Reminiscing with a Radio: Hurricane Katrina on Shortwave

Hurricane Katrina on Shortwave

Adrian Petersen

by Adrian Petersen

Hurricane Katrina has been described as the worst natural disaster in the history of North America. It began on Monday August 22, 2005, as a mild Tropical Storm on the eastern edge of the Bahamas. Three days later, after crossing over the Bahamas, this disastrous weather pattern slammed into southern Florida as a Category 1 storm, designated with the uncharacteristic name Hurricane Katrina and leaving 11 people dead and nearly 2 million without power.

As this new hurricane crossed over the peninsula into the Mexican Gulf, it gathered speed from the warmer tropical waters and developed into a maximum Category 5 storm with wind gusts rated at over 200 miles per hour. By the time it hit the Gulf Coast in the southern areas of the United States at daylight on Monday August 29, a little of its almost demonic power had been lost, but the impact was unexpectedly horrific. Hurricane Katrina veered a little to the east and the wind damage in New Orleans was a little less than anticipated, though the ocean surge with 30 ft waves was catastrophic in a three-state area. However, the city of New Orleans itself was quickly inundated with flood waters, in places 20 ft deep, due to the failure of the earthen levees holding back the waters of the huge Lake Pontchartrain.

In what appeared to be a slow reaction on the part of government – local, state & federal – people from the low lying areas were moved to the huge Superdome sports arena and other high elevated areas. Reference guides state that Greater New Orleans housed 1.5 million people and most of these residents were evacuated, either before or after the devastating hit by Hurricane Katrina. Ultimately, New Orleans was almost totally evacuated leaving this large and popular city almost abandoned.

Continuous 24 hour news coverage of the massive damage throughout the stricken areas was provided nationally and internationally by the CNN, MSNBC & Fox news channels on TV. On the local scene, many of the radio stations in the stricken areas were disabled by water and wind damage, and several of the remaining stations in Greater New Orleans co-operated together in a joint effort to provide listeners with a reliable news service on mediumwave and FM. The mighty 50 kW WWL spearheaded this combined effort by providing a relay of programming with eight other AM and FM stations in the area.

QSL card for WWL New Orleans broadcasting via WRNO on shortwave.
© Adrian Peterson Collection, AWR

Originally, station WWL was launched by the Jesuit Loyola University in New Orleans as a miniscule 10 watt mediumwave station. The original callsign, allocated in sequence, was WWL; the location was a classroom in Marquette Hall; and the first test broadcast went on the air on Mar 21, 1922. Just ten days later, the official license was received from the FRC and the station began a regular schedule of primitive broadcast programming.

Over the years, the transmitter power for station WWL was increased from the initial 10 watts, to 100 watts, to 500 watts, to 1 kW, to 5 kW, to 10 kW, and finally to 50 kW in 1939. The operating channel was moved from the mandatory 833 kHz, to 1090 kHz, to 1220 kHz, to 850 kHz, and finally to the now familiar 870 kHz, also in 1939. The transmitter location was moved from Marquette Hall, to Bobet Hall, to suburban Kenner, and finally to its current low-level location outside the levee areas in Estelle, some five miles south of New Orleans. The studios were moved progressively from Marquette Hall, to Bobet Hall, to the Roosevelt Hotel, to Rampart Street, and finally to Poydras Street in 1990. The Loyola University sold commercial station WWL to Entercom in 1989.

The current sturdy transmitter building in Estelle is octagonal in shape to sustain high winds and it is constructed on concrete pillars twelve feet high because the land there is listed as just one foot above sea level. Sufficient fuel is stored at this location to keep the emergency generator running for one month. They have installed emergency studios in the basement of the local government Emergency Operations Center in neighboring Jefferson Parish just one mile from their main transmitter base, and they also have an emergency transmitter and long wire antenna co-located at their TV transmitter site. During this current Katrina emergency, station WWL is heading up the co-operative organization, “United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans”, using borrowed studios at the rival Clear Channel station in nearby Baton Rouge, station WJBO. As many as fifteen different AM and FM stations have taken the WWL program relay.

In addition, mediumwave station WWL is also on relay nationally and internationally from the powerful shortwave station at Cypress Creek, South Carolina, which is now owned by World Harvest Radio. This station was originally owned and operated by Christian Science in Boston as WSHB but it was sold to World Harvest Radio in South Bend Indiana a few years ago. World Harvest Radio previously operated station WHRI on the northern edge of Indianapolis and when they closed that station, the callsign was transferred to the larger station in South Carolina.

© Adrian Peterson Collection, AWR

During the Katrina emergency, mediumwave station WWL is on relay from shortwave WHRI on several different channels throughout the day, using a single 250 kW transmitter fed into two curtain antennas in order to provide a wide coverage area. Programming consists of emergency announcements, refugee information, official statements and incoming phone calls.

The question could be asked: Why has mediumwave WWL taken out a shortwave relay from station WHRI? The answer, at least in part, lies in the fact that under normal operating conditions, station WWL has in the past been heard on relay from a shortwave station. For instance, we hold a QSL card from WWL verifying a sports program on relay from the New Orleans shortwave station WRNO back in 1990. However shortwave WRNO is currently not yet back on the air since the new owners took over, and in any case, even if it had been in regular service, Hurricane Katrina would probably have silenced the station anyway.

Monitoring reports indicate that the emergency programming from WWL-WHRI on shortwave is heard widely. Let’s hope that both stations, WWL & WHRI, will honor reception reports of these temporary and unique emergency broadcasts in due course with their QSL cards.

Adrian Petersen is a noted radio historian and broadcaster for many years with Indianapolis based Adventist World Radio, a global shortwave, AM, FM and satellite radio network. Originally from South Australia, Adrian has worked in radio across Asia and the Pacific and is well known worldwide for his long running Wavescan radio series. He has published an extensive number of radio heritage articles using his large database of historical information, and personally maintains the AWR heritage collection, one of the world’s largest privately held memorabilia collections.

Views expressed in this column are those of the author and may not necessarily represent those of the Radio Heritage Foundation. Send us your column comments and feedback.

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