WAVELAND, Miss. –- The owner of a radio station who was honored for his heroic efforts to keep the community informed during and after Hurricane Katrina says the tiny operation’s future is less certain now than it was during the storm.
Brice Phillips, who runs the low-power, noncommercial station WQRZ at 103.5 on the FM dial, says he’s running out of money to stay in business. His appeals for funding from FEMA and other agencies have not been successful.
Phillips seems confident he’ll keep his station running, but says he has “no clue” how he’ll pay the bills after spending the last $2,000 of a $16,000 prize he received from the federal Small Business Administration in 2006. The prize was attached to the SBA’s Phoenix Award honoring him for “outstanding contributions to disaster recovery by a volunteer.”
The award citation noted that as the hurricane approached, “Brice Phillips loaded his van with transmitters and extra antennas and relocated WQRZ radio to the county’s emergency operations center. As the storm surge waters reached the building’s second level, Phillips braved the elements and rigged his car batteries to power the station’s broadcasting of search and rescue information.”
Featured in an earlier Rising from Ruin piece, WQRZ was one of just four stations along the Gulf Coast that remained on the air during the storm and its aftermath, beacons of hope and information to many residents who were stranded for days without food, water or shelter.
Phillips, 41, has hardly left the emergency center since, logging 6,000 volunteer hours – that’s 60 hours a week since the hurricane – to run the station, while also performing some public information duties for Hancock County and serving as an ad hoc technician on computer and telecom systems. The station, known throughout its 30-mile broadcast radius for an eclectic musical play list, does not feature as much original programming as it did at the height of the recovery efforts, but it still runs daily news and weather reports and a weekly “FEMA Facts” show.
Phillips gets by on $600 a month in disability payments for an adult attention deficit disorder. His own home in Waveland was destroyed by the storm, and he has so far been unable to replace it, living the past two years in FEMA trailers parked there and at the county center.
His chief concern is that when the county’s lease on its emergency operations center runs out in the fall, WQRZ will have no place to go. He has rigged a secondary transmitter in a storm-battered eight-foot-square shed that remains on his property to avoid being without broadcast facilities should he have to leave the county center, based at an old school in Kiln.
Hancock County Emergency Operations Manager Brian “Hootie” Adam says he’ll do everything in his power to maintain a home for the station. “In my opinion, wherever I go, WQRZ is going to go,” Adam said. “I’m partial. This man stayed with me during the storm and anybody that’s stood by me, I’m going to stand by him.”
Adam said the county is trying to negotiate an extension on its lease of the Kiln school. Longer term, he needs $5 million or more to build a new emergency operations center. While county finance officials have tried relentlessly to find the funds from federal and state programs, so far they have only met dead ends. “Everyone else seems to be getting funded except emergency operation centers.”
Adam and Phillips are hopeful that the recent rebroadcast of a public television piece on the WQRZ story will attract fresh support. If and when money allows, Phillips has big ideas about moving to a different location on the FM dial and boosting the station’s signal.
Regardless, Phillips vows to keep the station running as long as he can out of his own pocket. “When the money runs out, I’ll pay the phone bill and power bill and have $100 a month left. I’ll be begging for food.”
He scoffs at the idea that he would walk away from what has become his life’s work.
“Come on! I survived Katrina and saved a lot of folks doing it.”
NOTE: Information on supporting WQRZ is available on the station’s Web site or by calling Phillips at 228-463-1035.
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