The newsroom at KHOU in Houston was having a hurricane meeting – something that happens from time to time at every media outlet along the Gulf Coast. Disaster plans were printed months ago and kept in binders. Logistics and assignments were discussed.
Sometime during the meeting, one of the station’s meteorologists said it looked like the impending weather system,Tropical Storm Harvey, would stall out over Texas and dump a mind-boggling amount of rain – up to 20 inches. That prediction turned out to an understatement. In less than two days, Harvey went from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane, making landfall late on Friday night, Aug. 25. By Sunday morning, KHOU anchor Len Cannon was reporting live from their newsroom as water began creeping onto the set.
Up to 60 inches of rain came down over parts of Texas and Houston faced historic flooding. At KHOU, the disaster for their community became a test of their hurricane plans and their resilience as they scrambled to keep on the air.
News Director Sally Ramirez is relatively new to Houston, and this was her first hurricane, though she’d covered natural disasters throughout her career. The station is across the street from Buffalo Bayou, a river that runs through downtown Houston. The ground floor of KHOU where the newsroom is flooded in 2001 during Tropical Storm Allison, another rain event. For Harvey, floodgates were in place well before the storm.
The station’s hurricane plan included all of their field reporting teams equipped with TVU live video mobile uplink backpacks. This allowed them to transmit to KHOU but as importantly, to connect with other stations in the TEGNA chain. There were also teams from other TEGNA stations already in place in Houston to help with coverage. Everyone was assigned 12-hours-on-12-hours-off shifts.
When the water began to seep into the building, they moved cameras and crew to a second-floor conference room to continue coverage. This lasted about an hour until the water, now gushing into the ground floor, set off fire alarms in the building. Ramirez and General Manager Susan McEldoon called for an evacuation.
The back door of the second floor was at ground level because of the incline of being near the river. Almost 50 people were evacuated to the Federal Reserve bank two blocks away and on higher ground. Engineers stayed to keep the station on the air but left when the power finally went out, and the KHOU went dark.
Reporter Brett Buffington had called in from Corpus Cristi late Saturday night and heard the concern in the voices back in the newsroom. Ramirez sent him a text saying “See you in the morning, Please come back.” He was watching the live stream of KHOU on his iPad as he was riding back to Houston Sunday morning when the signal went to TVU bars.
Technicians at WFAA in Dallas, a TEGNA sister station, had also been watching the KHOU feed and saw when they lost signal. The Houston reporters and photographers knew that the home station was on edge and they switched their TVU packs to the Dallas channels and were suddenly communicating with a different staff.
“We jumped right on TV. It was strange not knowing the person on the other side of the line,” Buffington said.
Photojournalist Sergio Soto was in Galveston with reporter Jason Miles and was one of the first to go live after KHOU’s transmitter went down. They had called WFAA and asked them to record their stream so it could be used later, but WFAA also routed the signals to the KHOU Facebook video feed and the station, while not transmitting over broadcast, was still live.
“We never really went off the air,” Soto said. The feed continued as reporting teams handed off to each other, going back-to-back with their live feeds.
Over the next several hours, engineers at KHOU set up a temporary newsroom at Houston Public Media about four miles away. Without phone lines or computers, they set up folding tables with laptops in a studio. Eventually, they set up a system to send from their TVU packs to a satellite truck which would upload the signal in Dallas. From there, it could be routed back to Houston to get back on the air.
The solution was impressive, considering the magnitude of the problem and the speed in which they worked.
“They’ll be reading about this in broadcasting history,” Buffington said.
The temporary newsroom grew over the weeks following the storm and eventually, they were able to get fiber installed to let them bypass the satellite trucks. Dallas had immediately built a KHOU branded set at WFAA, allowing for anchor reports from there that looked seamless in Houston.
And while repairs and restorations are making progress at their newsroom, it’s not guaranteed that building will still be home to KHOU.
“We haven’t made a decision about where we go next,” Ramirez said. “I think we will know more in a few weeks.”
While the floodwaters have receded, the stories continue, and the stress can be real for the staff, Ramirez said. People at the station have lost cars in the flooding, and some had water in their homes. The stories they covered hit home.
“We, as a station, we lived it,” Soto added.
For crews in the field, the TVU backpacks also meant that, unlike in the past, they weren’t tied to a satellite truck and their access expanded.
“There’s not a live truck in the world that can take us nine, ten, eleven blocks into a flooded neighborhood,” Buffington said. “We were able to tell so many more stories because we didn’t need a mast or a dish.”
That increased capacity to file also results in a non-stop workload when covering the story.
“You can’t cover a hurricane and not say that at some point you are fatigued,” Buffington said.
Soto and Miles had also seen firsthand the destruction, including fatalities from the flooding. Soto covered Hurricane Katrina and Allison, but he said this flooding was beyond those storms.
“Water just destroys everything in sight. I think water destroys your soul,” Soto said.
Soto said that after about five or six hours of shooting on Sunday, he had more than enough video and had covered everything they’d seen.
“At one point, I stopped shooting,” Soto said. “We were better assets directing people.”
By then, people were coming up to him and reporter Miles to ask them where they should go. The people assumed that as journalists, the KHOU folks would know what was going on. Soto said he’d direct people to bus stops where they could leave the flood zones. In one case, Soto found a rescue crew and took them to a woman in a walker who couldn’t get to the transportation.
After days of this, even with help from TEGNA stations from around the country, it was beginning to wear on the KHOU staff. News director Ramirez said she’d ask if someone was doing Ok and, of course, they said they were fine. She knew it wasn’t always true.
“When you go through something like this, everyone goes through it differently,” Ramirez said.
TEGNA brought in counselors to help, and people were given days off without the need for justification. Ramirez said she advised staff that even if they didn’t feel they needed it, to see the counselors. The advice could help them recognize signs of stress in their coworkers. When someone is down, Ramirez said, someone else is up. They help each other out.
This article originally appeared as the cover story in the 2017 September/October issue of News Photographer, the magazine of the National Press Photographers Association.
Also, see the story about the Houston Chroncile's photo staff worked around the logistics of covering a region that was impassable due to the historic flooding. See that story here.