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Katrina, Ten Years Later: a Broadcaster Remembers

I caught up with Marty Hadfield, now with iHeartMedia in Seattle.

Ten years ago, I contributed an article to Radio about the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina, and the lessons learned by the broadcasters that were there. I caught up with Marty Hadfield, now with iHeartMedia in Seattle, and he was gracious in taking time from his busy schedule to answer some questions (again).

Doug Irwin: I think it’s safe to say that, after 10 years, some of the lessons that seemed so important immediately after Katrina have faded somewhat. I think it’s also likely that there are many new engineers, and station managers, that were not in the business 10 years ago, and aren’t really familiar with what happened. What was the most important lesson learned, and what would you tell new managers and engineers today about preparedness?

Marty Hadfield: First, within your own stations, come to an agreement as to what your management’s realistic operational expectations are for your facilities during a disaster. That will allow you to focus on a predefined course of action and not press everyone into an even more stressful situation where decisions are being made by lower-level staff, perhaps overlooking critical business matters.

In advance of any emergency situation, prepare a list of contacts within your local broadcasting community and local government emergency services — don’t dismiss the resources of the amateur radio community — build relationships with them similar to neighbor-to-neighbor. When any massive emergency hits your area, your only resources for the first week (at a minimum) will be found through your local relationships. Airports and shipping terminals are very often closed or commandeered by government services for their broader support needs. Roads may be impassable, pre-think alternate driving/walking routes to get to your studios and transmitter sites. Most city water systems are not gravity fed and rely on utility power. with that gone, you have to be prepared for personal and sanitary water, food and sleeping area needs for as many persons (and a few service pets) that will be your core support staff — double the quantity to cover missed contingencies. Keep track of your available resources and liabilities on a regular basis. By that I mean make a list of all your working main and backup equipment – generators, antennas, transmitters, fuel supplies, RPU gear and other items that you may be able to transport from one site to another. Determine in advance how many days of fuel supply you actually have on hand and have a couple of suppliers that can attempt to service your sites from different directions.

You may also end sharing supplies with fellow Broadcasters. During the Katrina & Rita hurricanes in NOLA, I used a large whiteboard divided into left and right panels — functional equipment on the left and items off-line or needing attention on the right. As repairs were made or fuel delivered, items would be moved from right to left and as fuel was nearing depletion, sites were moved to the right panel, giving everyone a sense of where things were at any given time.

It is also extremely important to consider the mental fatigue factors for yourself and your core staff — they will probably be away from their homes and family for several days at a minimum. They will be worried about the safety of their family members and their homes…give everyone some space to breathe and a place to charge their cellular phones. Consider carrying two cell phones, each with different carriers. In NOLA, sometimes my Verizon voice connections worked and sometimes only my AT&T voice connections worked. Remember that text messaging is very efficient and proved to be tenacious when voice transmissions were unavailable.

Irwin: There was a thread recently on the SBE re-mailer regarding emergency preparedness, likely prompted by an article in the New Yorker about a devastating earthquake prediction for the greater Northwest.I can remember an earthquake prediction back in the early 1970s, saying California would literally be broken off the rest of the continent. When those kinds of predictions prove wrong (or at least premature) do you think it hinders emergency preparedness?

Hadfield: I think such predictions provide an opportunity to take a fresh perspective of how poorly events may turn in a massive disaster. The awareness of the scope of a potential catastrophe can serve to elevate the thought process, helping produce some of the needed relationship development within the broadcast and emergency services communities.

Irwin: Do you think there’s any way to realistically plan for such an enormous emergency, based on your Katrina experiences?

Hadfield: Yes, if we are truly realistic about our expectations for operations in a disaster. Because we don’t have a way of accurately predicting how many aspects of our Broadcast infrastructure could be completely out of commission and end up — on the right half of the whiteboard — at any given moment, each owner needs to take a sober look at maybe keeping only a few of their stations on the air. Conserve fuel and the needed technical energy of your staff. Among the lessons learned in NOLA, we found that while listeners wanted news, news and more news, they also will want a break from the insanity of a huge disaster and felt they needed to be reminded that there is the light of some normalcy out there…consider keeping a music format on at least a few stations. 

It is also important to remember that we need to continue to pay for the operational and general business costs to keep the lights on, even if it is a fuel bill, whether we are in disaster mode or not.

Since a disaster is an opportunity to sell air time to governmental recovery services, home repair & supply stores, etc. prepared by discussing contingencies with your clients. You could be pleasantly surprised how receptive they may be to have advertising packages negotiated in advance. You may also consider selling sponsorships to local hardware stores for your weekly and monthly EAS tests. Help get the public in the mindset of preparation and recovery planning for its own survival.