This article has been updated with additional information.
As Hurricane Ian swept through Florida, leaving flattened buildings, collapsed bridges and flooded streets behind, most broadcasters in the state carried on, getting life-saving information to local residents even as the hurricane threatened some of their studios.
Social media has been carrying photos taken by broadcast engineers of their efforts to reach transmitter sites, operate generators and secure fuel.
Still, as of Sunday, according to the FCC, at least 16 radio stations and one TV station remained off the air in the areas covered by its reporting system, which had been expanded to include part of South Carolina.
One Florida company, Fort Myers Broadcasting, had an entire cluster of radio and TV stations knocked out due to flooding, though it was able to restore some service by mid-weekend, operating from a transmitter site.
Ian reached the Sunshine State as a monstrous Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday. It knocked out electricity to millions of Florida homes and businesses.
305 PM EDT 28 Sep — Hurricane #Ian has made landfall as an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane near Cayo Costa, Florida with maximum sustained winds at 150 mph. The minimum pressure from Air Force Reconnaissance Hurricane Hunters was 940 mb.
— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) September 28, 2022
The storm then moved across the state, traveled over ocean water and returned to make second landfall in South Carolina. Behind it, Floridians faced challenges from ongoing flood risk, power outages and access to clean drinking water.
As of Sunday evening, NBC News was reporting that 87 deaths were blamed on the storm.
Damage to WINK
As water gushed through the streets Thursday, the team at WINK News, the CBS television affiliate for Southwest Florida, carried on with their coverage even as their studios were flooded.
Matt Devitt, the chief meteorologist at WINK, tweeted then: “Storm surge got into our WINK studios in Fort Myers, flooded the entire first floor. Lost power and was unable to continue broadcasting on tv/radio. … Ian was the strongest hurricane in Southwest Florida history. Widespread destruction heading home.”
He shared a video that captured the scene inside the studio, as well as the alarming conditions outside.
Storm surge got into our WINK studios in Fort Myers, flooded the entire first floor. Lost power and was unable to continue broadcasting on tv/radio. No timetable on return to air. #Ian was the strongest hurricane in Southwest Florida history. Widespread destruction heading home. pic.twitter.com/w6is0EXcpD
— Matt Devitt (@MattDevittWINK) September 29, 2022
“Unfortunately, their generator was raised up high, but it wasn’t high enough for the flood,” Florida Association of Broadcasters President Pat Roberts told Radio World afterwards. “So the CBS [affiliate] station and its three sister stations, they along with about 10 or 12 radio stations [were] off the air.”
WINK is owned by Fort Myers Broadcasting Company. All of the conglomerate’s radio and television stations, which broadcast in English and Spanish, were affected by the storm, said Roberts. But by Saturday afternoon, WINK News was back in operation on Channel 46 and on 96.9 WINK(FM), operating from its transmitter site.
Lee County in Fort Myers, where the WINK studios are located, was one of the areas hit the hardest by Ian. It is just to the south in Naples, where other station facilities were affected.
This is the garage in North Naples that’s holding our @winknews cars but as you can see the first floor of the garage is flooded. So, our cars are completely submerged as we speak.
— Annette Montgomery (@AnnettemTV) September 28, 2022
The Associated Press shared reports of Ian’s impact on the neighboring seaside tourist towns, painting a picture of the wreckage caused by fierce winds and a powerful storm surge generated by the Category 4 hurricane.
As of Sunday afternoon about 800,000 Florida customers were still without power, according to PowerOutage.us.
Radio World received a report that an American Tower site near Fort Myers Beach had flooded and that transmitters owned by Renda Broadcasting, Fort Myers Broadcasting and Relevant Radio had been destroyed.
Separately, AM station WENG in Englewood, Fla., has been running on generator for days now. President Joseph Fiorini put out a plea for propane to help keep the station on the air. “The surrounding area is without power and is tuning into our station for local information about hurricane relief.” Fiorini Broadcasting also lost service of two FM translators and can’t access those tower sites.
WGCU Public Media in Ft. Myers opened its studios to the local Scripps Fox TV affiliate, which was dealing with safety concerns at their studios in Cape Coral.
WJIS(FM), a Christian-formatted station licensed to Bradenton, was off as of Sunday afternoon, according to its website, because its transmitter site was without power and its generator had run out of fuel.
With so many people out of power, television stations off the air, downed internet signals and cellphones dying, Roberts said the importance of radio in providing life-saving emergency information was again demonstrated. “We’ve worked over the last 30 years to make sure every TV station has a partnership with radio stations so they can stay on the air broadcasting on radio; and they tell everybody that for days ahead,” he said. “So it really becomes [that] radio is the lifeline to the community.”
“This is when local broadcasters really show their purpose in what they do in life,” said Roberts. “They save lives and help people get help.”
As the storm progressed stations owned by @BeasleyMedia, @iHeartMedia and @COXMG extended their coverage to continuously give listeners lifesaving information. #WeAreBroadcastershttps://t.co/yJOWppXX9g
— National Association of Broadcasters (@nabtweets) September 29, 2022
Roberts said the Florida Association of Broadcasters was in contact with stations, seeking to help any that ran low on fuel and trying to find temporary housing for affected employees. At least one on-air personality, he said, lost her entire home, while others reported damage to theirs.
“It’s just going to be months, if not years to rebuild those areas,” said Roberts.
The Florida Power and Light Company stated on its website Friday, “We’re assessing the catastrophic damage caused by Hurricane Ian … We’re working to restore power, however parts of our infrastructure will need to be rebuilt, so those areas will take longer.”
“We did not lose one single transmission tower,” said Eric Silagy, the president of FPL, at a press conference Thursday. “That is critical. The backbone is up.”
Meanwhile, thousands of line workers were standing by to help restore the state’s electric transmission and distribution facilities.
40k+ linemen are waiting by in Florida right now ready to go to work when they can.
Legit superstars. pic.twitter.com/FsGjueXeiX
— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) September 29, 2022
At the federal level, the Federal Communications Commission on Friday expanded the activation area for its Disaster Information Reporting System, or DIRS, to parts of Georgia and South Carolina.
The commission also launched an outage information sharing system to be used by federal and state agencies to look at reports filed in the FCC’s own Network Outage Reporting System, as well as DIRS. The goal is to provide access to critical outage and network status information that will improve the agencies’ situational awareness and help them respond more rapidly. Agencies that want access must fill out an application.
Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said, “We have committed our resources now and for the long haul to help ensure communications recover and are rebuilt in the communities affected by both storms.”
Other broadcaster organizations are lending their support, whether it be extra hands on deck or much-needed disaster recovery funds.
Beasley Media planned a two-hour radiothon across its markets for Monday morning, Oct. 3. Donations to the Red Cross made through the Beasley microsite, accessible via its station sites, will aid people in Southwest Florida affected by Hurricane Ian. Beasley’s corporate offices are in Naples, another area ravaged by Ian, but the company itself weathered the storm well.
The Broadcasters Foundation of America posted that it was “ready to serve our fellow broadcasters in need of financial support.”
The path of devastation across Florida and now into Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, is heartbreaking. The BFOA is here and ready to serve our fellow broadcasters in need of financial support due to the disastrous effects of Hurricane Ian. pic.twitter.com/4E21p9qLud
— Broadcasters In Need (@BroadcastersFDN) September 30, 2022
Radio World welcomes updates from any stations affected by Ian; email [email protected].