Ron Saunders, the veteran Florida Keys lawmaker, started his radio broadcasting career the Friday before Hurricane Irma roared across the island chain.
Two days later, he was in the midst of a deadly storm and still on the air at Lower Keys radio station WWUS 104.1-FM, better known as US1 Radio.
Saunders, along with 104.1’s “Morning Magazine” host Bill Becker, was among the team that rode out Irma at the Sugarloaf Key studio, becoming at one point one of the only local sources of public information as locals bracing for the eye of the Category 4 storm cranked radios and spent precious battery power to listen in.
Reporting about the Keys in the darkest hours of Irma, which blasted the islands Sept. 9 and 10, came from news outlets that were able to get information on the web, including this newspaper. But on the ground in the Keys, US1 Radio, with no web access like countless numbers of its local listeners, became a de facto central square, a place for people to call in on land lines or stop in to give updates on neighborhoods and needs.
“I don’t regret it,” Saunders said. “We did such a valuable service. People were on going, thank God for the radio station. I would do it again.”
Rick Lopez, the general manager, joined the team along with Steve Miller and Kimberly Baier-Brown. Station owner Bob Holladay came from Louisiana and brought engineer Rick Carter.
“There were people trapped in their homes, they couldn’t get out,” said Becker, who stayed on the air during Hurricane Georges in 1998, an accomplishment that won the station an Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio Television Digital News Association.
“The winds were roaring and they had no communication at all,” Becker said. “We were the only information source.”
“U.S. 1 Radio was our lifeline to the rest of the world, we weren’t alone” said Karen DeMaria of Big Pine Key, who rode out the storm on Summerland Key. Her home remains uninhabitable due to storm surge.
In the days after the storm, with cell phone service and Internet out, Keys officials such as Key West Mayor Craig Cates, Sheriff Rick Ramsay, Monroe County Mayor George Neugent and people from the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority and Keys Energy Services made their way to the studio to report what was going on.
“That was the way they delivered the news,” Becker said.
Saunders said he and his colleagues kept a simple approach to reporting during the worst of the hurricane.
“I’d go outside,” he said, and then return to the microphone for a report on the wind gusts and rainfall. “We literally looked out into the hurricane and we’re describing what we’re seeing.”
Becker said the link to keeping 104.1 on the air was tenuous.
At one point during winds up to 100 mph, Lopez was out on the station’s balcony when he spotted the radio station’s transmitter link — a critical piece of equipment — about to fall, according to Becker.
“He caught it before it went over the balcony,” Becker said. “That would have knocked us off the air.”
Holladay and Carter tied it onto the railing with rope to keep it in place.
“That’s what kept us on the air,” Becker said. “We’d have been off the air for who knows how long.”
Locals say they’re in debt to US1 Radio for braving the storm along with them.
“There will never be a way to thank them,” said Evelyn Kay Thomas, who rode out the storm with her husband Ed and some friends in Key West. At one point, she said, they were getting water to flush the toilet from a neighbor’s row boat.
Elena Devers, deputy director of The Studios of Key West, who rode out the storm inside the three-story concrete building originally built by Stone Masons, said having US1 on the radio brought a semblance of sanity throughout the Category 5 storm that made landfall at Cudjoe Key.
“It cleared up a lot of misinformation,” Devers said. “It helped us get the essential information.”
Every hour, she recalled, the broadcasters would do an everything-you-need-to-know about the disaster roundup. “You would feel that you weren’t alone,” Devers said.
US1 Radio’s work only began during the hurricane, Becker said.
“We set the tone for the recovery here,” Becker said. “We were the ones who set a positive tone. There will be plenty of time to figure out what didn’t go right. Let’s move forward and keep things positive. That way, everybody keeps moving in the right direction.”
Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen