Radio Stubborn in Face of Irmageddon

Hurricane Irma, the Florida Keys and the sole signal of US1 Radio

My adventure began when I arrived in the Keys on Thursday, Sept. 7. I was in the company of my friend and employer Bob Holladay. Our trip was in support of a limited crew of dedicated broadcasters who had volunteered to keep Florida Keys Media stations on the air through whatever Irma had in store over the next few days: Kimberly Beier-Brown and Steve Miller, the on-air professionals. Bill Becker and Ron Saunders, the award-winning news team. Rick Lopez, the GM extraordinaire. And Holladay, the hands-on owner.

So many listeners were drawn to the station that nearby residents made a sign.

Fate brought seven individuals together but purpose made us one family.

My role as a broadcast engineer was to do whatever was necessary to keep as many signals on the air as possible. The group operates WCTH 100.3 FM Thunder Country, WFKZ 103.1 FM The SUN Classic Rock, WCNK 98.7 FM Conch Country, WAIL 99.5 FM Rockin’ the Keys, WAVK 97.7 FM My FM, WKWF 1600 AM Sports Radio, WEOW 92.7 FM Today’s Hit Music, and WWUS 104.1 FM US1 Radio.

These signals blanket the Keys from Florida City to Key West, the southernmost point.

Station Owner Bob Holladay trudges to the Cudjoe Key transmitter site.

GIANT FRISBEE

Our first task was to stage generators, fuel, food, water and engineering supplies at the two studio facilities in Tavernier and Sugarloaf Key. Both facilities are elevated and rated for Category 5 storms. To say Irma was somewhat unpredictable is an understatement. However, once we had indications the path would take her toward a landfall in the lower keys, we configured the Tavernier stations to simulcast US1 Radio and relocated our central operations point to Sugarloaf Key.

The prevailing winds and rain were intense, and core services began failing a full day ahead of Irma’s landfall. We initially lost power and internet/cable, then landlines, cellular and water as Irma arrived on Cudjoe Key the morning of Sunday, Sept. 10.

It came as a bit of a shock to us to realize we were the only beacon of information remaining. All that brilliant new technology, advanced information conveyance platforms, satellites and cell towers, all silent. Yet there we were. A sweaty troop of seven with a couple of combustion engines, some whirling coils, miles of extension cords, live microphones and two nervous Pomeranians.

Irma made a direct hit on our location with 130 mph westerly winds, gusting to 150. She battered and buffeted our studios relentlessly for several hours.

The walls shook, every door and window seal gushed, but the studio staff remained at their posts behind the mics, dispensing much needed emergency information. With the failure of several IP/STL links, our remaining signals were WWUS and WEOW. The owner, station manager and myself were busy keeping the US1 Radio simulcast live, the generator running and the water at bay, though the latter was a fruitless effort.

A common sight in the Florida Keys after Irma.

Our satellite dish was the first casualty. It freed itself and like a big Frisbee circled the back lot before performing a face-plant that would garner a high score even from the Hungarian judge.

When the eye of Irma was positioned directly overhead, we were afforded 45 minutes of unnerving calm to refuel the generator, survey damages and restock our water supply.

We only had about a foot of surge water, but observed a great deal of damage to our immediate area. Trees down, vehicles overturned, damage to roofs, and the transformer pole feeding our building snapped off.

The team nicknamed its unfaltering studio generator “Zippy.”

After 45 minutes, the breeze picked up, sounding the bell for Round Two. Within 120 seconds, the eyewall was on us again, and Irma’s winds accelerated to 135 mph in the opposite direction.

Back within the walls of our studio complex, the on-air and news staff continued their coverage. The phone calls were unceasing.

Residents described what they were experiencing, and let family and friends know they were faring well. The Emergency Operations Center and Monroe County Sherriff phoned regularly with updates. And while the landlines held up, we continued to broadcast weather updates from our staff meteorologist. Marconi would have been proud to know his 130-year-old invention, radio, had bested them all when the chips were down.

