The first time I truly experienced the power of radio was October 17th, 1998. I had always known radio was an immediate way to communicate directly with the community. But, up until that point, I had primarily used my time on the air for basic entertainment purposes, such as concert announcements, prize giveaways, sharing music stories, and the occasional dad joke. That all changed when the skies opened up sometime around noon on that Saturday.
I was at my apartment, probably listening to some music when things started to feel strange. This wasn't an ordinary rainfall. We started seeing some street flooding almost immediately and to be so dark during the day was incredibly ominous.
I called the DJ at the radio station and advised him that we better start doing weather updates about every 15-20 minutes. The internet may have been invented but this was 'before the internet'. The average person didn't have a home computer connected to the world the way we do now. No websites to check. No social media sites to check. No apps to download. Very VERY few people had cell phones. You had TV and the radio for immediate information. It didn't take too long before we decided to cut all music programming and simply use our airtime for weather updates, street closures, announcing club and meeting cancellations, business closures, and anything else we felt the community needed to know.
By 1 p.m., I had decided I had better get to the radio station and help in any way I could. That drive from my apartment to the station was already treacherous and we were only a couple of hours into this thing. Ron Friesenhahn was broadcasting on 1420 KGNB since he was our Saturday morning anchor and we had a part-time DJ pulling the midday shift on 92.1 KNBT. We may have had one more person up there as well. We were in direct contact with the police station and city officials, who were giving us information to relay to the community, like which streets were flooding and where shelters were being set up. But, everyone had their eyes on one thing — the mighty Guadalupe river.
If the rain didn't let up soon, this town was going to experience something it hadn't experienced since the great flood of 1972: massive destruction and, potentially, loss of life.
Sometime during the day, our AM radio station transmitter site flooded, knocking out that station. So, we were down to one radio station. Fortunately, the KNBT transmitter site is up very high and was in little danger of flooding. In other words, if the KNBT site floods, expect to see Noah floating on by. The cable TV went out. Electricity in many parts of the city went out. Our local newspaper was experiencing its own flooding issues in its building. For most people, it was a battery-powered radio and Ron and me, and, as long as our hardline phones were working, the information we could get from city officials.
I remember being on the air saying things like, 'If you live in a certain subdivision, you have 10 minutes to evacuate before you won't be able to leave' or 'If you're camping along the Guadalupe you must evacuate right now or you may be washed down the river.' Scary stuff. The rains kept coming and so did the flooding. And the destruction. Homes were literally being washed down the river. Folks with phones that worked would call us at the station asking, 'What do we do? We live in this certain part of town. Where do we go for safety? What's happening? Help.' Those were heavy phone calls to take. Quite the opposite of a trivia question to win a CD.
Ron and I stayed on the air for 24 hours, doing our best to relay anything and everything the city officials and police department would tell us. Where to go. What to do. How to survive. And, maybe just as important, letting you know you weren't alone. As long as you heard my voice or Ron's voice, you had a connection to the outside world, and I'm sure that had its own comfort.
The phone call I'll never forget was this—' We have horses in a barn that is starting to flood and we have no idea what to do. Please help us.' So I got on the air, told that story, and asked anyone who could help them to please do so. Well, I found out later that a veterinarian who was listening had a horse trailer, found that person with the horses, loaded them up, and got them to safety. Horses saved.
It rained for almost 24 hours and that's how long we stayed on the air with continuous flood coverage. no commercials, no music no breaks. 24 hours of talking about one thing- rain. About 20 inches of rain. I heard the river, which normally ran at 300-400 cubic feet per second, peaked at around 80,000 CFS. The city of New Braunfels experienced millions and millions of dollars worth of damage. Homes were washed off foundations, vehicles were stuck in trees, folks lost all their family heirlooms and sentimental possessions and pictures, buildings were trashed, and trees were knocked down all over the roads and streets.
I remember going down to the Gruene bridge a day or two later and saw a door in the highest tree down there. Rockin' R was gone. Everything was gone. But, it was reported that we experienced very little loss of life for a storm of that magnitude. The City of New Braunfels gave the radio station a proclamation declaring our good service to the community that day. I will always believe we saved lives that day. As horrible a day as it was, it is still my proudest moment to be in radio. That's the day I understood the true power of local radio.
Featured photo via Express-News.