With Hurricane Dennis careening toward their home in McCullough, Ala., on July 10, Shawn Linam and his family took refuge in a cotton-gin press 30 feet underground. They had only a cellphone to keep connected. Yet the Linam clan stayed informed with news from nearby CBS affiliate WKRG Mobile. Linam's sister, Theresa Linam Roberts, was watching WKRG's coverage on her computer in Gatlinburg, Tenn., and relayed the information to her brother on his cellphone.
For the first time, Media General-owned WKRG and about a half dozen other TV stations along the Gulf Coast streamed their live hurricane coverage on their Web sites, allowing viewers holed up in shelters or outside the TV market to watch their hometown stations. Some as far away as Iraq were online.
The online broadcasts were one piece of stations' expanded hurricane coverage as Hurricane Dennis made landfall. After a record hurricane season in 2004, the powerful storm had the Southeast on edge. In Mobile-Pensacola, Fla., memories of Hurricane Ivan were still painfully fresh. That storm clobbered the region last September, knocking most local stations off the air.
Ivan taught stations they needed new ways to disseminate information. TV coverage—no matter how good it is—is useless when hundreds of thousands of area residents lose power. Some TV stations have added radio partners, particularly in rural areas, to simulcast their coverage. Stations beefed up their Web sites, including streaming video. About a dozen stations featured blogs, with anchors, meteorologists and reporters in the field.
WKRG News Director Dan Cates says the station received e-mails from viewers abroad. Area resident Jennifer Clemmons wrote to WKRG, “My brother David Clemmons is in Iraq … He has a 3-year-old daughter that he was worried sick about, and thanks to your live Internet coverage, it gave him a little peace of mind.” The station's online coverage attracted more than 700,000 page views.
Fortunately, Hurricane Dennis was more forgiving than Ivan. The most recent storm moved quickly, and its winds did not extend as far out as Ivan's, limiting the scope of damage. Still, hundreds of thousands of residents evacuated, and more than a half million homes in Alabama and Florida lost power.
By July 10, when the storm hit land, most Alabama and western Florida stations went to wall-to-wall coverage; many had started the day before. In a few instances, stations made more novel arrangements. NBC-owned WVTM Birmingham, Ala., opted to split its screen on Sunday to carry weather coverage and a scheduled NASCAR race. A crawl instructed viewers to tune into their Secondary Audio Program (SAP) for the NASCAR audio. ABC affiliate and crosstown rival WJSU used its digital channels for weather coverage on Saturday and provided updates on the main analog channel.
All weekend, news directors say, newsrooms were at full force. Staffers worked in 12-hour shifts, and anchors were on-air for up to six hours. To keep them going, salespeople prepared meals. “There is a fatigue factor,” says Kip Raley, a news manager and producer for Fox affiliate WALA Mobile. To help, broadcast groups like Clear Channel and Media General sent in extra crews and satellite trucks from other stations.
NBC stations, including WVTM, WPMI Mobile and WDSU New Orleans, made use of Weather Plus, a 24/7 digital weather service co-owned by NBC and its affiliates. The service's national feed focused on the hurricane, with WTVJ Miami's Willard Shepard reporting from the Florida Panhandle.
By July 11, the storm was well away from the Gulf Coast, but there was no time to rest: A new storm, Emily, was threatening the region.
“We went several years without a serious weather threat,” says Jason Kelley, chief meteorologist for WJHG Panama City, Fla. During Dennis, he headed the NBC affiliate's coverage and penned a blog. “Now it looks like we'll be under the gun for a while.”
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