Brice Phillips, chief engineer of radio station WQRZ, holds one of the 3,000 radios handed out by FEMA after Hurricane Katrina. Click "Play" to hear Phillips describe the station's mission and how it weathered the storm.
KILN, Miss. -- The first face you see when you walk into Hancock County's Emergency Operations Center is that of Christine Stach. She's the program director of WQRZ, and her location here is a sign of just how vital the small, non-profit station (103.5 FM) has become in these parts.
Before Katrina, Stach, who's in her mid-30s, and her partner, Brice Phillips, 39, the chief engineer, operated WQRZ as a low-power community station out of their house at the end of Indian Street outside Waveland. Phillips erected the tower himself.
The home was demolished by Hurricane Katrina, but Phillips and Stach had packed up much of their equipment and taken it with them when they left ahead of the storm. Within days, they were installed with the EOC -- first in a building adjacent to Hancock High School and now at the old Annunciation Catholic School on Kiln-Delisle Road, about 10 miles north of Waveland.
They live in a trailer on the site and have kept WQRZ on the air 24 hours a day as just about the only daily source of information for the folks in the tents, trailers and tattered homes of Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Kiln, Pearlington, Diamondhead and all the unincorporated areas in Hancock County.
Phillips' voice the one most often heard passing along the news that the survivors of Katrina need to know: Where the distribution points are; when and where the buses will be running; where and how to apply for business loans and emergency blue roof tarps; where to find wireless access; what restaurants and stores and services are back open.
Stach isn't heard on the air as often, but her stamp is just as strong. She pretty much keeps everything running (while pulling a heavy volunteer load for the EOC itself), and she's also the visionary behind WQRZ's musical sound.
To call it "eclectic" would be an understatement: With her collection of thousands of CDs (1,200 of them in the studio, and 5,000 more waiting to be cleaned up under a blue tarp outside), the station changes format every day. It might be all oldies today, and then all-New Age the next. Only on WQRZ could a jazz fan in rural Mississippi hear, in its entirety, the new album by The Bad Plus. He just had to be listening at 6:30 Friday night.
'D-a-a-a-ay 75, y'all ...'
Stach and Phillips met through their mutual interest in amateur radio, and the station is a full partnership. But for the moment, the focus is on Phillips, who's become the best and -- for many in Hancock County -- the only way to find out what's going on. Things have settled down to a routine now. Seven days a week, Phillips' folksy, "y'all"-spiked baritone broadcasts the latest emergency alerts and advisories four times a day. ("This is the Hancock County emergency report for Saturday, Da-a-a-a-ay 75, y'all ...")
County emergency officials and volunteers from other parts of the country also troop into his roughly 10-by-20-foot white-walled studio for on-air interviews. This week, John Marmon, a Kansas law enforcement official who's working here through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, brought everyone up to date on the newly rebuilt and improved 911 system.
The rest of the time, Stach's music offers a welcome alternative to the roar of buzz saws and heavy equipment for the many people who have no television or Internet access.
The station has become a vital government service. In the days and weeks immediately following Katrina's landfall, it essentially held the county together. Both Phillips and Stach are licensed amateur radio operators; WQRZ started out as an amateur community radio service, deeply involved in emergency communications. Three years ago, it became the first amateur radio-based service in the country to be granted a low-power FM license by the Federal Communications Commission.
The amateur radio expertise made it possible for WQRZ to establish communications between emergency officials in Hancock and Harrison counties in the chaos right after the storm. "When all else fails, ham radio is it," Phillips says. For the next two weeks, Phillips says, he routed ambulance and emergency calls himself around the clock, even as he and Stach kept the radio station on the air from its new quarters at the EOC.
"What they were doing was lifesaving," Marmon says.
Authorities handed out 3,000 miniature radios after the storm expressly so people could listen to the updates on WQRZ, which was available across the county for the first time by new equipment that boosted its signal to 1,300 watts. And to this day, programming is immediately interrupted for any new information from the emergency authorities, because "number 1 is the safety of the people," Phillips says.
'It's not a disability. It's an ability.'
We visited Phillips in his studio for a lengthy talk. This can be a complicated thing to do, because Phillips is permanently disabled with adult attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and it can be an adventure keeping him on the subject. It's no secret; he talks about it on the air. His favorite line: "It's not a disability. It's an ability."
Stach, too, is disabled -- she has multiple sclerosis -- but when we visited, she was lifting loads out of boxes in the old school's auditorium for the EOC. The Army Corps of Engineers pitched in to build a ramp for her wheelchair at their trailer here.
Except for one underwriter, WQRZ is run out of the pockets, loans and Social Security checks of Brice Phillips and Christine Stach. They're a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation, and "non-profit" doesn't begin to tell the story. They're regularly asking for more underwriting, but prospects are poor. Phillips says he understands why, because he and Stach lost their home, too. ("It's kind of, like, smooshed," he says, a description that didn't prepare us for the destruction we saw when we stopped by the site.) He knows people have to take care of themselves. "The folks -- what can you do? -- they were destroyed," he says.
Meanwhile, the corporation (the Hancock County Amateur Radio Association, which Stach and Phillips organized and owns the station's license) is thousands of dollars in debt, Phillips said. Even so, fiercely determined not to be a burden on the relief effort, Stach and Phillips have refused to accept any payment from the EOC.
Brian "Hootie" Adam, the county's emergency operations director, says he offered, but they turned him down. "Plain and simple, having this radio station out of here has been a tremendous advantage," Adam says. "This radio station has been one of our greatest assets." So much so, he says, that emergency officials in Kansas and Florida are studying it as a model for communications in future disasters.
As for Hancock County, Adam, who's led emergency operations here for three years, vows: "When I have a storm here, he's going to be in our EOC."
Running out of money
But the station still has its bills to pay. It needs eight underwriters to break even, and it has only one. Phillips and Stach can't accept too many gifts, lest they endanger their Social Security benefits. And there's a separate threat on the horizon. The company that installed the new equipment, which WQRZ accepted as an emergency donation, is now asking for payment -- as much as $30,000, Phillips says.
There's no way the station can pay that, so it's possible that sometime down the road, the equipment will have to be returned. Unless replacements are donated, Stach and Phillips would be back in the 8x8 shed beside their destroyed home, broadcasting to a much smaller area on its original low-power signal. And many of the hurting people in Hancock County would lose their only connection to vital relief information and the outside world.
Phillips says he often gets "exercised" about the predicament, but he works hard to keep a positive outlook. "Getting upset over stupid things is not good, especially in an emergency," he says. In the end, he says, "With all the generosity that's come in here and all the volunteers, there'll be someone." Until then, "Life is good, man. We accomplished all we set out to do."
Interested in helping keep WQRZ on the air? Contact David Bevens at the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency, (228) 466-8252, or Brice Phillips, (228) 463-1035.
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