FEMA trailers in Hope, ARK
On the air, WYES-Channel 12 looks fine.
Everywhere else, the local PBS affiliate's headquarters near City Park, devastated by 5 feet of Hurricane Katrina levee-failure floodwaters, remains a literal shell of its former self.
Katrina water wiped out the station's office space, taking with it files and video archives.
Only the station's cinder-block studio, built in 1957, stands where more than 50 employees once worked.
Though the old studio serves as the production site for pledge-drive programming and locally produced shows like "Steppin' Out" and "Informed Sources," most of the station's current staff of about 40 work out of leased office space in Metairie. Detailed plans for a new facility sit in a cabinet there.
WYES' staggering recovery mirrors that of many of its viewers. Because the station's transmitter and tower survived the storm with minimal damage, its broadcast signal was restored in December 2005, but Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance that would've begun making the station's physical plant whole hasn't come through.
"All the records for the station were lost. All our computers were lost," said Randy Feldman, general manager. "There was muck everywhere.
The nonprofit station's ordeal with FEMA is a "Frontline" episode in itself.
In essence, Feldman said, FEMA rejected providing the station with recovery money because it's not an educational institution or arts organization (despite its on-air torrent of educational and arts programming) and doesn't provide essential emergency communications service (despite participating in the Emergency Broadcast System).
There are precedents for FEMA helping public-TV situations in similar straights, Feldman added, but the station's appeals process with the government has been exhausted. Intervention efforts by members of Louisiana's congressional delegation have proved fruitless.
"You only get two appeals," Feldman said. "It always has seemed to me that the proper role of government ... is to find ways of helping, and what FEMA seemed to be saying is, 'We're the government, and we're here to find ways not to help you.' And that's just wrong."
"FEMA has been extraordinarily creative and flexible in its application of public assistance funding in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, and if there was a way FEMA could've assisted WYES-TV with public funding, we would've found it and applied it," said Bob Josephson, director of the office of external affairs for FEMA's Louisiana transitional recovery office, via e-mail.