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Mississippi Public Broadcasting crews braved tough conditions to keep statewide system running

Public radio provided vital link during storm

Jackson — One of the biggest problems in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was communications. For the first week, there was very little cell or telephone service available. People on the Coast were isolated from each other and anxious for news about where to get relief supplies, as well as the fate of friends and relatives.

“A radio station that stayed on the air continuously providing this vital information was Mississippi Public Broadcasting (MPB),” said Mark Flemmons, service manager for the Cleveland division of Modern Communications. “Someone needs to find the chief engineer for Mississippi Public Broadcasting and his crew, and hang metals around their necks. They did a monstrous job to keep that network up and going. At certain points they were the only thing left on the air. They were hand carrying diesel out to transformer sites to keep it going. It was phenomenal some of the things they did.”

Flemmons said the MPB crews went out into the storm to get transmitters that had lost electric service up and running with backup power generators. These crews had no cell phones or other ways to communicate back to the home office.

“It was a crucial link getting transformers going or repairing them,” Flemmons said. “I can relate to that, as I have been there and done that. You hear the guy wires on the tower humming like a bow on a base fiddle. You try to ignore that the tower might be blown down to breathe life into this monster and get it going again. The MPB crews are a unique bunch of people and they deserve recognition for this. “

Switching modes

MPB suspended its regular programming and went into informational mode for most of the first three weeks after the storm. For many Mississippians, especially those without battery-operated televisions, this was there only source of information.

“If not for MPB telling people where the help was, they wouldn’t have known where to go or how to get it,” Flemmons said. “They were also giving live reports from where the damage was, what towns were okay and some that weren’t.”

Gene Edwards, MPB’s deputy director for content development, said an engineer named Max Breazeale violated policy and went down to the transmitter site in McHenry, which is the Gulf Coast site, and used a chainsaw to cut trees out of the road in order to get to the transmitter. Breazeale knew he didn’t have enough gas to get back out after the hurricane, and that he would be stuck at the transmitter site.

The transmitter went out for a couple of hours during the height of the storm. But because Breazeale was there, he was able to get the transmitter back up and running.

“Hence, communications were provided to tens of thousands of people who wouldn’t have had any other way of getting the news,” Edwards said.

Two other MPB crew members with a chain saw borrowed from the Institutions of Higher Learning went out to service remote microwave sites. The chain saw wasn’t up to the job of cutting away a huge oak tree blocking the road, but a local resident stopped and helped them cut up the tree. Then when the resident found out that more propane fuel was needed to power the emergency systems at the microwave relay site, he went back to his house to get them some fuel.

“People heard us talking on the air about needing diesel fuel to keep the auxiliary power, and people called and told us where to get it,” Edwards said. “They offered to deliver it. It was just amazing.”

Making a critical difference

Edwards said that years ago proponents of MPB said it was vital to put together a statewide radio network like this, and that doing so someday might save some lives.

“And it did,” Edwards said.

Most private radio stations were knocked off the air by Katrina. Some of those that remained also played a valuable role by simultaneous broadcasting of live coverage from WLOX-Channel 13, on the Gulf Coast.

The MPB broadcasters pulled marathon stints of continuous news coverage from Sunday late in the day until the next Thursday. And for the next couple of weeks, hurricane recovery news dominated.

“We really haven’t gotten back to regular programming still,” Edwards said three weeks after the storm. “I’ve been trying to figure out how many hours we were on the air, and I don’t know. We are continuing to provide news information programming between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. at night, and will stay in that mode for at least the next two weeks.”

An example of the important news relayed by MPB concerns Hattiesburg. Although located inland, Hurricane Katrina was still a category two storm when it hit Hattiesburg. Because of the lack of cell and land line communications, it was days before the outside area knew much about what had happened to Hattiesburg.

“The mayor of Hattiesburg called us on Wednesday, and said he was calling to let us know they had been listening and that Hattiesburg is okay. The mayor said, ‘We are okay, but we have taken a hell of a beating down here,’” Edwards said. “The last we had talked to them before was the night of the storm when they said 90% of the streets in their town were blocked.”

MPB also loaned their television signal to WLOX when the TV station’s signal was down. “We let them microwave to our position, and they took over our position on the dial when their transmitter was down,” Edwards said. “And then on Sunday, September 10, the FOX station was still off the air when football started. So we struck a deal with the FOX network, and aired the Saints and Packers games on the PBS signal down there. The FCC granted us special permission to allow non-commercial stations to transmit commercials during this crisis. What a great morale boost for people to see the Saints and the Packers.”

New MPB information programs air at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. themed around Katrina recovery issues. Topics include mental health, health issues, city planning, education issues, status of parks and recreation areas, farming, fishing, agriculture impact, environmental issues and more. The programs air live and will repeat frequently.

“Our goal is to continue to provide vital news and information for as long as we are needed,” Edwards said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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