Leaving nothing to chance after the 2005 trauma of Hurricane Katrina, WDSU and WWL have beefed up their studios and transmitter sites, put together worst-case scenario strategies and made off-site arrangements for when the next disaster strikes the Crescent City. This is the fourth in a series of articles appearing this week that collectively constitute a TVNewsCheck Special Report on Severe Weather News. The other stories in the series are below.
When hurricanes approach, TV meteorologists in New Orleans (DMA 52) drum a steady message: Be prepared. Behind the scenes, the news directors at the market’s top two news stations have already heeded the advice.
Knocked off the air during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, its news and weather teams scattered to sister stations across the region, Hearst Television’s NBC affiliate WDSU has developed a wartime strategy for worst-case scenarios.
“We have a 60-70 page guidebook,” said New Director Jonathan Shelley. “ ‘Safety first’ is a mantra.”
WDSU’s downtown newsroom has been fitted to transform into a survival center if necessary, complete with beds, showers, food stockpiles and even laundry machines. Alternate studio space has been built on the campus of Southern University in Baton Rouge, which student journalists use when it’s not operating in crisis mode.
WDSU has also developed systems of tracking personnel or, alternately, pairing them with law enforcement or emergency personnel on forays into the field. And for really damaging storms — 2008’s near-miss Gustav was a dress rehearsal — the station contracts with a small contingent of out-of-town law enforcement for news crew protection.
Its broadcast tower, like that of other network affiliates in the city, has also been raised 28 feet and fortified to withstand almost anything nature can throw at it. “It has been described to me as the Taj Mahal of transmitters,” Shelley said. “I think the safest place in south Louisiana if a hurricane is bearing down on you is inside that transmitter building.”
Belo’s WWL, a CBS affiliate and the market’s news leader, was the only affiliate to stay on the air during Katrina thanks to a transmitter positioned across the Mississippi River. Its studio, at the edge of the historic French Quarter, is also ready to operate in bunker mode if necessary.
“We do pretty significant planning every spring before the storm season starts where we take inventory on supplies, and we make sure that contracts are in order for services like water and sanitation,” said New Director Bill Siegel. “We have a massive generator on site as well as an available supply of fuel.”
And should the station get knocked off the air next time around, WWL has made agreements with both Louisiana State University and Louisiana Public Broadcasting in Baton Rouge to use their facilities until their own studios get back on line.
Read other stories in this Severe Weather Special Report here.