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Riding Out Hurricane Sandy

Cumulus Satellite, WNBC(TV) and Clear Channel helped keep WOR on-air during hurricane

In WOR’s transmitter field in Rutherford, N.J., the water level was 10 feet above normal — right to the tops of the tower roads. Oct. 29 and 30 saw what was possibly the worst storm to come up the East Coast. Superstorm Sandy made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at Seaside Heights/Tom’s River, N.J., approximately 58 miles south of New York City. As I wrote this article in November, thousands in New Jersey and on Long Island still had not had power restored.

I make my remark about Sandy being possibly the worst storm to hit the New York City area based on a statement made by my barber, Tony, who is almost 102 and is the world’s oldest practicing barber per the Guinness Book of World Records. Tony told me he had never, ever seen a storm as bad as Sandy.

The water crowns at the front of the WOR transmitter building in Rutherford, N.J. Water is up to the top of its channel. Hurricanes rotate counter-clockwise. Making landfall south of New York City meant that the New York area would be on the northeast quadrant of the storm. This quadrant of a hurricane pushes water. Storm surge was a huge issue with this one.

The WOR(AM) studios are in lower Manhattan, two blocks north of Wall Street on the west side of Broadway. Manhattan is an island and is divided by officials into four evacuation zones. Evacuation Zone A ends literally at the back door of 111 Broadway. The rest of the building is in Evacuation Zone B.

Zone A is the first area that would flood. The WOR studios have a diesel generator for power backup with approximately three days of fuel. We also have a microwave STL that repeats through 4 Times Square in midtown, in addition to two T1 circuits to the transmitter in Rutherford, N.J.

Being on the third floor, it would not be a major issue for personnel to get from the lobby to the studios even without power and therefore elevators. We tested the generator before the weekend and made sure the fuel level was up to the top.

At the transmitter, we are in a literal swamp. When we built the site in Rutherford, N.J., which you’ve read about here in the pages of Radio World, we found that 100-year flood stage is nine feet. We built the site at 13 feet. In this case, that proved fortuitous. We have a 4,000 gallon diesel tank at the site that had 2,000 gallons in it, enough for four and a half days.

Since our satellite-delivered programming is downlinked at the transmitter, I removed the remote equipment from the WOR van and proceeded to put together a small studio, just in case. Two audio inputs would prove to be crucial: audio from a digital television tuned to WNBC(TV) in New York on Channel 4, and the same audio from a DirecTV receiver.

WOR and WNBC(TV) have an agreement that, should WOR need to, we can take the audio from WNBC(TV) to air during an event such as hurricane Sandy. Additionally, should WNBC(TV) lose their transmitter facility, WOR will carry their audio as often as possible. This is a great thing for WOR — WNBC(TV) has resources that WOR does not to cover many aspects of the storm and its aftermath thoroughly.

I spent Monday Oct. 29 at the transmitter site, building the “studio” and keeping an eye on things. I also threw together a quick automation system so that I could leave WNBC(TV) up on the remote board, and the automation system would blow the WOR ID over the top of WNBC(TV) on the top of the hour — sloppy, but it would keep us legal.

The culvert near the WOR transmitter building is almost full. The top of the opening is 10 feet above the channel bottom. The usual water level is 2 to 3 feet. Hotel stay

At 4:30 p.m., the water at the culvert at the front of the site was at eight feet. I decided at this point to go to a local hotel for the night. Being that the entire area of the transmitter is a manmade island, I did not want to take the chance that four feet above flood stage was a miscalculation. We have satellite Internet at the site. I would be able to log into the site as required with my smartphone if necessary.

My hotel room overlooked the WOR towers. I put the radio on and was in constant communication with the studios, working with them if they needed guidance to bring in various audio sources. I heard the transmitter drop off the air several times on momentary power failures. At 8:06 p.m., the transmitter dropped and didn’t come back. Coincidentally, the lights in the hotel dimmed with this drop.

I started counting. At 15 Mississippi, the transmitter came back up. Logging into the site showed the generator was running and all was well. At roughly 9:54 p.m., Consolidated Edison, the power company in Manhattan, pulled power to 111 Broadway as a precaution in the event their transformer vault were to flood.This decision was based on the fact that the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the entrance of which is not far from 111 Broadway, was taking on water.

I heard former New York Governor David Paterson and studio crew mention that the lights went out briefly. Thanks to the uninterruptible power supplies in the studios, we did not miss a beat. At about 10:30 p.m., I heard WOR go silent. Logging into the site showed that the T1s had failed. I switched to the microwave link.

Water damage at the Kearny, N.J., transmitter site of WNYC(AM). Being in touch with the studio showed that we had no phones of any type. The office system was out. The listener call-in lines were out. The “private” lines in the studios were out. ISDN circuits were out. The Internet was out, meaning our newsroom now had no news input because our AP service is now delivered via Internet. We still had cable TV, so were able to gather information from WNBC(TV). At midnight, we put WNBC(TV) audioon the air overnight. I should mention that not long after we lost the studio phones, the power at the hotel went out so I was now relying solely on my smartphone for communications.

John Gambling and the morning show went on the air at 6 a.m. on Oct. 30. At 8 a.m., during a break, John called me to ask if there was any way we could put WNBC(TV) on the air. The studios had lost cable TV and they now had no outside information coming in. I said yes; I was able to log into the transmitter site and had WNBC(TV) up on the board at the site. He gave me an on-air cue, and we switched.

