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Challenge for next time: Stay on the air

Citrus County emergency operations leaders imagined their press releases were falling off television anchors' tables. Sheriff Jeff Dawsy couldn't understand why radio and television stations seemed to be ignoring Citrus County while Frances ripped off roofs in Inverness, battered ships in Crystal River and flooded streets in Homosassa.

Wanting to get information on the airwaves and into Citrus residents' anxious ears, Dawsy took County Commission Chairman Josh Wooten aside in the county's cramped Emergency Operations Center one day during the storm.

He handed him a stack of phone numbers to several local and Tampa Bay area radio and television stations.

"Hey, you work the phones on these numbers," Wooten said recalling the order, "and I'll work the phones on these numbers."

Local radio stations were off the air. Tampa TV and radio stations appeared to be ignoring Citrus' press releases, which sought to update residents on how the county was faring, cancellations, closings and ways to seek help.

Dawsy thought of a way to get their attention: Call the stations and ask if they'd be willing to interview two of the county's top-ranking officials.

By getting on the air, Dawsy figured, the message would, too.

Desperate times called for desperate and calculated measures, including stroking WFLA-TV Ch 8's ego by lauding its weather tracking system _ a pat on the back Citrus officials knew the bay area station couldn't resist since it could use the comment later in a self-promoting commercial sound bite.

"We even said, "Your VIPIR system is so great we're using it in our EOC,' " County Administrator Richard Wesch said, "just trying to get on."

It worked, and soon Dawsy was flooding the airwaves at a time dangerous storm surges were threatening to drown the Crystal River coastline.

In the aftermath of the storm, county officials felt ignored by the state, which failed to bring adequate water and ice to Citrus after the storm. They felt ignored by Progress Energy, which failed to follow the county's priority list for power restoration.

But what surprised them was the silent treatment they received from the electronic media. Now, officials are considering creating their own low-power radio station or using an existing one to communicate with residents themselves when disaster strikes.

"We had contingency plans," Wooten said. "Evidently, these radio stations didn't have contingency plans."

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There are several reasons Citrus County may have been downplayed or ignored by the electronic media, government and radio officials said. The county is considered part of the Tampa Bay area, but with Frances becoming a storm the size of Texas the entire region was affected.

Because of that, more populous Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and even Hernando counties are going to receive more air time.

Citrus was treated "like a redheaded stepchild," David Marcocci, general manager of Citrus 95.3 and 96.3 The Fox said.

"I wish some of the Tampa radio stations would take us into consideration," he said of the county. "Some of those stations do come into Citrus County, and their towers are in (safer) Pasco County. When they do talk about Pinellas and Pasco and Hernando County, it would be nice for them to talk about Citrus."

Marcocci's stations are two of only a few that broadcast from Citrus County. Problem was, they _ like nearly every local station _ went off the air early during Frances.

Midmorning Sept. 5, when Citrus began feeling the effects of the tropical storm, power was knocked out to both of Marcocci's stations just after radio officials decided to begin simulcasting with Bay News 9 television broadcasts.

The radio stations, which are in Homosassa, phones and an Ozello tower and transmitter were sapped of power until Sept. 8.

At nearby WIFL or WOW Radio 104.3, which is based in Meadowcrest and serves communities between Gainesville and Brooksville, a loss of power also took the station off the air until Sept. 9. Both it and 102.7, an oldies station, and another local FM station transmit from a Cedar Key tower, which lost power and was inoperable and unapproachable because of flooding.

While WOW's studio had a generator, a generator couldn't be used at the flooded tower, said Lisa Cupelli, chief operating officer of Nature Coast Broadcasting, which owns WOW 104.3.

The station had planned to stay live all the way through the storm with local DJs passing on local information and reporters reporting from areas affected by the storm.

But that plan _ like many _ crashed once power did, and residents were left in the dark.

"Because of the flood waters, we don't get newspapers," said Teresa Lecompte, a Cedar Lakes Estates resident, whose flooded neighborhood was without power for almost five days. "No electricity: we don't get TV. Battery operated radios: we only get stations in Tampa or Orlando and they don't talk about Citrus County.

"We don't get mail. How do we get information when we're flooded in?"

Both Marcocci and Cupelli empathize with residents such as Lecompte. But, Cupelli said, radio stations that were inadequately prepared for the storm should not be the only ones scrutinized. With stations' phone and fax lines dead, the county should have switched to another method of getting in touch with local media outlets, she said.

"It was a breakdown in communication," Cupelli said.

No one should be blamed for the lack of information, Cupelli said. Lessons, however, should be learned, she said.

"There's only so much you can do," she said. "I think this area hasn't had anything this drastic happen in so long. And we had so many things happen back to back," Cupelli said. "None of us prepared, but all of us are working to make sure none of this happens again."

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Officials of Citrus 95.3, 96.3 The Fox and WOW 104.3 all plan to use generators the next time their power is knocked off. Citrus 95.3 is planning to buy or rent portable transmitters, and its engineer is working with local government officials to see if the station can become a priority for power restoration during the next disaster.

"We just need to find a way to get information to us when we stay on," Marcocci said.

Tom Franklin, general manager of WYKE-Ch. 49, the local cable access channel funded by the Key Training Center that airs a steady stream of government programming, may have a solution.

The station lost power Sunday and was back up Monday afternoon. While they were on the air, they were able to put Sheriff Dawsy, Wesch, Wooten and Joe Eckstein, manager of Citrus' Emergency Operations Center, on the air a few times during the storm.

But at least 55,000 county residents, out of power at the height of the storm, couldn't watch the broadcasts.

Franklin is now working with WOW 104.3 to simulcast direct feeds or taped segments from county officials during storms so battery powered radios could pick up the messages.

The radio station, meanwhile, is developing a fallback plan with the cable channel to broadcast from Channel 49's Lecanto headquarters if power goes out at its home.

Another problem Franklin noted after the storm was a steady communication link between his station and the EOC, also located in Lecanto.

While officials were able to drive from the EOC to WYKE's studio to get on the air, hurricane-force winds would make that impossible. Telephone lines could also be damaged by storms.

But WYKE hopes to buy equipment to create a wireless connection between the television studio and the EOC that would allow the station to get direct video feeds during the storm, Franklin said.

Another solution, county officials said, is building a larger EOC than the bunker on 3425 W Southern St. County officials have included money in the next fiscal year's budget to design a new building, which will include an expanded media center that will allow reporters to be based at the building during storms.

Dawsy, meanwhile, is working with the county to install a radio station transmitter at the new building, which would beam out emergency broadcasts on a low-power radio frequency.

Currently, a radio band exists in Crystal River to inform motorists of tourist destinations. County officials are investigating whether that band can be expanded and used for emergencies, too, or whether another needs to be created.

In January 2000, the FCC created a new low-power FM radio service, which is available to "non-commercial educational entities and Travellers' Information Station entities" but not commercial businesses or individuals, according to the FCC.

Maximum effective radiated power for these stations is 100 watts, and they are not protected from the interference caused by other full-service radio stations.

A construction permit or license from the FCC is required before construction or operation of a low-power FM station can begin. Cupelli, the local radio station COO, pledged to help the county navigate complex FCC laws to make that happen.

County officials think it's worth pursuing. With the storm long gone, all that's left is to clean up debris and prepare for the next one.

"We have to control our own destiny," Wooten said.

Justin George can be reached at (352) 860-7309 or jgeorgesptimes.com.

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