At least one million residents along the Gulf Coast are without electricity and that’s putting the spotlight once again on the battery-powered resilience of radio. In one Florida county, when emergency management officials couldn’t reach some of their staff members because of down cell phone and communications towers, they went on the local radio station to give them instructions.
That said, the latest update from the Federal Communications Commission shows radio wasn’t immune to the 155-mile winds of Hurricane Michael. The latest information available from the Federal Communications Commission shows 24 FMs, 3 FM translators and 5 AMs are off the air. But the FCC’s voluntary system only collects reports from stations that are willing or able to check in with Washington to share their status. The real number of stations could be higher since most of the stations that have filed reports so far were in Georgia, not Florida, where the biggest impact from the hurricane has been felt. Illustrating how difficult it remains to get information from the region, the FCC was only able to confirm that 63 FMs, 17 FM translators, and 20 FMs were operational—even though the number is almost certainly significantly higher.
The list of stations knocked off the air by Michael includes one FM licensed to the epicenter of the destruction: iHeartMedia’s urban “99.3 The Beat” WEBZ is licensed to Mexico Beach, FL and its tower sits just 13-miles from where the hurricane made landfall, leaving catastrophic damage. While the signal at 99.3 FM may be off the air, iHeartMedia has pooled the resources of its Panama City market cluster and is simulcasting on country WPAP (92.5), AC “Sunny 98.5” WFSY and talk WFLF (94.5).
Not surprisingly the Category 4 storm seems to have hit the Panama City market the hardest. Powell Broadcasting reported to the FCC that all its stations there are off the air. On Facebook, one staffer posted a video of the fallen tower used by “Kick`n Country 103.5” WKNK. Radio is however the way Bay County officials are reaching the public. They’re telling people to listen to local public radio station WKGC-FM (90.7) where the station has partnered with WMBB-TV which was knocked off the air.
There are also beginning to be stories of how radio helped Americans get through the crisis, such as this WEBZ listener who sent her thanks via a Facebook post.
The FCC continues to collect data from across Florida, Georgia and Alabama and according to the reports gathered there are also four television stations off the air. But the biggest impact is on cell phones. The FCC says 11.5% of wireless towers are reported offline across the three-state region. But the number is significantly higher along hardest hit areas along the Florida Panhandle coastline, where as many as eight in ten cell tower sites aren’t working. In Bay County, which includes Panama City, 73% of cell towers are offline.
“Data from the FCC’s Disaster Information Reporting System shows that Hurricane Michael caused substantial communications outages along its destructive path,” FCC chair Ajit Pai said. His office and staff from the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau began reaching out to broadcasters and other communications providers early today to discuss the situation on the ground and how to restore service as quickly as possible. Pai said he was happy to learn that wireless companies pre-positioned mobile equipment that can roll backup towers on the backs of trucks into the region to get wireless service up and running in many locations.
“In the hours and days ahead, the FCC will continue to work with our federal partners and the private sector to ensure that communications services are restored in those areas affected by Hurricane Michael,” Pai said, adding,” Our thoughts are with all of those who have been impacted by this historic storm.”
DIRS Reporting Expanded
The impact of Hurricane Michael is still being assessed, and the FCC on Thursday expanded the region that it hopes to collect voluntary DIRS reports from to nine additional counties in Georgia. It added Charlton, Clinch, Echols, Lanier, Lowndes, Marion, Pierce, Stewart, and Ware Counties to the DIRS list. They are in addition to the stations in 99 counties in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama that had already been asked to file updates each morning by 10am ET in order to help the FCC track whether a station’s infrastructure, such as towers, withstood the storm.
The Commission has also announced that, in order to address any emergencies that may come up during the next several days, the FCC Operations Center will be open 24-hours a day, including throughout the coming weekend. The FCC Ops Center can be reached at 202-418-1122 or by e-mail at FCCOPCenter@fcc.gov.
The FCC has also issued a statement saying it’s prepared to handle any emergency requests for special temporary authority (STA) that are the result of Hurricane Michael. It also points out that the FCC’s rules allow stations to, when needed, operate outside the bounds of normal authorization to provide the public with information during an emergency. That typically is using daytime patterns to cover a larger geographic area after dark, or a daytime-only station going 24-hours.
Got a hurricane related question?
FM Stations: Dale Bickel, (202) 418-2706; Dale.Bickel@fcc.gov
AM Stations: Jerome Manarchuck, (202) 418-7226, Jerome.Manarchuck@fcc.gov
After Hours: FCC Operations Center, 202-418-1122 or FCCOperationCenter@fcc.gov