As climate change intensifies the frequency and effects of natural disasters, public broadcasters are considering how to strengthen their infrastructure and emergency preparedness plans for extreme weather events.
Station leaders in vulnerable regions are focusing on how their systems and equipment will hold up as natural disasters worsen, working to ensure they can remain on the air when disaster strikes. In the Southeastern U.S., where hurricanes and tropical storms cause severe flooding and heavy rainfall, stations have already had to adjust to the effects of climate change. But these broadcasters acknowledge more should be done to protect essential infrastructure.
“We’re not talking about it as much as we need to, from an infrastructure point of view,” said Paul Maassen, GM of public radio stations WWNO in New Orleans and WRKF in Baton Rouge, La. “In New Orleans and South Louisiana, we can attest to the fact that we feel the hurricanes are more numerous and stronger now, and so what are we doing in response to that?”
Human-caused climate change has increased the likelihood of stronger and more dangerous hurricanes, according to a 2020 study by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A study released last year by First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research and technology organization, predicted that severe flooding will threaten 25% of U.S. infrastructure over the next 25 years.
The increasing frequency of powerful hurricanes, which sweep over communities at wind speeds above 100 miles per hour, elevate the risks of damage to broadcast equipment. Communities in forested regions of the country are vulnerable to damage from wildfires, which are projected to increase as the planet continues to warm. A United Nations report published in February warned of a 50% rise in extreme wildfires due to worsening heat and dryness.
Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 storm that made landfall in Louisiana in 2021, “crystallized” the importance of resilient infrastructure, Maassen said. When the entire city of New Orleans lost power, WWNO was one of the only sources of news and information. But engineers scrambled to keep the station on the air when its generator systems malfunctioned. They ended up providing a simulcast for WWNO out of WRKF.
Having reliable backup systems in place is crucial for when natural disasters occur, Maassen said. Stations typically have backup transmitter systems at separate sites, he said; some also have the capability of broadcasting from those sites. Building strong internet backup systems also helps stations ensure that they can stay on the air, Maassen said.
“We have a responsibility to do this and make it something that we prioritize, because in many parts of the country, this is now becoming more and more prevalent where you have storms and disasters and those kinds of things,” he said.
At WLRN in Miami, the station’s facilities are designed to protect against hurricanes. According to GM John LaBonia, most of WLRN’s radio infrastructure is on the second floor of the station’s building. LaBonia said WLRN has been “lucky” and lost power for an extended amount of time only once — during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Yet it is difficult to ignore the effects of climate change, he said.
“We’re constantly planning. We have a hurricane plan every year about this time.” LaBonia said. “We go over the plan, and see if there’s any kind of improvements that we can make … or any changes that we need to make, because climate change is having an impact in South Florida. There’s no doubt about it.”
LaBonia advised station leaders to seek local funds as a first step toward shoring up infrastructure. Florida lawmakers took emergency preparedness into consideration for public broadcasters 10 years ago, he said, when the state government provided grants to every public radio station to harden facilities and improve infrastructure for hurricane preparedness. Stations could also lobby the federal government for additional funding to prepare facilities for the effects of climate change, LaBonia said.
Last year, CPB requested $300 million in federal support for public media infrastructure and recommended that the funds create a Public Telecommunications Infrastructure Modernization Program within the U.S. Department of Commerce. President Biden did not include those funds in his budget request for fiscal year 2023.
Florida broadcasters have already partnered to create the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network, which broadcasts emergency information over FM radio. Randy Wright, executive director of WUFT in Gainesville, Fla., said the collaboration ensures that stations remain equipped to stay on the air during emergencies. Signals from partner stations reach 99% of Florida’s population with real-time emergency updates.
“As much as anything now, I think what we try to do with our partners is to help them maintain an awareness of how important infrastructure is and how critically important resiliency is to that infrastructure to ensure that they can be the station that stays on the air during the worst of times,” Wright said.
Wright said stations need to act sooner rather than later in planning to continue broadcasting during extreme weather events. Although people may think that the worst of climate change’s effects have yet to arrive, Wright said, station leaders should recognize the current threat as well.
“The day-to-day impact that these events have on our lives helps show that this is not an issue for 10 or 20 years from now, that this is an issue that we’ve been working to address in Florida for the last 10 years,” Wright said.
Wright and other station leaders agree that maintaining strong infrastructure helps fulfill their public-service mission. Prioritizing resilience during natural disasters shows that stations are serious about rising to the challenge, Maassen said.
“We have a way that we can serve the public rather uniquely in this scenario, and we should step up and do it because it’s probably the highest level of community service you can provide, just to be there for the community when they need you,” Maassen said. “If we’re not there when the community needs us, I think we’ve dropped the ball.”