Hurricane Andrew Part 1

by AK - July 31, 2013

Wednesday Midday Bedtime Story: HURRICANE ANDREW (part 1. Before the Storm)

I’ll have to cover this in 3 separate posts since it covered weeks worth of recapping… There’s a little humor, some sadness, but mostly interesting tidbits of what went down at WIOD prior to, during, and after the biggest storm to hit South Florida in a century.

Let’s remind ourselves first that 21 years ago, before Andrew quickly turned from a Category 1 to a category 5 and slammed into Dade county, there hadn’t been a major hurricane here in like 3 decades. Most people had never experienced this kind of thing before either because they didn’t live here at the time or weren’t even born yet.

So two days out as it’s heading towards us and hits Cat 2 status, projected for a possible 3, the station is a-buzz. And not just because we’re a news station.. For chrissakes we’re on Biscayne Bay. And engineering it tuning up the giant diesel generators, and Norberto is putting those heavy metal panels on all the windows. The Sales department is canceling all commercial orders because we’re about to go into “wall-to-wall” non-stop coverage tomorrow. The Programming office and promotions people are canceling all events and calling air staff that they don’t need to do shows tomorrow. And upstairs, in a hallway, newsman Henry Barrow, Executive producer Marvin Rawman, Sports/Goldberg at Nite producer Manny Munoz, and board-op/part time producer/promotions coordinator Adam Kirschner (me) gather in the hallway to talk about the plan. Do we just evacuate the building and run national news and weather from CBS news or do we ride it out?

The News Department (Anchors, Reporters, Producers) wanted to stay cuz they’re news junkies. The problem was that they needed other people around to get them on the air, relieve them, make outgoing calls to FPL, Bellsouth, Miami and Broward police and fire stations, and Emergency Management offices, cart up audio, work the board, take calls, grab info from the newsroom and wire, etc. They couldn’t force anyone to stay in the building, not with a potential Cat 3 churning in the Atlantic 36 hours away.

Henry’s a senior newsman. He’s done the dance with a storm or 2 in his day. He has an idea what could be about to happen. Manny and Marvin aren’t old enough to remember a major storm of any kind. And me? I’m younger than them, and from New Jersey only living here for 4 years. My only memories of storms is from the “hurricanes” we had up there which by the time they’d gotten to the Jersey Shore (unlike recent Storm Sandy) were no rougher than a tropical afternoon thunderstorm around here with some flooding.

“What do you guys think?” asks Henry of the 3 single, non home owning producers.

“I say we stay.” I say.

“Yeah, we can totally do this.” says Manny.

“We have enough bodies to handle all the shifts and locations” says E.P. Marvin.

And that was that. We were staying.

The plan was that before we closed the doors and basically locked ourselves in, the whole staff worked like an army. 4 of the staff went to petty cash and got about 300 bucks to go raid the Milam’s across the street of anything food and water wise we might need. Another 7 or 8 went to go gas up all the station news cars and station vans. Anyone who was staying went home to grab supplies and pillows and blankets and clothes and anything else we might need. Nobody could be sure exactly what we’d need or how long we might need to stay. When we came back towards the station, we parked our cars on the second floor of a bank building down the street, and someone would shuttle us back to the station.

The next day was the “Day of the Storm” and the continuous coverage started. The only people who came to work were all the news people and news producer (Andrew Kalb) and the producers, the Program Director Boy Gary, and a few other folks who came by early before splitting, and an engineer. We were an army of one, with many leaders at different times. Everyone had a singular focus; helping get the information on the air and out to the public and staying on the air.

One reporter was sent to the National Hurricane Center. One to the Emergency Management Office in Broward, another to Dade. Newsman Dan Stewart (remember.. He’d only arrived here from Boston since like May) took News Director Chuck Meyer’s Ford Bronco to Fort Lauderdale Beach to cover the scene and get reaction from people. 3 Anchors in studio doing shifts. Our Weatherman, Bob Soper, was on vacation in Carolina and He and his wife actually flew BACK just to ride out the storm at WIOD so Bob could be on the air. (THAT MAN, is a great American) and they arrived mid-day.

Around that time the Police Department for North Bay Village showed up. Technically, North Bay Village is an evacuation zone. So 2 officers and the police captain show up to find out what our plan was. “The studios are on the 2nd floor… this building was built long ago and has survived past storms. It;s a concrete bunker. We’re staying”. The police couldn’t force us out, and they didn’t try. In fact, they agreed with us about the building. So much so that they evacuated their own building and made ours their hub for the night parking their cars under our building.

For me and the other producers, our jobs was to keep it moving, feeding the guy or gal on the air information as it came in. “Rip and Read”. We’d rip it off the wire printer, run it in to them, and they’d read it. Or we’d call one of the reporters and get them to come on. Or grab one of the representatives from counties or utilities or whatever and get them on the air. It was crazy. And the storm wasn’t even here yet. It was 5pm.

Dan Stewart calls the hotline to do his report, and I say “Ok Dan.. Hold on..” and he says “WAIT!!”

“What’s up, Dan?”

“Can you call a tow truck?”

“Why? What happened?? Where you at?”

“I’m still at Fort Lauderdale Beach. I wanted great wind and ocean sound in the background of my reports, so I drove onto the beach.. The wind pushed the sound all around and inside Chuck’s Bronco, and now it’s stuck”

I laughed. So did Dan a little.

“Ok. Just do your report… I won’t say anything to Chuck”

And I put Dan on the air and he does his live report, and sure enough you can hear the wind whipping and the waves crashing. When he’s done I call a tow truck and tell them where he’s at, and that he shouldn’t be hard to find… he’s the moron parked on Fort Lauderdale Beach in a WIOD News Car.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working a shift for like 6 crazy, nonstop hours.. It’s way different than doing a talk show. That’s relaxed. You sit in a chair mostly and answer phone and push buttons. And by your 10th time doing it, if you’re good at it, you get a rhythm and can do it without any thought. But this is CRAYYYYYYYzy. It’s nonstop, head-spinning, running, and thinking, and planning, and there’s not a break. Literally. No commercials even. About 40 minutes goes by, and I’m out of breath. So I say I’m takin a break and Manny hops in the chair and I tell him what’s going on and who’s on hold and what’s after that, etc etc. and I go to take a leak, then to look outside and then to grab something to eat. Apparently by the time they’d gotten to the market, the shelves were basically empty. All we had were two loaves of wonder bread, 3 boxes of fig newtons, 4 boxes of those fake pre-packaged cheez-n-cracker things, 3 jars of peanut butter, bottles of water and soda, and lots of candy. So I scarf a whole sleeve of newtons and a peanut butter on wonder bread, force it down with a diet coke, grab a smoke and head back into the control room.

The hotline rings… Manny answers it and says “Yeah, hold on a sec.. You wanna talk on the air?” then.. “Ok, when yer done I’ll put you on hold”

He hands me the phone. Its Dan again.

“Hey dude. Tow truck show up? Get pulled out of the sand?”

“Yeah. But… ”

“But what?”

“He’s calling another tow truck. He’s stuck now too”

All I can do is shake my head and smile.

“Ok..keep us posted” and I hand the phone back to Manny, he goes on the air and does his report, as I put my feet up and half relax as best as you can. At this point, there’s so much going on it’s like watching an action movie. People running in and out, people making calls one after another to different places all trying to get someone on the air with Chuck or Henry or Elaine Ettoire or who’s even in the room behind the microphone. And as it got darker, and as it got later, and as the radar started showing the storm was getting stronger and stronger with each passing hour, we settled into a rhythm.

Next: Part 2 – The Morning of Hurricane Andrew

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