Hurricane

Maria took a Puerto Rican radio station’s roof. But the hosts stayed on air anyway.

Rubén Sánchez, a host at Puerto Rico’s WKAQ-AM (580), speaks on a Facebook video after Hurricane Maria damaged his station’s studio.
Rubén Sánchez, a host at Puerto Rico’s WKAQ-AM (580), speaks on a Facebook video after Hurricane Maria damaged his station’s studio. Facebook

Normally, Rubén Sánchez would not interrupt a live interview with as prominent a newsmaker as Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

But Wednesday was anything but normal.

Less than an hour after Hurricane Maria plowed into Puerto Rico, Rosselló was updating Spanish-language radio listeners by phone on the Category 4 storm’s destructive path when host Sánchez suddenly interrupted.

The studios of Univision’s WKAQ-AM (580) had become “vulnerable,” Sánchez said, his voice tinged with tension. He and his broadcast colleagues would have to abandon the premises — and fast.

“Stay safe,” Rosselló said, urging them to seek shelter in an internal hallway.

Finding refuge — and a safe place to keep broadcasting — turned out to be complicated. The station and a handful of others became vital listening posts for Puerto Ricans starved of information Wednesday as their electricity went dark and their cellphones silent. Several news outlets continuously reported online, but relatively few people on the island could click.

Maria has weakened slightly to a Category 3 major hurricane after crashing across Puerto Rico and its centre is now moving offshore of the island's northwest coast.

The men ended the Rosselló interview and broke into a commercial, leaving listeners in suspense. When they returned to the air a few minutes later, Sánchez switched from compiling reports on Maria’s damage to dramatically reporting on the harm the storm inflicted on his own station as it unfolded.

“A few of the offices exploded,” he said, describing how Maria shattered street-facing office windows and forced itself into the building, in the Guaynabo neighborhood west of San Juan. “It even changed the smell of the environment, and the temperature in WKAQ.”

The on-air staffers scrambled, making their way into the studios of a sister station, WKAQ-FM (104.7), known as KQ-105. But even that proved insufficient. Moments later, News Director Jaime Cosme grabbed the microphone to say they were devising a makeshift studio deeper in the building — a structure that, until Wednesday morning, the station had considered a “bunker.”

Sánchez likened the scene to a grenade blast. “It was a bunker,” Sánchez said. “We could see the sky because the roof blew off.”

At the Univision headquarters, which houses two TV stations as well as the radio stations, radio co-host Ricardo Padilla recorded a video of ground-floor flooding. A domed roof tore, Padilla said, offering audio of the screeching wind.

If they were this hurt, how bad was Maria’s devastation in other places?

To find out, the staff asked listeners, who, through crackling phone lines, described the enormity of the catastrophe. With communications impossible outside the San Juan metro area, and the entirety of the island without power, Sánchez and Padilla fielded calls from as far as Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando, New York, Chicago, Texas and Nebraska, as desperate Puerto Ricans sought bits of news about their unreachable relatives.

Mami, I love you, I want you to be safe,” a tearful Orlando woman said, hoping her mother — whose house had a vulnerable zinc roof — was listening.

Even Padilla telephoned home while on air, to get an update from his father.

“And mom?” the son asked.

“Good!” said his father, Robert Padilla.

The broadcast toiled on, airing from what Sánchez portrayed as a windowless room with a landline whose number he couldn’t give listeners at first because he didn’t know it himself. He read a barrage of text and WhatsApp messages he received in spurts on his cellphone, which had spotty service. A Twitter message sent by a Miami Herald reporter inquiring about the station's condition was not immediately answered as the hosts handled the scores of urgent listener requests.

“They tell me I’m on Facebook Live,” Sánchez, clad in a green windbreaker, said on camera shortly after noon. “If I look unkempt at this hour, it’s because I only managed to sleep for an hour and a half sitting in a chair.”

He apologized for saying good morning when it was afternoon. He chugged coffee to stay awake. When a wise guy called in, Sánchez and Padilla brushed him off as “an idiot and an imbecile and everything else we can’t say on the air.”

But most listeners, their access to any information about the storm limited by their lost electricity and phone signals, seemed thoroughly grateful to greet the hosts.

“You’ve risked your lives to give the country information,” one man said.

“You’re titans,” said another.

All Sánchez could respond was that the extent of Maria’s injury would take days to grasp.

“We haven’t seen the full picture of the havoc wreaked by this event,” Sánchez said. “This one will go down in the history books.”

The Category 4 storm is expected to lash Puerto Rico with winds of up to 160 miles per hour throughout Wednesday.

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