As Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico Wednesday with 150 mph winds, more than a foot of rain and life-threatening storm surges, radio stations struggled amid massive power outages across the devastated island. Maria is the first hurricane of Category 4 strength or higher in 85 years to hit the U.S. territory, home to 3.3 million people.
The ferocious storm tore the roof off the studios of Univision’s Spanish news/talk WKAQ San Juan (580), which remarkably continued to broadcast virtually uninterrupted. During a live phone interview with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, host Rubén Sánchez interrupted the call to tell listeners his on-air studio had become “vulnerable” and he and his on-air team needed to move—ASAP. After going to commercials, Sánchez provided a firsthand account of how the most powerful storm to strike the island in more than 80 years wreaked havoc with the Univision facility. “A few of the offices exploded,” Sánchez said, according to the Miami Herald, as Maria smashed street-facing office windows and blew into the building. “It even changed the smell of the environment, and the temperature in WKAQ.”
After an unsuccessful attempt at setting up shop at Spanish CHR sister “KQ-105” WKAQ-FM (104.7), WKAQ news director Jaime Cosme took the mic to say the team was fashioning a makeshift studio deeper in the building. Sánchez compared the scene to a grenade blast. “We could see the sky because the roof blew off,” he said, per the Herald. The facility is home to two TV stations and the two radio stations.
Along with co-host Ricardo Padilla, Sánchez aired calls from listeners describing how the storm affected them. But communications beyond San Juan were impossible, so the station fielded calls from Florida, New York, Chicago and Texas as Puerto Ricans sought information about their unreachable loved ones. With the entire island without power, radio once again became an essential lifeline for distraught residents and relatives. “The station and a handful of others became vital listening posts for Puerto Ricans starved of information Wednesday as their electricity went dark and their cellphones silent,” the Herald reported. “You’ve risked your lives to give the country information,” one caller told the station. “You’re titans,” said another.
According to Radio-Locator, there are 142 active AM and FM signals in Puerto Rico, the vast majority within reach of San Juan. Among the more prominent, the WAPA Radio “La Poderosa” network—comprising six AM signals—was on the air and streaming Wednesday morning.
WAPA’s stations were taking calls from listeners, while sharing information about where to get assistance, water, news about growing power outages and the like. As of 2:30pm, its Twitter feed was actively sharing information with listeners.
News/talk “Noti Uno 630” WUNO San Juan, owned by Uno Radio Group/Arso Radio Corp., was also on-air Wednesday mid-afternoon, while sending out a constant stream of Tweets from its account, updating conditions and posting videos. The station also aired a live video stream of its wall-to-wall coverage on Facebook.
In a hurricane season like the U.S. hasn’t experienced in years, the latest storm has the Federal Communications Commission once again activating its Disaster Information Reporting System, or “DIRS,” for a third time in the past month. The Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau is asking every radio station on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to submit a status update on how it weathered Hurricane Maria starting Thurs., Sept. 21 at 10am ET.
DIRS is the voluntary, web-based system that allows the FCC to collect information about whether radio and television stations are on the air, if they’re using a backup generator and what sort of damage they suffered, if any. It also captures similar reports from other communications industries including cable TV and cellphone companies. In a Twitter post commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the information allows the FCC “to understand consequences for communications” as its post-storm analysis is done. DIRS can be accessed HERE.
Unlike during Hurricane Irma when the FCC activated DIRS for select counties of Puerto Rico, this time it’s asking stations in every county to supply status reports. It’s also asking for updates from St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John in the Virgin Islands. In a nod to what sort of hurricane season it has been in the Caribbean, the FCC asks broadcasters to only submit information about Hurricane Maria-related damage and not updates on how recovery is going from Hurricane Irma.
The agency has also announced that it will have 24-hour staffing at the FCC Operations Center through the coming weekend for broadcasters who may need help on a range of issues including obtaining a special temporary authority (STA) in order to make disaster-related changes such as moving to a backup antenna or to operate at reduced power.
The Media Bureau says those requests can be filed by an email or, if necessary, by telephone. Broadcasters will need to supply the FCC with the technical parameters of the proposed operation and contact information, after which the Bureau says it will review the requests “as expeditiously as possible.”
Who should you email or call at the FCC?
FM Stations: Arthur Doak, (202) 418-2715, Arthur.Doak@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