FEMA refuses to help New Orleans PBS affiliate rebuild

by Dave Walker, New Orleans Times-Picayune

On the air, WYES-Channel 12 looks fine.

Everywhere else, the local PBS affiliate's headquarters near City Park, devastated by 5 feet of Hurricane Katrina levee-failure floodwaters, remains a literal shell of its former self.

Katrina water wiped out the station's office space, taking with it files and video archives.

Only the station's cinder-block studio, built in 1957, stands where more than 50 employees once worked.

Though the old studio serves as the production site for pledge-drive programming and locally produced shows like "Steppin' Out" and "Informed Sources," most of the station's current staff of about 40 work out of leased office space in Metairie. Detailed plans for a new facility sit in a cabinet there.

WYES' staggering recovery mirrors that of many of its viewers. Because the station's transmitter and tower survived the storm with minimal damage, its broadcast signal was restored in December 2005, but Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance that would've begun making the station's physical plant whole hasn't come through.

"All the records for the station were lost. All our computers were lost," said Randy Feldman, general manager. "There was muck everywhere.

Courtesy of Eric Lincoln/KGLA

General Manager Ernesto Schweikert III, with Director of Marketing Diane Schnell and Programming Director Jorge Fuentes, outside the KGLA offices.

KGLA keeps growing: Telemundo affiliate is a post-K success story

The tide of Spanish-speaking newcomers that began flowing into the New Orleans area almost as soon as Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters subsided helped create one of local broadcasting's post-K success stories.

KGLA-Channel 42, an affiliate of the national Telemundo network, signed on last year as the city's first Spanish-language TV station.

It's digital only -- as all local TV stations will be come February -- but has primo placement -- channel 16 -- on Cox Communications' lineup.

Recently, KGLA-TV, a corporate sister of KGLA AM-1540, added a 10 p.m. local newscast on weeknights.

"It's like a news magazine," said Ernesto Schweikert, owner of both KGLAs. "We're doing local, national and international news, and we're also doing sports."

Though the TV station doesn't yet subscribe to the Nielsen Media Research ratings service, advertising support for the TV station is growing, Schweikert said.

"The (advertisers) that are on the radio with us all already are fully aboard," said Schweikert, who also recently powered up a Spanish-language radio station in Baton Rouge, KDDK FM-105.5. "(Some other) companies are watching. I think in about one year we will be doing much better, once they see we aren't going to fail."

"Eventually the front of the building had to be torn down. That's where all of the offices were."

In the studio, "Everything's temporary," Feldman said. "We do have temporary utilities coming in to the building. We have temporary approval from the city to stay there.

"We've been able to get things done minimally."

The nonprofit station's ordeal with FEMA is a "Frontline" episode in itself.

In essence, Feldman said, FEMA rejected providing the station with recovery money because it's not an educational institution or arts organization (despite its on-air torrent of educational and arts programming) and doesn't provide essential emergency communications service (despite participating in the Emergency Broadcast System).

There are precedents for FEMA helping public-TV situations in similar straights, Feldman added, but the station's appeals process with the government has been exhausted. Intervention efforts by members of Louisiana's congressional delegation have proved fruitless.

"You only get two appeals," Feldman said. "It always has seemed to me that the proper role of government ... is to find ways of helping, and what FEMA seemed to be saying is, 'We're the government, and we're here to find ways not to help you.' And that's just wrong."

"FEMA has been extraordinarily creative and flexible in its application of public assistance funding in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, and if there was a way FEMA could've assisted WYES-TV with public funding, we would've found it and applied it," said Bob Josephson, director of the office of external affairs for FEMA's Louisiana transitional recovery office, via e-mail.

The station had adequate pre-Katrina replacement-cost insurance, but city requirements to build a raised structure, coupled with increased post-Katrina construction costs, now cause the policy to fall far short.

"If the building had simply burned down prior to Katrina, we could've rebuilt," Feldman said. "How are we going to build 60 percent of a facility?"

The station has been able to finance operations via an early SBA loan, federal grants, assistance from PBS and other affiliates, and its own pledge drives.

But WYES, likely the most-used nonprofit in the region by dint of an average weekly audience of more than 600,000, is still trying to walk its way out of head-high floodwater on Navarre Avenue.

"We did not get the FEMA funding, so we are not whole," Feldman said.

Despite the rebuilding adversity, Feldman can point to many post-Katrina successes.

In April 2006, the station produced a special titled "The Katrina Effect: Coping with Stress and Depression," about the storm's mental-health aftereffects.

Kathy Anderson / The Times-Picayune
"Everything's temporary," Feldman said. "We do have temporary utilities coming in to the building. We have temporary approval from the city to stay there."

Later that same year, "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Always Cooking!" was shot in the crippled Navarre Avenue studio on generator power and pumped-in air conditioning. (The set was a faux CBD loft; the address visible in reverse through the front door's frosted-glass window at the back of the set: 829.)

Peggy Scott Laborde's viewer-beloved local documentaries continue apace, with the next -- "Growing Up in New Orleans" -- due to air in November.

Live coverage of the Rex and Comus Carnival balls, a staple on the station for years, continues.

A series of "Reshaping New Orleans" panel discussions have examined recovery issues.

And the station will soon unveil an ambitious online project titled Katrinapedia.

Accessed through the WYES Web site, the project will eventually allow users to record their personal Katrina experiences online, linking to a street address on a map.

Both residential and commercial addresses will be included in the free project, which will also be able to archive photos, audio and video.

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Katrinapedia is an ambitious enterprise, given WYES' other challenges, but based on a sneak peek at its beta site, it also could turn out to be the grand cultural-history depository Katrina witnesses deserve.

The next gambit to restore the station is direct congressional appropriation. One plan is to rebuild WYES piecemeal as budget permits.

"Everybody else can receive FEMA help -- arts organizations, parks, libraries," Feldman said. "We as management and board are not real fond of earmarks (the porky legislative trick by which home projects get financed by elected officials), but if there were ever a poster child for earmarks, it's us."

article originally published at http://www.nola.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2008/08/fema_refuses_to_help_local_p....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey