(By Rob Dumke) May 22 is a day like no other for folks living in Southwest Missouri. “Everybody is a bit more on edge when this day rolls around each year,” according to Thom Watts, Operations Manager for Zimmer Radio in Joplin, Missouri. It was in 2011 that a deadly EF-5 tornado devastated the city, killing 161 people.
On Wednesday, eight years to the day, Watts and staffers at the six-station cluster were once again thrown into tornado turmoil. More tornadoes ripped through the area, killing three people in Golden City, about 42 miles north of Joplin, then continuing its path of destruction into Jefferson City.
“We always plan for the worst but hope we never have to use the plan,” Watts told Radio Ink, less than a day from when he was on the air from his basement until it was safe to drive into town. “Basement Wi-Fi is not the best to watch a storm in motion. I was doing color as the tornadoes tracked through, while my studio guys with all the equipment were doing the play-by-play.”
Those “studio guys,” according to Watts, were reporter Ty Albright, “He has a passion for severe weather,” and Rob Meier, co-anchor of Newstalk KZRG’s Morning Newswatch program. “They shouldered the load and did an amazing job.”
When a weather event like this is upon them, says Watts, “We flip a switch and all of our stations — KIXQ, KSYN, KXDG, KJMK, and KZYM — carry the programing from our flagship station KZRG. We have the ability to reach an audience of about 200,000 people.”
Watts tells Radio Ink the stations escaped serious damage. “We had a couple of station transmitter sites that lost power, but we have generator back-up, and as luck would have it we just refilled those generators the day before the storm hit. We had two stations where the towers were just missed.”
“When it comes to severe weather our people have specific assignments. We’ve got enough people with radio experience who have all done severe weather coverage at one point or more in their careers.” Watt adds that many of the staffers on hand this week also covered the 2011 tornado disaster. “Sadly, we’ve got a really good grip on exactly what we need to do with the immediate threat and the aftermath.”
Watts says it’s all hands on deck in these situations. “Including our board ops, people like me doing phone calls from the basement, Chad Elliot our Market Manager calling in updates, and others in the newsroom covering the phones; talking to spotters and keeping in touch with police and fire.”
Digital media also played a big role. “With digital media the way it is, we Facebook live-streamed the entire event. So if people didn’t have a radio, they could follow the coverage on their phone or other mobile device. By using our apps they were able to follow the coverage. It’s just one more thing that we put in our arsenal for severe weather coverage.”
In the aftermath, Watts, says the stations are back to normal programming, but extensive news coverage continues. “We are talking to emergency managers for states, counties, and cities hit by the tornadoes. Locally, we are dealing with flooding caused by several days of torrential rains. Some main roads are seeing some flooding, so we are keeping people aware of those situations. We are also providing information for people who need assistance because of the tornadoes.”
Watts says he and others are ready to continue to do their part to serve the community and keep people safe and offer a helping hand — no matter how long it takes. “When I came in, I packed a bag for at least two days.”
Thanks to Thom Watts, Operation Manager, Zimmer Radio Inc., 417.624.1025