WCFB rebuilds after a tornado

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A major tornado takes WCFB off the air and sets off a nearly two-year rebuild.

Before tornado

Before tornado

You never know when a disaster will strike. On Thursday night, Feb. 1, 2007, I went to sleep looking forward to a three-day weekend and spending a day at one of Orlando's famous theme parks. The weather forecast called for a cold front to move through during the night, then clearing and turning cooler by morning. You can't ask for anything better.

The front did move through, and around 4 a.m. the next day, I received a phone call that Star 94.5 FM was off the air. I dialed the tower site's remote control but the phone rang with no answer, so I turned on my computer and tried to connect with another wireless link, and again no luck. Doppler radar was showing a severe storm rapidly moving through with winds in excess of 70 MPH. There was also a signature of circulation right at our tower so I called another engineer and we mobilized. As we neared the site we found trees down and power lines blocking the roads and lying across deep puddles. We were not able to see the tower or its lights, but it was dark and the rains were still very heavy so we still held some hope.

After tornado

After tornado

The hope that this was just a generator failure faded fast as the skies brightened and it became obvious there was no longer a tower standing. Soon we were able to see enough to safely get around the power lines and walk the last half mile to the site. We were met with a scene that is permanently etched in my mind. A borderline F3/F4 tornado had cut a path across our property, directly hitting the building and our 1,500' tower, bringing it to the ground. The twister continued its path through a neighborhood less than a mile away where 13 people lost their lives. Looking through the rubble we quickly realized that the building and everything in it was a total loss and we needed to get started on the long recovery process.

Back on the air in about 10 hours

The first step was to get back on the air as quickly as possible. Cox owns another tall tower across town where I have two FM stations on a combiner system, so that was the obvious place to move to first. Our Atlanta engineer got on the phone with consultants and attorneys to work with the FCC for the necessary STAs. Our Tampa engineer hit I-4 with coaxial line pieces and transitions to get a low-power transmitter tied into the combiner's wide-band port. At 2:37 p.m. the same day, we had received FCC approval, set up the temporary transmitter and STL, and had the station back on the air, but that was just the beginning of the process.

New construction

New construction

This site worked to get us on the air, but its location restricted our power so we needed to keep working. Fortunately, we owned yet another tower right in the middle of the market and began working to build a better site capable of covering the full metro area. ERI rushed us a four-bay antenna, which arrived on Saturday night. A tower crew arrived from Texas on Sunday and we had a Heliax cable complete with hangers delivered on Monday. Because this tower site also houses a 50kW DA2 AM station, we had to run a partial proof before we could begin hanging the antenna. Electricians installed the power for a Z16 transmitter that Harris was working around the clock to provide. The transmitter arrived on Friday on a Fedex Custom Critical truck. All the crews were in place and knew their jobs, and 1 hour 15 minutes after the transmitter was taken off the truck's lift gate, we were on the air with an ERP of 18kW right in the middle of the market. This was still only a temporary solution because the signal did not cover Daytona Beach — the actual city of license — very well.

Even during this week of installation, we had our local and corporate offices working on a lease with American Tower and licensing with the FCC to relocate to a 1,600' tower located about 9 miles away from our original site. ERI had a tower crew available who had to remove a platform from the tower for our antenna to fit just below the 1,500' level. Dielectric provided us with an eight-bay antenna and Harris shipped a 35kW transmitter. The station was fully spaced as a C0 from this location, so the FCC allowed us to file for a new license and at the same time also granted another construction permit so that we could rebuild and return to the original site as a full Class C station again. One month after the tornado we were back on the air at full power and height covering the entire original area. This took some of the pressure off and allowed us to focus on the new construction the right way, but we still didn't slow down.

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