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When the power goes out, stations start counting gallons

Originally published in Current, Oct. 3, 2005
By Karen Everhart

For pubcasting networks on the Gulf Coast that weren’t knocked off the air by Hurricane Katrina or Rita, the ability to continue delivering news and information required most of all a single scarce commodity—fuel for backup generators powering their transmitters.

After Katrina hit, four Mississippi Public Broadcasting transmitters lost power, along with six of the state network’s microwave repeaters. MPB needed both propane and diesel fuel to keep its networks operating. Fuel distributors responded generously to requests for propane, but diesel fuel was hard to come by and a week-long search for it nearly drove MPB Executive Director Marie Antoon past desperation.

“I was resigned but I felt like slinking onto the floor,” she recalled.

“You could find diesel in some places but they wouldn’t deliver it,” said Robert Lockhart, technical services director. With news reports of looting in New Orleans and rumors of people surrounding fuel trucks or government officials seizing them, drivers didn’t want to go into the disaster zone. “We had to use every trick in the book to get deliveries on the Coast," he said.

MPB’s McHenry transmitter, which serves Biloxi and reaches into New Orleans, was a lifeline for survivors in the disaster zone. The network shut down some TV transmitters to conserve power for radio broadcasts. Utilities didn’t restore power until Sept. 13, three weeks after Katrina hit.

Alabama Public TV lost power at five transmitters after the somewhat depleted Katrina blew through the state, said Allan Pizzato, executive director. Several ran out of generator fuel, but the network was operating normally by Sept. 2.

Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s transmitter in Lafayette ran on backup power for five days after Hurricane Rita, and its Lake Charles station was still running on a generator at Current’s deadline. “We are looking for a distributor now because it’s a chronic problem,” Courtney said. LPB’s Baton Rouge facility depended on generators for four days last week.

LPB’s transmitters on the coast have generators with big fuel tanks, but none of its northern Louisiana sites even has a generator, Courtney said. She plans to change that because “the way things are going the whole coast is going to erode” and hurricane-force winds will reach further north.

Diesel generators for MPB’s transmitters with 3,000-gallon tanks can run for up to six days, Lockhart said.

The week after Katrina hit, Antoon and her technical staff tried everything she could think of to find a fuel supplier. Ed Caleca, engineering chief at PBS, and Steve Bass, president of Nashville Public Television, made calls on her behalf. They discovered that diesel was available from distributors not too far north, but no one was keen to deliver in the recovery zone.

“We found people who had fuel, but what we needed was trucks and that was a different problem,” Caleca said. He recommends that pubcasters look to establish relationships with regional diesel suppliers, not just those within their state, so that when a natural disaster strikes, they can call on backup suppliers. He also recommends that stations in hurricane or tornado zones install fuel tanks that can power their generators for up to four days.

The Public Telecommunications Facilities Program highlighted backup power last week with grants to help 27 public radio and TV stations buy generators.

Once the situation in the hurricane zone stabilizes, Caleca hopes to talk with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials to ensure that public broadcasting facilities are on their priority list of groups to receive assistance during a crisis. “We wouldn’t be as high a priority as a hospital but we can’t be at the bottom of the list,” he said. “The reason for that is in the state of Mississippi, it was the public radio station that was the lifeline to folks who survived.”

It was a fluke phone call that Antoon made on Labor Day weekend — and a called-in favor to the board president for the B.B. King Museum — that resolved MPB’s most severe fuel crisis.

Antoon had almost given up hope of keeping the network powered on Sept. 3 when she accidentally hit the redial button on her home phone. She reached a fuel company in Indianola that turned out to be partly owned by Bill McPherson, a man Antoon knew as “Billy Mac.” MPB had provided low-fee production services to the museum he was working to establish. She asked the man answering the phone to tell Billy she needed a tanker.

Walter Grisham, co-owner of the business, called back with good news: “Billy Mack says he owes you lots of favors and I ought to do this for you.” They agreed to a wholesale deal and worked out complicated logistics.

“They delivered it like the cavalry,” Lockhart said.

Web page posted Oct. 5, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee


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