Persistent Seven. Standing, from left: station owner Bob Holladay, manager Rick Lopez, air talent Kimberly Beier-Brown, engineer Ricky Carter. Seated: air talent Steve Miller, news director Bill Becker, news staffer Ron Saunders.
Credit: Rob O’Neil, robo.zenfolio.com

Irma continued her trek to the North, and left us with several powerful bands of wind and rain in the tail. This went on for remainder of Sunday.

When we finally emerged from our refuge, we discovered another foot of surge water, minor compared to what we would learned about other areas in the Keys. We had no power, no water and no communications, as our landlines were now inoperative, as well. The studio crew continued to broadcast their own observations and what information they gathered just before the lines went down.

HULLS AND MASTS

Then an incredible thing began to happen. Keys residents, who had hunkered down with their radios hours before, were now stirring about; and they came to the radio station in droves. Each was invited to tell his or her story on the air.

Steve Miller, Ron Saunders and Bob Holladay in the studio.

This continued for days, even after our landlines were restored. They spoke of what they experienced. Many brought food and water. Some requested assistance and some offered assistance. The barter system came into play, with most local responders working for a few gallons of gas so they might continue down the road to help elsewhere.

Like a boxer who had been dazed by a punch, it took us an entire day to fully grasp our circumstance. Rumors were rampant. Mass casualties, bridges out and Jose was headed our way. In reality, there were but two fatalities, neither directly associated with Irma.

Driving north through Big Pine Key to Marathon, the devastation was shocking. Key West had suffered damage but escaped the brunt of Irma’s fury.

Boats were everywhere, except where they belong. We saw one boat in an electrical substation. The waters around the lower keys were littered with sunken vessels. In many cases only hulls and masts were visible above the surface. Gas stations, restaurants, resorts, businesses and homes decimated.

With no potable water service, the team gathered flushing water from surge pools.
One after another, Keys residents told their stories on US1 Radio.

But even amidst this hardship, the Conchs were busy. Not busy fretting over themselves but busy helping their neighbors.

The next few days ran together. Slowly outside aid began making its way down the island chain. The landlines came back first, but power service to our location took five days. The studio and transmitter generators were unfaltering throughout the storm and the station remained the only reliable source of information and encouragement. The steady flow of people continued and we aired their unique tales of “Irmageddon.”

By Friday Sept. 15, electrical service had been restored, and water was available in some areas, although a boil notice was in effect. The on-air crew had shifted largely to information dissemination and interviewing representatives from FEMA, EOC, Aqueduct Authority, Sherriff’s Office and a constant string of other officials. Prior to our losing internet service a week earlier, we had been taking calls from listeners of our web streams from Germany, Amsterdam, Jamaica and throughout the states; once we reestablished our Internet stream, the calls began pouring in once more.

Stock Island Marina donated fuel to keep station generators running.
Author Ricky Carter. “The way the Keys residents and those in support roles responded to Irma and her aftershock renewed my faith in my fellow man.”

LIFELINE

Over the past decade it has become a commonly held belief that terrestrial radio is old-fashioned, outdated and irrelevant. However, when our digital infrastructure and smart devices fail us, that archaic little radio becomes your lifeline.

I finally hitched a ride out of the keys with a couple of big-hearted AeroBridge volunteer pilots. They were shuttling much-needed supplies in from the mainland.

While waiting for a hop, I worked with the distribution crews on Summerland Key and then at the Homestead Airport. Selfless people with compassion and strong backs. Reflective of every single responder I encountered during this eye-opening experience.

There are bunches of great stories to tell. Catching the STL antenna before the winds removed it. Making a transmitter run in the bowels of the storm. Hearing 100 mph winds howling through the tower. Gathering surge water for toilet flushing. Trying to make a pot of coffee and knocking the stations off the air. Buy me a beer at Sloppy Joe’s sometime, and I’ll expound upon these and many more.

The way Keys residents and those in support roles responded to Irma and her aftershock renewed my faith in my fellow man. And I am proud to have been a small part of a great team of individuals who weathered a storm and served a community. And after all, isn’t that the true purpose of a broadcast station?

Comment on this or any story. Email radioworld@nbmedia.com.



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