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Media lessons from Katrina

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In the spotlight of the storm

By Dave Walker


August marks the start of hurricane high season. Steeled by Katrina, local TV has prepared for the worst. As hurricane season kicks into high gear, local TV news providers are finalizing their coverage plans should another Katrina enter our lives.

Internet simulcasts, remote-broadcast crews at emergency-management bunkers and Doppler shots galore will be in everybody's game plan as The Next Big One approaches.

But what happens, heaven forbid, if it hits -- again?

Here's an update on local TV newsrooms and their plans to serve viewers should we all become trapped in TV's worst-ever rerun.

WWL-Channel 4

LAST TIME: Thanks to its heavy-duty transmitter structure built on stilts, WWL was able to keep its signal on the air throughout and after Katrina, the only local news-providing TV station to do so.

News coverage was anchored from News Orleans -- including a stretch from inside the transmitter itself -- and two Baton Rouge locations: LSU's Manship School of Communications, and the studios of Baton Rouge PBS affiliate WLPB-TV.

WWL won a Peabody Award -- broadcasting's Pulitzer -- plus a national Edward R. Murrow award for its Katrina coverage.

THIS TIME: WWL has hardened its West Bank transmitter and French Quarter studio by laying in supplies of food, water and generator fuel, plus the services of a private security force -- enough provisions and hired firepower to support a key crew for three weeks.

The station has also purchased its own radio system for internal communication, and arranged for possible broadcast bases at multiple sites around the region, including re-upping the two Baton Rouge facilities used post-K.

WWL is also expected to enter an on-air alliance with news-talk radio station WWL AM-870 -- a match reportedly suggested by emergency-management officials who want to synch disaster info should the region again go Mad Max.

"We feel we need to be here to cover the story, and we've taken every step possible to cover the story," WWL-TV News Director Sandy Breland said. "We certainly hope that none of the plans are put into place."

WEATHER NEWBIES SINCE LAST TIME: Dawn Brown, a UCLA graduate who first served as an emergency substitute weathercaster for the station in Baton Rouge immediately post-K; Florida State graduate Jeremy Eisenzopf, whose bio says he came of age in several different regions around the country; and Laura Buchtel, a Metairie native who joined the station as vacation-relief forecaster in December, then was hired full-time.

WDSU-Channel 6

LAST TIME: WDSU sent anchor staff to sister stations in Jackson, Miss., and Orlando, and used its mostly undamaged Central Business District headquarters as a news bureau. The compound also housed the local NBC News operation. The building got Entergy power in mid-September, and WDSU collapsed its trifurcated news operation back to its CBD home in mid-October.

Katrina swamped WDSU's transmitters, and the station's signal briefly shifted to WPXL-Channel 49. Thanks to an emergency broadcast, cable and satellite network -- not to mention Internet Web-streaming -- the station's newscasts were visible in many other cities, including Baton Rouge via WBTR-TV.

WDSU is still operating with a temporary transmitter. According to a spokesman for the station's corporate parent, Hearst-Argyle Television, there is still no new sign-on date for its digital broadcast signal, knocked off the air by Katrina but still visible via Cox Communications.

THIS TIME: "Right now, our plan is to stay here, stay in-house," WDSU News Director Anzio Williams said. "The entire city is going to have to be underwater for us to leave our building here."

Should it come to that, WDSU has renewed its relationship with WBTR, which would serve as a satellite anchor location, plus help get the station's coverage to evacuees.

Like WWL, WDSU has taken steps to ensure that news crews working in the evacuated city will be safe and remain in contact with managers come what may -- by hiring a private security force and stocking up on satellite telephones.

WDSU has also made arrangements to re-stoke its regional network, which allowed far-flung evacuees to monitor the sorry events at home.

"We want to be in a position to follow our viewers wherever they go," Williams said.

WEATHER NEWBIES SINCE LAST TIME: Ron Smiley, hired from KAIT-TV in Jonesboro, Ark.

WVUE-Channel 8

LAST TIME: WVUE's Mid-City studio and newsroom were ruined by post-K flooding, forcing the station off the air entirely for two weeks and to a remote anchor outpost at WALA-TV in Mobile, Ala., for about three months.

THIS TIME: WALA no longer belongs to WVUE's parent company, Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications, so Mobile is out. Emmis still has WVUE on the sales block. So the station has made arrangements for a satellite crew to retreat to Baton Rouge in a worst-case scenario, WVUE general manager Vanessa Oubre said.

WVUE has also secured a generator-powered emergency location in the studios of New Orleans' cable TV public-access operation, which shares WVUE's compound.

"Our hope is that, at worst, we can come upstairs to the second floor," Oubre said. "If we have to leave, we will leave."

WVUE has also stocked up on stores of survival goods, Oubre said, plus made plans to hire private security guards to oversee news crews in the field.

The station's approximate reconstruction completion target is Thanksgiving. A new news set has debuted, but not yet a new newsroom.

"Everything is fine with the transmitter," Oubre said. "The only thing that's not 100 percent is the building, and that's coming along."

WEATHER NEWBIES SINCE LAST TIME: Chip Barrere, a former WVUE weathercaster who rejoined the station in October; and Kimberly Vaughn, a more recent hire who's a New Orleans native and recent graduate of the University of Louisiana-Monroe. Technically not a newbie but far from an oldie is impish morning-news forecaster Chris Franklin, a born-and-raised resident who worked previously as a weather producer at WVUE, then departed to call storms for a station in Topeka, Kansas. He returned to WVUE one year ago.

WGNO-Channel 26

LAST TIME: WGNO paired with Baton Rouge ABC affiliate WBRZ-TV to get coverage to evacuees there, and the team delivered one of Katrina's most indelible moments: Meteorologist Bruce Katz's live narration, on Katrina Monday night, of the first helicopter footage of the drowning city.

The road home was rough for WGNO, though its news team scrambled to make the best of its plight.

WGNO was shut out of its studio and newsroom, which had been relocated to the top floor of the New Orleans Centre shopping mall just weeks before the storm. Newscasts originated from remote locations for several weeks, then settled in a parking-lot compound of trailers near the Louisiana Superdome.

WGNO's newscasters got into less temporary accommodations only in April, returning to the studios high in the World Trade Center that they'd abandoned to move to the now-permanently-shuttered mall.

The Chalmette transmitters for WGNO and its sister station, WB (soon to be CW) affiliate WNOL-Channel 38, were ruined by post-K flooding. Broadcast signals, including digital, have been restored via temporary transmitters.

THIS TIME: Barring Katrina-level catastrophe, WGNO intends to make its WTC aerie work as a home base, though an emergency alliance has been arranged with Baton Rouge NBC affiliate WVLA-TV.

"We have the ability to have a seamless transition from our studio to that studio," said WGNO General Manager Larry Delia. "The viewer won't really notice a difference."

Also different this time are an improved internal communications system and heightened security for news-gatherers assigned to remain in an evacuated city.

"Not everybody needs to go to Baton Rouge," Delia said. "Those people who collect news will collect it safely here."

WEATHER NEWBIE SINCE LAST TIME: Mike Janssen's first scheduled weekend of work at WGNO was Katrina Saturday and Sunday, so he's not technically a newbie, either. Now nearly a one-year veteran of forecasting service in post-K New Orleans, Janssen is an Illinois native.

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