At this point, I started making my way to the site. I crossed the intersection with Polito Avenue in Lyndhurst. I saw a lake spread out in front of me. CBS Radio-owned WINS(AM) in New York City is located at the other end of Polito. They were off the air. As I drove up to the access road to the WOR site, I took a breath and was delighted to see the water level at approximately 10-1/2 feet. The road into the area was above water and, frankly, did not look any worse for the wear.

I arrived at the WOR transmitter site to find it high and dry. The generator was chugging away, the transmitter was on at full power, WNBC(TV) audio on the air, but there were no telephones or ISDN services.

Storm surge washed over the Pleasure Island tower site for WICC(AM), Bridgeport, Conn. Generator propane tanks broke free and washed away. The bottom of both the generator and engine were submerged in salt water. The phone company’s subscriber line interface circuitwas down. The SLIC is normally a box with phone company equipment that converts fiber to copper circuits. The fiber bears many, many phone circuits to a given area; the SLIC converts it, and the various phone services are distributed to the area on copper wire. It’s cheaper to do this than run multiple pairs of copper from a central office.

However, with no information coming into the studio facility, we had lost the use of the studios; it made no sense to air from there if we had no information we could give out. We called our soon-to-be new owners, Clear Channel, and they arranged a studio for WOR local programming, which was fine and dandy.

But with no phone lines at the site, I had no way to get audio into or out of the facility. I made a phone call to Cumulus Satellite, uplink provider for the WOR Radio Network. They configured a special channel for us on their system which I could downlink at the site.

Cumulus Satellite

Clear Channel dialed an ISDN number at Cumulus Satellite. In turn, Cumulus Satellite put that up on the bird. I took it down at the site — a 46,000 mile STL hop for roughly six miles from the studio. Perfect. We could now get WOR local programming back on the air.

But I could not export our satellite channels. I called a couple of our operators who live in Jersey and told them they were assigned to the transmitter site — come on over. We ran with operators at the site and all satellite programming coming from the transmitter, and WOR local at Clear Channel, until Thursday afternoon. Con-Ed surprisingly turned power back on at 111 Broadway late Wednesday afternoon and our phone services returned.

Trees downed the telco lines for WICC, affecting its alarm system, POTS dial tone, remote control and 15 kHz backup programming. On Thursday, I had a delivery of diesel fuel at the transmitter site. The day tank under the generator was full, but the big tank outside had been sucked dry. Later the evening of Nov. 1, power came back at the transmitter site.

It took until Monday Nov. 5 to get the studios fully back to normal. Because we were about to run out of fuel on Wednesday, Oct. 31, we started shutting down studio systems so we could shut off the generator before the tank went dry. Power literally came back when Anthony was going to start walking up the 24 flights up to the genny to shut it down, so we started turning studio systems back on. We lost an audio card in an ENCO workstation, a power supply in a studio mix engine and a power supply in the studio switcher computer, and we had to re-download the information to the security card system.


So what have we learned from this little exercise in emergency operation?

• Make sure your generators are fueled properly and tested on a regular basis. WOR does this. We had no problems, with the exception of the transmitter site generator running a little rough after the stuff at the bottom of the large fuel storage tank was circulating in the day tank.

• Have a plan for backup audio. WOR has an agreement with WNBC(TV) to use their audio and resources.This came in handy when we lost the use of our studios.

• Have a plan for operating without the studios. We had a remote board set up at the transmitter site for satellite programming. We have contacts at places like Cumulus Satellite Services to put up an impromptu STL if necessary, and it was during this storm.

Safety first! I say this with an exclamation point. You will note that I did not stay the night at the transmitter site when the storm would make landfall because I did not want to be stranded on a manmade island in the dark. That, and I would have nowhere to go should something happen to the building on this manmade island. Don’t forget, you are in a building with a lot of electrical power. If it floods, it is not safe, period. Don’t be a hero. Your family needs you.

You have needs. Like sleep. And food. You will do no one any good if you are so tired that you cannot think straight. Or if you pass out because you haven’t eaten. If you are going into a situation like this, bring food and drink (I did). And make arrangements with others that between certain hours, unless the station is off the air, they should not call you so you can sleep. Do not deviate from this. Again, do not be a hero.

• Remember, everyone is under pressure during the storm. You, programming, management, news, the people under you, should all be in constant contact during this time. I racked up over 700 minutes on my cell phone during this time, in addition to 400 text messages. But we all were on the same page, programming’s needs were met, and we didn’t miss a beat on the air. I think our program director, Scott Lakefield, and I may actually be engaged after all the texting we did. Our wives will not be pleased.

• You should make time to check in with your family — first, so they don’t worry about you, second, so you can help and advise them. My personal example is that my wife could not get the generator at home started.Simply, she does not understand how to work with a choked engine. Getting me on the phone got it started quickly.

• If you see people from the power company, talk to them. Don’t push them. Tell them how much you appreciate them coming out at the end of the storm and you know what a rough job they have. Offer to buy them coffee if someplace nearby is open. I did when I found a crew on Nov. 1. They told me it would be Nov. 2 before I saw power at the transmitter. It magically returned three hours after I encountered them — and there were only two buildings on that circuit returned to service that evening.I tend to think the encounter had something to do with this.

Most important, this is an opportunity to use your skills to the best advantage of the station and the staff. It’s the perfect opportunity to show the public how important radio is during an emergency. Don’t forget, we are licensed in the public interest and to serve the public. An emergency is the time to superserve the public. If you think through the “what if’s,” and attempt to at least have plans in place in the event of a “what if” coming true, you will be able to serve the public and fulfill that responsibility.

Thomas R. Ray III, CPBE, AMD, DRB, is vice president and corporate director of engineering for Buckley Broadcasting/WOR(AM), in New York City.