, who added cooking to his duties. “We have called a couple of restaurants and been successful in getting them to prepare food for us, but there’s been times where we had to do it ourselves.”
With power and cable outages prevalent, the broadcasters also streamed their coverage continuously over Facebook Live so that folks with a charged smartphone could watch, too — if they were fortunate to be near a working cell site that was not overwhelmed by traffic.
Facebook was also a way for people in other cities, including those who had fled Houston, to watch the local coverage. Some of that coverage also filtered into that of the broadcast and cable news networks.
KHOU in downtown became an early and unhappy part of the flood story. On Sunday morning, water from the Buffalo Bayou across the street began pouring into the station, disrupting a newscast.
According to the emergency plan, the broadcast was quickly moved to a back-up studio on the second floor. But the water was relentless and around 10 o’clock the call went out to abandon the building — a decision that would cause the station to go dark for several hours.
Plan B then kicked in. While news staffers and managers gathered at the Federal Reserve Building a few blocks away, techs went immediately to the Houston Public Media station, KUHT, where they set up a news set within a studio there.
By 7:30 p.m., the station was producing a newscast again, said Ramirez. “We have a studio, we have a giant green screen, we have teleprompters, we have cameras, we’ve got it all. We are good to go.”
How it got back on the air is another story. That took the involvement of another Tegna station in another state. KUSA Denver stepped in to act as a kind of a remote master control, Ramirez said.
It downlinked KHOU’s studio feed via satellite, combined it with field reports coming in via the wireless network and the internet and then sent back out the integrated signal via satellite to KHOU’s transmitter in Houston for broadcast.
The set-up works, but there’s a hitch, Ramirez said. KUSA is an NBC affiliate so it cannot insert CBS programming should KHOU want to return to regularly schedule programming.
In one sense, KHOU never really went away. Armed with iPhone and iPads and bonded cellular units, reporters keep going throughout the station’s “dark” hours, streaming their coverage directly to Facebook Live. During this period, Tegna’s Dallas station, WFAA, acted as master control, streaming the feeds onto Facebook.
KRIV had a scare. Early Tuesday morning, KRIV’s Hughes said he got a call that the generator had kicked on at its transmitter and radar site.
“We kind of got really worried about that because we thought maybe that some of the power had been compromised down there because of the Brazos River, but we got the power back in an hour.”
KRIV itself was never in danger from the water, Hughes said. “We knew that pretty much all of Houston floods at some point in time … so we took that into consideration. Our building is built up high, the height of the railroad tracks, which is a 5,000-year level.”
But the station has been almost surrounded by deep water, Hughes added. “There’s times you can’t leave the building except out the back gate.”
Another bad moment for KRIV came when It lost its fiber link to the TranStar Emergency Operations Center, where the state and local governments monitor the weather, water and traffic and hold press conferences. KRIV stations a reporter and photographer at the center at all times.
The link “locked up” on Monday night, Hughes said. “I had to go in there and reset it.”
KPRC lost the use of one of its satellite trucks in the early going. According to Zavala, it sent a truck to Rockport to record the hurricane when it first came ashore last Friday.
“The reporter was able to report live right before the eye made it to Rockport and then again in the eye,” he said. “I think once the wind blew the other way and they were not as protected, the antenna on the satellite truck got knocked off.”
According to the broadcasters, the trick to getting live field reports was to put some crews in places where the microwave trucks and grids could be used and others near working cell towers where they could use smartphones and bonded cellular units.
Despite reports of outages of the city’s wireless networks, the go-anywhere cellular technology from vendors like Dejero, TVU and LiveU performed well — or well enough — enabling reporters to go live from places beyond the reach of microwave.
KPRC relied heavily on its network of strategically situated microwave repeaters, but also turned to LiveU backpacks when needed. “It is still helping us out in a lot of circumstances just because you can’t get in a boat with a microwave. “
KRIV’s Hughes said he feels “fortunate” to have the bonded cellular technology, conceding, however, that is has been “real crappy” in instances where reporters strayed too far from working cell sites or the sites became overloaded. “We would like for it to look better, but you are dealt this hand and you just have to deal with it.”
KHOU had no problem with the cell service, which provided links for smartphones and backpacks, Ramirez said.
“This was not a wind event,” she said. “Traditionally wind events will knock down towers, cell towers and all of that. There is a strong rain and a lot of it, but it’s not enough to knock down towers, at least that I am aware of because we had no problems.
“I would say the biggest problem with our phones was they got wet.”
KHOU (Tegna) and KRIV (Fox) got a lot help from other stations in their large groups. “We brought in crews in from Atlanta and L.A. and other places … to help us because when we got everybody out in the field, we didn’t have enough people to cover everything that’s going on,” said Hughes.
Hughes also said the station worked closely with its corporate cousin, Fox News Channel. “I wouldn’t say it went real smooth, but all of us together just helped us present a bigger picture than we could with the limited staff that we have.”
The Univision stations went it alone for the most part, said GM Loving, but they did have the advantage of a new weather center that corporate had built at the Houston facility to serve several markets.
“It was critical that we had those folks, including four full-time meteorologists, with state of the art equipment,” said Loving. “In the past we would have had to ship in more people to cover the weather so having this asset really paid off.”
Coverage from the air was mostly lacking. Hughes said that the shared helicopters most of the stations leased were grounded by authorities for safety reasons.
However, Ramirez said that KHOU was able to fly a chopper borrowed from WFAA Dallas, starting on Tuesday.
Hughes said KRIV and its corporate cousin Fox News Channel split the cost of hiring the Washington-based Measure to supply two drone crews, hoping to get shots of rising water in some of the unpopulated areas. Regulations still ban flying drones above people.
But a spokeswoman for Fox said the drones were never put into play, saying that FEMA would not allow it.
As the storm finally starting moving out Wednesday, managers began thinking of returning to their regular schedules in at least some dayparts.
But news pros and the engineering and operations staff that back them up have yet to lose their sharp focus on a story that will long define them as broadcasters.
Said Ramirez: “We stand for Houston, and it was our commitment to get this information to this wonderful community that has just gone through what no one here has ever gone through.
“This is historic.”