by Craig Rogers
Editor's Note: Fortunately, it isn't too often that radio stations have to deal with confronting major natural disasters. But when they do, it's nothing short of amazing how another day at the studio can turn into the experience of a lifetime. Craig Rogers (Production Director, WHO/KLYF Des Moines, IA) shares a few days in his life during what Des Moines residents will remember for years as the "Flood of '93."
Saturday, July 10 - The Raccoon and Des Moines rivers are on the rise. Eight inches of rain fell upstream. The ground is already saturated. Reservoirs are above capacity. A flood of biblical proportions is on the way.
I help a friend in the "flood plain" sandbag his house. The station calls. We're going to continuous coverage, 8 p.m. till whenever. I'm pressed into service as a reporter.
I'm in West Des Moines after a levee breaks. Fire crews bring out stranded residents in boats. The power company pulls the plug on power to the area. All is dark except for emergency vehicle light bars and the flashlights of National Guardsmen. I get chills. This is serious. I leave around midnight.
Sunday, July 11, 3:30 a.m. - The phone rings...it's a co-worker. The Des Moines water works has been flooded. NO WAY! It's got to be a rumor! It's not. Residents fill bathtubs, pots and garbage cans with water.
5:50 a.m. - Alarm rings. I get up to go back on flood coverage. I hear WHO report the flooding of the water plant. It is true. Six electrical substations are under six feet of water. I punch over to our FM, KLYF. They're simulcasting our TV station's flood coverage. I leave AM on in the kitchen. Good thing our generator's up!
6:23 a.m. - All three stations go dark. What the hell is going on?
6:24 a.m. - I'm in the truck with my rain gear. Punching around, everyone else is in religious programming, or public affairs or music. There are gaping holes of silence where WHO/KLYF should be, as big as those in any levee! It's a 20 minute ride. I do it in 15. WHO/KLYF remain silent.
6:40 a.m. - No flood water in the building. The generator itself gave out. It is (or was) cooled by city water. Engineers scramble to get enough power to get us back on. The lobby becomes a studio. When the sun comes up, at least we'll have light, and it's close to the tech room. Cables are run down the hall from the sports remote unit. The generator that blows up FM's inflatable jukebox supplies just enough power for the barest of essentials in the tech room. The AM and FM are strapped together in the rack. Our midday guy, Jan Michelson, puts on a sports headset as the 50,000 watt flamethrower and the Class C sister station become siamese twins. We've now been off 50 minutes. A field reporter phones in on the cellular. Jan holds the phone up to the headset mike, and Des Moines gets its first info on the extent of damage. Water is unsafe to drink. A quarter million people won't be able to make coffee or brush their teeth this morning, or for many mornings to come. That's how it all started for us.
Eventually, a line from the newsroom on the second floor is dropped through the stairwell and plugged into the sports mixer. The engineers have found a larger generator. (At 7:30 on a Sunday morning, how did they do that?)
The newsroom is on line to record phone reports and interviews. We play them back in the lobby from a newsdeck. Jan has been on the air continuously with help from a field reporter for a couple of hours. His throat holds out.
We make the switch up to the news booth where we can take phone calls from listeners. We replace the red "on-air" light with a regular bulb so talent can see. Again, and again, we repeat the warning: Des Moines water is unsafe to drink. I run the board and take calls, hundreds of calls. We try to answer as many as we can on the air.
10:45 a.m. - We get back to our main studios. I don't know where the engineers stole all these generators, but who cares? We're simulcasting AM/FM. Jan stays on till about 1 p.m.. Someone else takes over. For the next few days there is no schedule. You just go until someone says, "I'll take it from here." FM splits off sometime in the afternoon. AM stays in continuous coverage through the evening. Commercials? Hah!
Monday, July 12 - Our morning team, Van and Connie, begin updating listeners as the information pours in. New water distribution sites are added. People need to be reminded that their tap water is unsafe. They take as many on-air calls as they can. You're not going to get this kind of information from the newspaper. They struggled to put out 8 pages today!
From here, things get blurred together. Porta-potties arrive. The station orders food. Cots are set up in a TV studio. A camp-styled shower is rigged up in the bathroom. You can smell the adrenaline. God, I love this business!
Tuesday, July 13 - I awake to EBS tones. It's pouring outside. Flash flood warning. I'm at the station by 7:30 a.m.. I take over answering the phones in AM. We again answer as many as we can on the air. WHO Radio's Sue Danielson, a TV camera man, and a newspaper reporter are taken by boat to the water treatment plant. Sue broadcasts live. It is the most incredible radio I have ever heard. The boat ride over what used to be a beautiful park, choppers in the background as National Guard troops drop sandbags to reinforce the levee, Sue huffing as she slogs through sludge, the sound of the mud, the reverb of a large, tile covered pump room. The amazing level tone of the plant manager as he tells us the main pumps are under 14 feet of water, raw sewage and unknown chemicals. Sue is covered with mud and has an enormous smile when she returns.
In the control room one person is answering phones, one is running the board, and I'm running through the log, organizing breaks. There is so much emergency related business coming through, traffic can't keep up. They set carts down beside me. "These each play five times between now and 7 p.m.. Log it wherever you can." I set up breaks and use tally marks on the carts to keep track of how many times it ran. I'll reconcile the log later.
Iowa Senator Tom Harkin announces on WHO that he has spoken with President Clinton. The President will be cutting his vacation short to visit Des Moines. FEMA officials arrive to survey damage and offer federal assistance. Late in the afternoon, we announce that Clinton will be interviewed on WHO radio and answer calls from listeners. This is a 15 hour day for me, even longer for others.
Wednesday, July 14 - The President will be here at 1:30 p.m.. WHO will be joined by WCCO/Minneapolis and KMOX/St. Louis for the interview. Since I deal with our state-wide sports network and its uplink, I deal with the logistical details for feeds. WCCO and KMOX are CBS O&Os. We're an ABC affiliate. To say things got complicated would be an understatement.
We've all got a pretty serious situation here, we're all living on adrenaline, and I've still got to vacuum the studio before Clinton arrives. If we only had more time....
There is plenty of production. (Knew there would have to be that angle sometime, eh?) Businesses want to let Des Moines know they're open, that they have porta-potties, drinking water, sump pumps, etc., etc., etc.. This is no time for fancy production. If it gets a music bed underneath, it's a masterpiece.
They say we'll have water back in the pipes by Monday, but it won't be drinkable for another 30 days after that. The mayor has asked non-essential businesses to shut down or relocate outside of downtown. No water pressure, no fire hydrants. Think about that.
Thursday, July 15 and Friday, July 16 - Hours are still long, so food is provided. Porta-potties are cleaned once a day. Morale is high. Sleep time is low.
We know we're doing a valuable public service. A friend called to compliment the stations. He said he'd do whatever he could to help out, even mow my lawn. I took him up on it.
As you read this, radio is your creative outlet...but what happens when disaster strikes? Are you only a Production Director or Creative Services Director? No. Radio is not just about being creative. And it's not about money. In the end, it's about making a difference.