Dome City Radio goes live in Houston

In a Sept. 13 update for the Village Voice, Sarah Ferguson reports that Houston mirco-radio activists have sidestepped FEMA bureaucracy to broadcast relief info to Katrina survivors:

After a week of wading through FEMA red tape, media activists finally fired up a low-power radio station to serve Hurricane Katrina evacuees still living in the Houston Astrodome and adjacent Reliant convention center.

KAMP (Katrina Aftermath Media Project) 95.3 FM, Dome City Radio went live at noon today, broadcasting from a donated Airstream trailer in the Astrodome’s parking lot.

The station had been stalled after local FEMA officials refused to allow access to the Astrodome, citing “security concerns.”

But on Monday, the FCC granted KAMP a new temporary license for a 6-watt transmitter located right outside the Dome.

“It made our job a lot more complicated because we had to figure out a way to get the signal though walls of concrete and steel without interfering with other radio stations in the area,” said Renee Feltz, news director of KPFT, the local Pacifica station, which partnered with Houston Indymedia and the Prometheus Radio Project to put the station on air and distribute donated radios.

Notwithstanding the objection of officials, the purpose of KAMP FM was to make life easier for local officials scrambling to coordinate relief efforts. In addition to broadcasting FEMA and Red Cross service announcements, KAMP is now airing information like contact numbers for employers seeking to get paychecks to displaced staffers and relaying offers for free meal and movie ticket from Texas companies anxious to help out.

KAMP producers are also doing interviews with people who’ve lost family members and networking the tapes with ones by independent media producers in other cities, in hopes of reuniting far-flung people.

“These are things that regular radio stations can only air sporadically, if at all,” notes Feltz.

But with the population at the Astrodome complex now down to 3,760 people, from about 25,000 last week, and Houston’s mayor looking to clear the shelters by September 18, Feltz concedes the station could have done a lot more if it had been allowed to open sooner.

She points to the chaos last Thursday, when Hurricane survivors scuffled with police and the National Guard was sent in to close off the Astrodome complex after more than 4,000 people showed up to get $2,000 FEMA debit cards, which it turns out, were intended only for evacuees staying in the Astrodome complex. “We could have told people to not bother standing in line in the hot sun for hours and hours. There were a lot of rumors about a riot inside the Astrodome and information about eligibility requirements that could have been communicated in real time,” Feltz says.

Yet activists say the need is still there. “When I was there handing out radios, every person I walked up to said I need info about how to get an ID card, how to apply for benefits or a FEMA debit card,” says Indymedia organizer Tish Stringer. “There’s definitely still a real sense of desperation about the lack of information—and they’re angry about it.”

Even officials at the FCC were frustrated by the bureaucratic logjam after the agency went out of its way to expedite temporary emergency licenses for the station over Labor Day weekend. In an e-mail to one of the KAMP volunteers, FCC audio division chief Peter Doyle wrote: “Good luck! Maybe you should give a radio to Mr. Royal so he can catch a few broadcasts.” RW Royall, Jr. is the incident commander of FEMA’s Joint Information Center in Houston who nixed the Dome station last week.

See our last post on Katrina’s aftermath.