Only a few thousand evacuees from New Orleans remain in the Reliant Center complex in Houston, down from nearly 30,000 a couple of weeks ago. Many of the people still living in the shelter are relying on special radio broadcasts for information.
When a group of evacuees from a New Orleans neighborhood began a spontaneous Mardi Gras-style dance outside the Astrodome stadium the other day, many of their fellow hurricane victims inside heard about it on a radio station set up just for them. Operating from a small trailer in the parking lot outside, KAMP FM's 20 volunteers keep the shelter community informed with their low-power FM radio broadcasts.
One of the chief organizers of this project was Rice University graduate student Tish Stringer. "The most important programming on our station is the reading of announcements. Basic things like: UPS is offering free shipping of prescription drugs, how do you get a driver's license? Basic information like this is the mainstay of what we are announcing on the air right now," she says.
Many of the people living in the shelter are dealing with high stress from loss of their homes and separation from loved ones. When they speak on KAMP radio broadcasts, they often express frustration and anger. "It is not our fault that we are in Houston, that could not be avoided. If you talk to people, nine out of ten would rather go home, but it is not our fault that we are in this situation," said one woman.
Tish Stringer says officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, as well as state and local representatives have failed to adequately communicate with people in the shelter. "I have been spending the last few days since we went on the air walking around distributing radios and talking to people about the station and every person I go up to is still very angry about the lack of access to information - 'How do I get an I.D. card (identification card)? How do I enroll my child in school? How do I get a house?' They still cannot effectively access information," she says.
Ms. Stringer says the small radio station, which broadcasts only within the area of the shelter with a six-watt transmitter, has become a vital source of information for the evacuees. She says the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, which normally takes months or even years to approve broadcast licenses, expedited the temporary license for KAMP radio. "This license took us about two hours, on a Sunday, on Labor Day weekend, because the FCC knew the importance of information dissemination and they recognize, as we do, the power of radio, really as the true people's medium to disseminate information," she says.
Tish Stringer says New Orleans had a very high rate of illiteracy compared to other U.S. cities, so radio is the best medium to use with this population.
But, in spite of the FCC's support, and the resources that were donated for the station, it took several days to begin broadcasts. Tish Stringer says FEMA and local bureaucrats held up approval until project organizers convinced them that the station-in-a-trailer would not use resources needed at the shelter. The station runs on its own generator and volunteers passed out some two thousand small radios to people inside so they could listen.
Tish Stringer says she hopes this experience will help FEMA and other agencies improve their plans for future disaster response. "Maybe FEMA should have low-power FM kits ready to go in these cases. Supposedly they did not have a single FM transmitter in their entire stockpile in the Gulf coast region. That is insane," she says.
In the coming week the number of evacuees in the Houston shelter is expected to diminish, as some return to recovered neighborhoods back in New Orleans or seek alternative housing here in Houston. When the last of the evacuees leaves the shelter, KAMP radio will cease operations.