When disasters occur communication becomes a crucial part of survival and then getting back to what we call a normal life. I have a lot of experience dealing with those specific issues since my wife and I have been through just about every kind of natural disaster there is. Other than the disaster itself one of the most frightening aspects becomes being cut off from the rest of the world.
I mentioned in an article from 2013 titled “The Many Things That Oregon Doesn’t Have” one of those disasters I survived. “I lived in Elmira, New York in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes (weakened to a Tropical Depression) decided not to go along the coast to the Canadian Maritimes to die as it should have, but it made a left turn and actually moved directly over Elmira, New York. A frontal system stalled along the Canadian border producing heavy rain for the week before Agnes arrived. They combined to cause a 500 year flood (worst flood possible in a 500 year period) forcing my wife, 3-month-old daughter, and me to spend 5 days in a Red Cross (thank heaven for them) evacuation center.”
That flood resulted in an 8-million dollar rebuilding project for the part of Downtown Elmira that was devastated by the flood waters. Communication was a serious concern throughout the disaster and the recovery efforts. I was working for a company that had both a television station and a radio station. The TV station was on the ground floor of an old hotel and did suffer some water damage. That didn’t cause the worst damage, however. The TV transmitter tower was on the south side of town in an area that experienced floodwaters that covered the area six feet deep in water. A house floated off of its foundation and continued across a field cutting the coaxial cable between the TV tower and the building housing the transmitter. The radio station was on the 7th floor of the hotel and remained on the air. Back then we didn’t have computers, the Worldwide Web, or cell phones to get the emergency information necessary for survival. That made the battery operated transistor radio the only source of information for quite some time. All of the area radio stations joined to simulcast the same programming to give everyone the information needed to get help if needed, safe places to go, and ways to contact friends and family to let them know we are OK.
We zoom forward in time to the present-day and if you listen to the news you’ve heard how serious the situation still is in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. An article titled “AM radio makes a comeback in Puerto Rico” published in Columbia Journalism Review explained that one radio station (WKBJ 710 AM) learned a big lesson from a previous hurricane strike. “The station’s managers had learned a lesson about disaster preparedness in 1998, when Hurricane Georges blew down their radio antenna and cur off the power. Since then, the staff had equipped the station with a backup power generator and a reinforced antenna that could withstand hurricane-force winds.”
A television station, WORA-TV in Mayaguez (on the coast), announced on the air that it was shutting down knowing the power would probably go down. They sent their people home, with pay, to be with their families. After the storm passed the station’s news team production manager, Carolina Rodriguez Plaza, got her father to drive her to the WKBJ studios and offered her help. When she took a shift on the air she put out the word for her station personnel to come to the WKBJ studios not too far away as soon as they could to help tell the stories of the people suffering through this massive disruption in their life. Plaza and her coworkers worked tirelessly covering all aspects of the disaster without any thought of being paid. It’s a good idea to have a battery operated transistor radio handy and extra batteries in case there is a disaster situation in our area.
The print media also found a way. Quoting the article “In San Juan, the offices of GFR Media, publisher of three major newspapers created a reporting hub for journalists traveling to the island to cover the disaster. In addition to producing its own in-depth coverage, GFR Media made it possible for journalists from the New York Times, Washington Post, and Huffington Post to report on Hurricane Maria.”
For the complete Columbia Journalism Review story just go to CJR.com.
That’s just a taste of how the media in Puerto Rico handled and continue to handle the worst natural disaster in the island’s modern history. Back in 1972 I personally witnessed the amazing cooperation of the media, first responders, the business community, and the general public when it counts the most. It’s just too bad that the spirit of cooperation and helping those in need doesn’t last once the situation returns to what we call normal.
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