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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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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.

051112_radio_christine

Christine Stach

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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45 COMMENTS

What a wonderful message! These two have have thought of the greater good in helping their neighbors and refuse to take hellp themselves. Hopefully, the company that made the "donation" of the equipment will come to their senses and redonate the equiopment permently. These two giving individuals would be a great couple to have Extreme Home Makeover visit them!!

WHAT ABOUT THE INSURANCE COMPANIES.... UNDERWRITING OR ADVERTISING ON THE STATIONS. MAYBE THE BUSH OIL PEOPLE CAN SPARE A COIUPLE OF HUNDRED THOUSAND OF THEIR BILLIONS!! OR THE RED CROSS??? C'MON YOU BIG GUYS STEP UP AND HELP THOSE WHO HELP OTHERS!

GOOD LUCK FRIENDS! I HOPE THAT LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL IS NOT ANOTHER TRAIN!

Maybe I don't quite understand the status of this wonderful radio station, but why not make it a non-profit station that uses volunteers such as Phillips and Stach? They could be the chair/vice chair on the Board which would continue to give them the control that they desire. Something to certainly think about and look into legally! Phillips and Stach, I hope that you seriously consider this and can find an appropriate lawyer and other well informed people to help you set us a corporation that would suit your needs.

K (Los Angeles) - Not accepting $$ from EOC, when they (WQRZ) is assisting / providing a service to the EOC. Huh? Certainly their concerns about losing their government income is resonable, but certainly some legal eagle could find the way for them (WQRZ) to accept funding so they could stay on the air and keep the county's heart beating.

I have sent a copy of this article to several radio trade publications. Hopefully with the exposure some of your fellow broadcasters can help out with donations and volunteers!

Is it possible for EOC to donate the cost for this equipment without it becoming a liability for this couple. They were willing to pay them for their services. There has got to be a way.

Brice and Stach are two of the greatest people I have ever met. I enjoyed working in Hancock County's EOC with those two. They are caring individuals wanting to help others. Without their daily involvement, I would wonder how residents that haven't a home could function. The partnership between WQRZ and Hancock County EOC is valuable. Kudos to Bryan Adam, emergency manager for Hancock County, for making Brice and Stach an integral operation of the EOC. It is truly a step forward for government.

These people are real heroes.

Great article, this is the kind of thing I want to hear more about. Humanity might not be such a lost cause after all! The financial info is confusing, though. If they already have a 501(c)3, donations to that shouldn't impact their Social Security income - that's one reason folks form 501(c)3s.

I met Brice for the first time a few weeks after the storm. What an awesome individual! The refusal of EOC money has nothing to do with endangering the non-profit status of WQRZ or the owners' disability income. It is because Brice and Christine would rather see that money go for other necessary services the county needs. They want to make WQRZ work by using funds they can raise themselves. I hope this article goes a long way toward helping the station - they need and deserve it.

MOST people I know in radio are A.D.D. But keep up the good work.

Hello,

Regarding this story, I agree with the comments above, that there has to be a way to support Christine Sach, Brice Phillips and station WQRZ. They are creative, imaginative, unselfish and energetic people making a real difference in the community, when so many other big corporations, and politicians are profiteering from the Katrina disaster. I agree that whoever made the equipment donation should keep their word, and keep it a DONATION! This couple and their enterprise are what America is REALLY about, in case we have all forgotten. Keep it kickin' and kick in.

Best wishes

What a wonderful human interest piece! Where can we send money???

This story is such an inspiration. It does go to show that there is still something called community, and compassion in this country...and it is coming from two people operating a small, low powered FM on the outskirts of Mississippi...This is what radio can do.

Another Great Story MSNBC - May they keep up their spirits and energy for those who tune in to listen in each day - and may their voices be heard for all needing this valuable information - each day - as it is "day to day" for these residents in need of so much more.

We can ALL help and encourage them further and to help keep up the spirits of thise local residents needing it and it is FREE - "Prayer" to a higher source who is always willing to listen - for the nation - and for our leaders deciding what course is best and right for those affected - adversely.

SRene
www.ParentsWhoCare.us

I also forwarded this story to Star 98.7, a giant radio station out of the Los Angeles area. Hope these guys can stay alive - they are truly heroes !

I first read the story on the liquor store owner who has to destroy his stock, now these peope who are doing an incredible community service. What do they both have in common? They are getting hurt by the power of the government. First a hurricane, now a man made problem. Wake up America. The government is not our savior. America will survive anything as long as Americans take responsibility and step up and help. Leave it to the government and you get waste, corruption, and stupid decisions.

This is one of those moments in our lives where we need to regonize what the too often over used word hero means. I would think that there are many, many people within the radio industry that could make the "problems" of WQRZ disappear...it's time to step up and make it happen. In light of all the darkness that has become "being human", Stach and Phillips represent that which makes our species worth fighting for...

Katherine W you are EXACTLY RIGHT! a Donation is giving...no strings. These people helped save lives, helped the government, helped period. BIG APPLAUSE to Both of them for remembering HUMANITY!

I also worked with Brice and Chris while deployed to Hancock County. It was a pleasure and a privilage to have these two and the resources they brought to the effort working side by side with the PIO's in the EOC. Brice is truly the voice of Hancock County and we wish them well, they are special people who are in the right place at the right time.

How do we help? Where do we send money? Who is the company that donated the equipment and is now asking for payment (I want to contact them)?

An imagination inspiration. What a world it could be if all of us turned our energies into building dreams that add to our communities. I agree. There has to be a way to keep them on the air helping their community re-connect and re-build. They are the cement holding the bricks together.

Like Sean Reilly I too had the pleasure of working in the EOC with Brice and Christine. Coming from the heartland I felt like these two belonged in my hometown. No one was a stranger to them,their focus is on the citizens of their county, whose needs come first. As the voice of hope and recovery what they are doing will surely find a place in the historical accounts of the heroes of the Katrina disaster. If you have been waiting to give to something that will really make a difference here is what you've been waiting for.

If these people are forced off the air then I will finally lose all faith in this nation. I'm a lifelong member of the vast right-wing conspiracy (and proud of it), but this would be the last straw. For cripes sake! Someone help these folks - and the community they are trying so desperately to serve.
Please!

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