When Hurricane Irma’s high winds ripped through the Virgin Islands, the islands’ radio and television stations were among the first casualties. Tanya Marie-Singh, who heads Virgin Islands Public Broadcasting, says her staff shut down their television and radio signals a few hours before the storm hit. It was nearly two and half weeks before they could get WTJX-FM, a public station that carries NPR, back on the air.
Their radio and television studios in St. Thomas were destroyed. Walking around the shredded metal building, it looks like a bomb went off. The walls are gone, debris litters the site. Only the building’s steel girder frame looks intact. There was also significant damage to WTJX’s antennas, located on the top of one of St. Thomas’ mountains. “You couldn’t get to our transmitter facility. The roads were impassable,” Singh says. “When you did get to it, it was a mess.”
The station’s 100-foot auxiliary tower toppled in the storm. The main tower survived, but WTJX’s antennas and satellite dish — its connection with NPR programming — were damaged. With some makeshift repairs and power from emergency generators, the station got back on the air with NPR programming.
“During a storm, radio is king,” Singh says. “Radio is always king in the Virgin Islands anyway, so it was total royalty.”
The fixes were temporary. The most critical need was a new satellite dish for its FM signal. Singh says, “Our public needed NPR because there was no Internet, no cable. Right after the storm there was no communication. We had a lot of local stations doing local programming, which was needed. But people wanted to know what was going on in the world around them.”
WTJX is also a PBS member station. Shortly after the storm, Singh says she got a call from PBS CEO Paula Kerger asking how she could help. Singer told Kerger her most urgent need was to get back on the air with NPR. By that time, staff with the Public Radio Satellite System had already started contacting client stations in areas hit by the storm, including Puerto Rico and in the Virgin Islands, WTJX.
“We started calling tower companies around Florida,” explains Mike Beach, with NPR Distribution, which manages the system. They found a dish and a crew who could install it. The dish was installed in mid-December. Until full power was restored in January, WTJX’s transmitter was powered by emergency generators.
Singh says while the station was down and since returning to the air, she’s been surprised by the calls she’s been receiving from listeners outside the Virgin Islands.
“I’m getting calls from Vieques and Puerto Rico. They’re like, ‘We’re so glad you’re back on,’ ” Singh says. “And they’re contributing.”
The Virgin Islands and other nearby islands, including Culebra and Tortola, are home to many from the mainland U.S. who spend winters there.
“They’re part of our community,” Singh says. “They account for a lot of our listenership. We have a lot of local people accounting for the balance.”
Now, the challenge is rebuilding the station’s studios on St. Thomas. Singh hopes through a combination of FEMA funding and contributions, WTJX can build a new facility on top of Haypiece Hill in St. Thomas, one she says with “heavy redundancies.”
“I want to rebuild so we’re not down during the storm, so we’re not coming up after the storm, so there’s no time when we’re not a beacon of information for our community,” Singh says. “Especially now that we know so many people depend on us.”