On April 27, Alabama was devastated by the worst tornado outbreak in 40 years. In the span of a few hours, entire neighborhoods were destroyed and more than 300 lives lost. Thousands were left homeless. The following are stories NAB Public Service Initiatives received showing broadcasters' extraordinary efforts before and after the storm.
During the storm, Birmingham, Alabama's four major television news operations, Allbritton’s ABC affiliate WBMA-TV; New Vision Media's CBS affiliate, WIAT-TV; FOX affiliate, WBRC-TV and Media General's NBC affiliate, WVTM-TV provided continuous weather coverage for more than 48 hours. WBRC-TV Birmingham pre-empted regular programming, including "American Idol" and the Royal Wedding, to provide wall-to-wall storm coverage from the afternoon of April 27 through the evening of April 29and continued providing extended news programming through May 4.
The New York Times recognized one Birmingham station, Allbritton’s WBMA-TV, for its live coverage. The local ABC affiliate's veteran Meteorologist James Spann covered the mile-wide tornado as it approached his viewing area. The Times noted that following the storm Spann received hundreds of comments on his Facebook page. One viewer wrote, "I have no doubt that you saved too many lives to count." New Vision Media-owned WIAT-TV's chief meteorologist Mark Prater also covered the storm for Birmingham's CBS affiliate. The Times reported Prater relied on traffic cameras and other video sources to keep his viewers informed as the twister plowed through parts of Alabama.
Some broadcasters used their online outlets to inform viewers. Garry Kelly, news director of Allbritton-owned WCFT-TV, the ABC affiliate in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Anniston said his station "did several reports via Skype, several where our reporter was in the field and literally did a live report through smart phone."
As power went out throughout the region, some television stations relied on local radio stations to continue covering the tornado. TVNewsCheck interviewed Sarkes Tarzian-owned WRCB-TV Chattanooga's news director Derrall Stalvey who noted, "When the area started losing power, we were simulcasting on our radio partner WUSY-FM. That was how most people were getting information – battery-operated. That really saved a lot of lives."
Cox Broadcasting's WAGG-AM, WBHK-FM, WENN-FM and WBHJ-FM Birmingham tracked the storm and stayed on the air throughout the night providing emergency info, opening phone lines, directing rescue teams to the injured, and helping to locate missing people. Cox stations carried live press conferences from Birmingham Mayor William Bell, Gov. Robert Bentley, state FEMA officials and Alabama Power Gas company representatives.
Local broadcasters' severe weather reporting was so outstanding, Rep. Spencer Bachus, (AL-06), remarked, "I want to congratulate our TV and radio media because you saved many lives." Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley also relied on television broadcasts during the storm. Bentley's spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis remarked that the governor used television weather radar and live camera feeds to issue storm warnings from the emergency operations center. On May 23, Gov. Bentley signed a commendation thanking Alabama broadcasters for the extensive coverage before, during and after the outbreak of storms that swept through the state.
Numerous stories from the Washington Examiner, The Wall Street Journal, Broadcasting & Cable, Radio Ink, The New York Times and TVNewsCheck discussed the influential role broadcasters played in covering the storm and assisting in the relief efforts in its wake. Additionally, a report from the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) provides a thorough summary of radio and television stations' outstanding efforts across Alabama.
As communities recover and rebuild, Raycom stations in the affected areas have collectively embarked on a campaign titled Road to Recovery. Road to Recovery delivers critical information on air and online about how to find and provide disaster relief, including how to donate money, blood and other essentials to aid in recovery efforts; how to help children cope with disaster and contact information for local, state and federal agencies providing support.
In addition to providing extended news coverage WBRC-TV aired a special program to help parents talk to their kids about the disaster. The station also gave out 500 free Midland HH-50 portable weather radios to those in need and plans to distribute another thousand.
Media General's WVTM-TV Birmingham teamed up with the United Way to host a 22-hour tornado relief telethon to support relief efforts for victims. Alabama's United Way Tornado Relief Telethon raised more than $800,000 as 200 radio and TV stations, websites and other media outlets across the U.S. supported the effort.
Huntsville-based WAFF-TV's Road to Recovery Valley Volunteer-a-Thon garnered more than 100,000 hours of volunteer time. General Manager Vanessa Oubre pointed out that although many people were unable to donate money, they were more than willing to donate their time to help with recovery and cleanup efforts. "The response to this campaign has been tremendous from our own station staff to community organizations throughout the area," said Oubre.
In addition to collecting nearly $300,000 for the Red Cross, WSFA-TV Montgomery partnered with Life South to collect 553 pints of blood (the equivalent of 1659 lives saved) and also raised $60,000 and more than 70,000 pounds of food for an area food bank.
The severe storms also swept through 200 miles of Tennessee, taking 33 lives and causing millions of dollars in damage. During the storm, WJHL-TV Johnson City led the way in providing non-stop weather coverage beginning at 10:30 p.m. and ending at 2 a.m., after the final series of storms passed through.
There is no doubt that WJHL's weather team's efforts saved lives that night. In fact, numerous local viewers called and emailed the station to express their appreciation for the station's efforts. Jill, an area resident said, "I live in Greeneville and have been watching your storm coverage. I just wanted to say thank you. You all stuck with us and kept us well informed through some pretty scary weather last tonight."
Following the storm, Clear Channel's four Chattanooga FM stations partnered with the local television station WRCB-TV to hold a benefit concert to raise funds for the area Red Cross relief efforts. The "Coming Together After the Storm Concert" aired on May 21 from 7-8 p.m. live from downtown Chattanooga. Several WRCB-TV news anchors and reporters participated in the event, and Clear Channel's WUSY-FM arranged for two emerging artists, Jacob Lyda and Mallary Hope, to perform. In late April, just two days after the storm, the Clear Channel stations and WRCB-TV encouraged their viewers and listeners to donate items for the storm victims. Four tractor trailers were filled with clothing, food and other necessities for victims, while more than $20,000 in donations was collected.
The four commercial television stations in Lexington, Ky. – Cordillera Communications-owned WLEX-TV; Media General's WTVQ-TV; Gray Television-owned WKYT-TV and Sinclair's WDKY-TV – teamed up with the American Red Cross to host a telethon to raise money for victims of the storms, tornadoes and floods in Kentucky and other states. Each station promoted the drive during their newscasts and other programming. Winn Stephens, relief coordinator with the Red Cross in Lexington noted, "We wanted to make sure folks had an outlet to give to all of the victims of this recent string of deadly storms." Doug Hogan, news director at WTVQ-TV, said "We thought it would be nice if all the stations in town came together to make a difference… Helping storm victims is the only goal."
Virginia and North Carolina
Further east, WSET-TV Lynchburg, Va., activated the "Heart of Virginia Tornado Lifeline" in response to the tornado disasters in Virginia and regions of North Carolina. The National Weather Service confirmed 15 twisters across the Commonwealth – with Washington and Halifax counties being hit the hardest.
Supply and donation collection points were set up at two Lynchburg Kroger stores and a Food Lion location in Danville. On-air personalities and other employees from within several departments at WSET-TV were at the collection points to help with the effort. Between the three locations, five pallets of supplies and more than $7,000 were collected.
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