Hurricane Lili

Dispatch by Jeff Barr
Uplink Engineer, PACSAT
for NBC News Channel

Hurricane Lili

Tuesday I flew into Houston and picked up the company satellite truck. I was working for the NBC News Channel for this event. My first call was 2am Eastern for Wednesday morning.

As I drove I tried to think of all the things I would need to survive the storm. I needed plastic bags, large and small, some food, some tape, and I forgot shampoo. I pulled the big Sat truck I drive into Wal-Mart in Lake Charles Louisiana. Well I almost pulled in but many Wal-Mart now have height restrictions on their parking lots. I don’t know why but I could not park anywhere near Wal-Mart so I loaded up the best I could at Target across the street.

I arrived on site at the Holly Beach Motel. I was informed that the place was minimalistic, had a kitchen, air conditioning, 3 beds in each room, septic drains, and right on the ocean. After I made my bed and chased out the unauthorized insect life I waited for anyone from the crew to show up.

One of the first rules of a Sat truck is “where ever you set up the truck the producer will have you move it” so I waited for the crew. They started to trickle in around 8pm and call time was 2am. I didn’t sleep at all this night.

Wednesday we were on the air from 2am to about 4pm doing live hits for NBC News Channel affiliate services. Every one was discussing food and supplies and it seemed we were all ready. The storm was due to hit the next day and the weather was great. It didn’t even rain until we rolled up the last cable. At 6pm we set off to New Iberia, right smack in the storm track.

The thing to keep in mind as we started working: the storm was a hundred or so miles off shore and turning into a category 2. The storm center was predicting a storm surge of 17-20 feet. The tallest mountain in Holly Beach is 6 feet above sea level. The road out of town had been bumper to bumper all day. This same road was flanked on both sides by water that looked like it would flood with an inch of rain.

As we were working, the reports pushed the storm up to a category 3 then a 4 just before we left. I am not sure which came first, the reporters or the anchor desk upgraded the storm before the National Weather Service had made any announcement. Nobody had a weather radio. I forgot mine. Nobody listened to local radio. We tried to watch some local TV but reception was difficult. Most of our information about our location came from the news wire, read to us from a computer in New Jersey. How do you get your local information?

After filling the truck with fuel, including 10 extra gallons, and hot dogs for me (this would be my last hot meal for several days) I drove to New Iberia, LA. Here we were to ride out a category 4 storm in a 2 story brick Best Western Hotel.

Around 9pm I had to make a big decision: where to park the truck. The Sat truck had to be protected from 140mph winds. The dish will only tolerate 45mph winds. Do you know how strong your dish is? After walking around the motel several times and once more in the rain, I decided to park next to and as close as I could to the only other Sat truck. We were both tucked in a corner of the building protected from the east wind and the south wind. The only thing better was one spot closer where a belligerent local had parked his pick-up. I finally got to my room around midnight. My second operator arrived and ran the truck. I went to my room and took my last hot shower for a while and tried to sleep.

Thursday around 7am the storm was whipping up pretty good. It made enough noise to wake me up and keep me up. I got ready to go down and keep the news on the air.
About 7:45am the power went out.

The hotel phones were still up, running on battery power that would go out in several hours. The pay phones might still work after the PBX went out. Down in the truck the wind was really getting going. About 30-40mph where I was and gusts to 60. The dish was bouncing a little but with an analog signal I stayed on the air.

The rain was coming in sideways. The trees across the street were leaning. Everything was either wrapped in plastic or wet. We sealed a video tapes in a zip lock sandwich bags to carry them from the hotel room to the truck. Our reporters were doing their best to make this look like a bad storm. They all wanted to stand in the worst wind and rain.

The problem with this storm, as with any storm, it is unpredictable. Lili topped out as a strong category 4 hurricane. As the storm passed over shallow water and 35 miles of land between the water and our location it lost lots of its power. Let me say it was still a strong storm and is capable of damage and injury. It however was not the storm that was going to flatten Louisiana. It became clear around 3pm the storm had passed, the truck stayed on the air, the hotel was standing, no windows were broken. Photographers came back with tapes of blowing wind and a few trees down. There just wasn’t any devastation.

After the winds let up I had to move the truck over to a gas station about 2 blocks away. One of the awnings blew over. The office windows were not boarded up but were still intact. This was the most damage our crews could find.

Got the Sat truck mostly set up again and the dish stopped working. Water was inside one of the control boxes. The dish went up once. It came down but would not go up any more. I could not peak up on the satellite. After fighting with it for about an hour and missing a few shots I wrestled the dish onto the satellite and the correspondent onto the air. The other problem now was phones.

In the middle on the storm around 12:30pm the PBX for incoming and outgoing (dial 9) calls in the hotel died, and so did our hard lines. Producer lines to the NBC News Channel desk, PL lines for the camera, and IFB lines to the correspondent all went down. We immediately switched to cell phones in the truck. These worked fine at the time because not too many people were making calls in the middle of the storm. After the storm when all the news people and all the residents, and all the emergency workers, and all shop owners all tried to use their phones at the same time, getting a cell call out was very difficult. I had to use the satellite phone for IFB. Just so you know, a satellite phone will cost between $1.25 and $1.75 per minute to use. Think of that: the phone was latched for 120 minutes of live shots; rather, 20 minutes of actual live shots and 100 minutes of waiting.

Friday after our noon live shots were done, my truck and I were cut from NBC News Channel. Then promptly picked up around 2pm by MSNBC for a few more live shots. I had some time to get the dish working properly and pack things up. MSNBC wanted a good live shot in front of storm damage. They found some about a mile away where a few trees had blown over. As we waited 2 hours for the clock to close in on the live shot, I fed tape for News Channel again and NBC Nightly News. While all this was going on the street crews were cleaning up all the fallen branches. We did manage a live shot with some downed branches. Then the crew and the truck were released by the MSNBC desk.

To review, this was a hurricane. Everybody on the crew including camera people, producers, engineers, and reporters all endured 4 days with about 4 hours of sleep. 3 days without a good shower. Same 3 days with junk food. Dinner and breakfast were Oreos, crackers, peanut butter, and Gatorade. Cell phones that worked periodically. Soaking wet clothes. And dark hotel rooms with no power. One of the luxuries we did keep was running water. To splash on your dirty face, wash you hands, and flush the toilet. My advice to all of you is: listen to the people who have done this before, make intelligent informed decisions on site, pack well, and go with what ever difficulties befall you.

© Jeff Barr

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