HOUSTON -- KAMP 95.3 "Evacuation Radio Services", a low-power FM station for Hurricane Katrina evacuees housed at the Astrodome, is still stuck in limbo. Although the group trying to organize the station has wrangled three 90-day licenses from the FCC, as of Thursday, they were being stymied by a handful of temporary administrators content to maintain radio silence.
While basic needs -- food, water, clothing, shelter -- have been met with remarkable hospitality, the survivors of the hurricane inside the Astrodome complex say they continue to suffer from a lack of information. Parents struggle with paperwork to enroll their children in school while simultaneously attempting to locate housing and employment, not to mention lost family members. Most evacuees sit alone on cots, passing the time playing cards or dominoes. Short blasts of information periodically echo from the Astrodome's PA speakers.
Inspired by the crisis, volunteers gathered Sunday in Tish Stringer's small apartment in the Museum District of midtown Houston, planning to broadcast hourly updated information evacuees would need to move forward with their lives. The group thought the ability to quickly speak to tens of thousands of people across multiple arenas would be invaluable, to both evacuees and aid workers alike.
Support poured in from wireless nonprofits like the Prometheus Radio Project. All levels of government seemed excited by the idea, including Houston's Mayor Bill White, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and federal agencies like the FCC and FEMA.
But late Sunday evening, the troubles began. According to KAMP, Rita Obey, a local official from Harris County Public Health Services, gave them a laundry list of prerequisites. The most notable of these was the command to procure 10,000 personal, battery-powered radios -- and batteries.
"She said she was afraid of 'people fighting over the radios,'" said Liz Surley, a KAMP volunteer. "She made us promise not to play any rap music, because she thought it might incite some of the evacuees to violence."
Obey denies she requested the radios.
"I requested samples," she said Thursday. "We never asked them to provide radios -- they offered them."
The group, already operating on a shoestring budget, began a frantic search for the radios they needed. By Monday they had all 10,000 in a warehouse in Houston, waiting to be purchased from and delivered by a distributor.
"They were local and they were waiting for us," noted Surley. Everything was once again in place to go.
Tuesday, two KAMP technicians scouted out a skybox high above the arena floor as a potential radio site with Astrodome staff. Nina Jackson, another administrator, assured the technicians that their request was heading up the chain of command at the Astrodome. Mike Jones, the local Houston rapper who once used his cell-phone number as a self-promotional rhyme, called to offer his support (and presumably left his number).
Wednesday morning, things looked good for KAMP. They had the equipment. They had the licenses. They had the content ready to begin broadcasting. They hoped to install their transmitters in the Astrodome that evening, then begin broadcasting at 9 a.m. the next day.
The volunteers were overjoyed. Many took the cat naps they hadn't allowed themselves earlier in the week, despite getting only two or three hours of sleep a night. Some sheepishly called their employers, apologizing for their spotty attendance. One radio operator rushed to fill out a final FEMA form that had been overlooked.
But at 4:30 in the afternoon, KAMP received word that their request had been denied. RW Royall Jr., the incident commander of the Joint Information Center -- the group temporarily governing the operations of the Astrodome campus -- told KAMP they could not install their equipment. They had been officially, finally denied.
According to KAMP, Royal claimed the Astrodome was not able to provide power to KAMP's low-power FM transmitter. When KAMP offered to bring in enough batteries to power the equipment off the Astrodome's grid, they were still denied.
Obey, speaking to Wired News, explained that the JIC couldn't see a use for the radio station when they had the ability to communicate via the loudspeaker system and newsletters.
"I did not see the utility," said Obey.
Wednesday evening, the volunteers sat together on the balcony of Stringer's apartment, smoking cigarettes and trying to figure out what they did wrong, even as donations and support continued to be offered from around the world.
"Last week you could just go right inside (the Astrodome)," said one volunteer who declined to be named. "We should have just set up then and gotten permission later."
Others tried to lighten the mood.
"Maybe we should change our call sign to DAMP," joked Harbeer Sandhu, another volunteer.
"If Clear Channel would have done this...," Surley trailed off, implying the radio giant wouldn't have had nearly as much trouble setting up a station.
In the end, no one was sure what they could have done differently. They had the resources and support from dozens of influential people.
"We got caught up with the power behind us," said Sandhu. "We lost sight of the power we had."
On Thursday, Obey explained the decision to ultimately refuse the low-power FM station request.
"With limited resources, you err on the side of FEMA and the Red Cross over entertainment."