After Hurricane Irma Blew Away Power, Century-Old Technology Became Lifeline For Locals In The Keys

Sep 21, 2017

Almost 20 years ago, a little radio station from the Lower Keys won an Edward R. Murrow award — one of the highest honors in broadcasting. WWUS was recognized for continuously broadcasting during and after Hurricane Georges, a Category 2 storm that pummeled the Lower Keys.

But it turns out that effort was just a warm-up act for Hurricane Irma.

WWUS, better known locally as U.S. 1 Radio, has its studio on Sugarloaf Key around mile marker 20. The transmitting tower is on Ramrod Key seven miles up the road. Irma's eye traveled right between those locations, crossing at Cudjoe Key as a monster Category 4 hurricane with 130-mph winds.

With a generator at the studio and another at the tower, the radio station was on the air to provide a voice — and right after the storm, information that people vitally needed. Bill Becker, the station's news director since 1980, has played a similar role in the Keys as Bryan Norcross did for mainland South Florida during and after Hurricane Andrew.

"We sleep, literally sleep with the radio between us on. Just to hear civilization" - Harry Appel

"If it wasn't for him, I think we would have completely lost it, all of us," said Harry Appel, who lives on Big Pine Key and has been camping out since the storm in a room on Long Beach Road. "Because he's been the calm of the storm here. And we sleep, literally sleep with the radio between us on. Just to hear civilization."

Two days after Irma, Appel and his fiancee, Jennifer DeMaria, stopped by the station to share information and thank Becker and the crew in person. The radio station was still the only source of communication.

"There are no cell phones. No electricity. No internet. No television. No water. No anything," Becker said. "It's amazing that a 100-year-old technology like broadcast radio is now becoming a main source of information for people who so rely on their digital equipment and their devices."

On battery-powered radios and in cars, people in the station's coverage area — Key West to Islamorada — tuned in. Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay and Key West Mayor Craig Cates drove to the station to provide updates and information over the air. It was the only way they could reach the public.

Others in the area who made it through the storm also stopped by, with information, offers of aid, pleas for help, cookies, coffee, fuel for the generator.

Like Tom Phillips, who rode out the storm on the ocean side of Sugarloaf Key.

"You're the only guys keeping us alive down here, to be honest with you," Phillips said on the air Tuesday, after reporting what the storm was like and what he'd seen in the area since. "Because no one's seeing what is truly happening here."

Station owner Bob Holladay came down from Louisiana to be at the station during the hurricane.
Credit Mark Hedden / markhedden.com

U.S. 1 Radio is one of eight stations in a group called Florida Keys Media.

"They're a mom-and-pop — me and my wife — ownership," said Bob Holladay. He lives in Monroe, La., but came to the Keys for the storm.

"We had a lot of notice with Irma," Holladay said. "We had plenty of time. We had planned to come down Thursday, which we did, flew in on Thursday knowing it would hit sometime Saturday morning early give or take a little bit. Brought in some rations, brought in an engineer to help out. Then we sat and waited it out."

Holladay said he's been "through the hurricane process" before, in the Florida Panhandle and the Mississippi coast.

"You get in early, get yourself ready, then wait. And then you have the aftermath which can be nothing if you get missed. It can be a catastrophe, which is what has happened here," he said.

"All of this was going forward and about to fall over so I ran down here and grabbed it and was holding on for dear life at the time, because this was our only link to our tower up there on Ramrod" - Rick Lopez

Calling the station a lifeline might sound extreme but that was literally true in at least one case.

"We had people come here with a medical emergency," Becker said. The hospitals were closed. And even if you had a working satellite phone or landline, there was no 911.

"They came here, said 'my mom is here. She needs help.' We had paramedics here within a few minutes," Becker said. "On their own, volunteers, just came in here to help her."

The radio station provided essential information about where to find food and water. When the water service would be turned on and off in what areas. How various places fared during the storm, and sightings of lost pets.

Once their phone line started working, Monday night, they got calls from officials on the mainland — and allowed people in the Keys to call their families and let them know they were alive.

With generators at both the studio and the tower, they never went off the air. But there was one moment, late Saturday or early Sunday, when it came close.

Rick Lopez shows how he hung onto the railing that held the station's studio transmitter link, or STL.
Credit Mark Hedden / markhedden.com

"I was just standing outside when I hear this huge pop, like an explosion," said Rick Lopez, general manager for Florida Keys Media. He was on the balcony along the back of the elevated building that houses the station's studio and offices. He doesn't know how high the winds were at that point but said they were definitely howling.

The noise he heard was the balcony's railing breaking loose. Tied to the railing was the station's STL — the studio-transmitter link that was sending the signal from Sugarloaf Key to the tower on Ramrod Key.

"All of this was going forward and about to fall over so I ran down here and grabbed it and was holding on for dear life at the time, because this was our only link to our tower up there on Ramrod," Lopez said. "Because if we lose this, we're done and we're not broadcasting, even today."

Holladay and the engineer came up to help and tied off the railing. It held for the rest of the storm.

Lopez is general manager for all eight of the Florida Keys Media stations, but he's best known as the "Voice of the Conchs" on the AM sports station, WKWF. He does play-by-play there for Key West High School football and baseball games. He's an alumnus of the school and was an outfielder on the baseball team.

Securing the railing and saving the STL was "the best catch of my Conch career, right there," Lopez said.