Published On: Sat, Sep 23rd, 2017

TODAY newspaper interviews Laser 101

“Two days after Irma people had no more food and water”

By Hilbert Haar

GREAT BAY – Radio station Laser 101 was the heart and soul of the disastrous month of September that began with Hurricane Irma. The nine members of the station’s hurricane team started broadcasting a day and a half before Irma devastated the island with two things in mind: providing up-to-date accurate information and keeping morals on the highest possible level.

Radio station Laser 101 was the island’s heart and soul

The station passed this test on both counts with flying colors, as anyone who tuned in during the storm-days will acknowledge. The hurricane-team kept the station on air around the clock, sometimes pulling 14-hour shifts. Not because it paid anything, but, as team member Glen Carty puts it: “This is our passion.”

Hundreds of listeners called the station over the course of the days that the island was in the grip of the largest natural disaster it ever experienced in its history. What stood out amongst all those calls?

Jennifer Carty: “How unprepared people were. Two days after the storm we already had calls from people who had no more food and water. Hurricane preparedness requires that you have at least water and food in your home to last you two weeks. By not having it, you put a burden on others.  The worst part was the babies – people called saying they had no more milk for their baby.”

Laser 101 started broadcasting storm information one-and-a-half day before Irma hit St. Maarten on September 5 – the 22nd anniversary of 1995 Hurricane Luis. The station established a storm-watch team that consisted of Phyllis Meit, Sagan, Jennifer Carty, Suppa Kid, Gee Money, Glen and Francis Carty, DJ Outkast and Nelson de Lima. The little though slightly aggressive doggie Vincent became Laser’s mascot.

Laser was the only radio station on the island that managed to stay on the air. The government’s radio station – 107.9 FM – went silent after its mast went down.

When Irma hit, Laser briefly lost power between 5.30 and 6 a.m. “But less than twelve hours after the passage of Irma, we were back on the air,” Glen Carty says.

Carty’s daughter Jennifer was just 7 years old when Hurricane Luis hit the island back in 1995. “It was a special experience to have her with me at the station this time,” Carty says. “Together we pulled shifts of 14 hours twice.”

Laser provided up-to-date weather information and kept in close contact with Mr. Isaac of the local Met Office. “This way we prepared people for what they had to do,” Carty says. “It was about awareness and preparedness, without creating a panic.”

The hurricane-team was fully aware that Irma was going to hit the island. “Everything we discussed happened. Eventually we started making some jokes, played the national anthem and we sang Happy Birthday for callers many times. The feedback we got was in general positive.”

One of the highlights of the broadcasts was Carty’s interview with King Willem-Alexander. “We were sitting close to each other and I was carrying a gun on my hip. I don’t think that was quite according to protocol.”

Another highlight was without any doubt the statement Phyllis Meit made after the umpteenth caller asked this question: “When will electricity come back?”

Right, Meit said, I’m gonna make a statement here – and she did. To put the situation into perspective she explained how she had lived through Hurricane Luis and how she had to make do for four months without electricity and water from the tap. “And now I am not going to entertain any more questions about utilities,” she told her listeners.

Carty recalls how Dennis Richardson (the lt. governor in 1995) arranged within a couple of days after Hurricane Luis for families of the people around him to be shipped abroad, so that his people could focus on their tasks without having to worry about the situation at home.

Carty said earlier that the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) did not function as it should have. “I am not a member of the EOC and let me add that Irma was not an ordinary storm. There are knowledgeable people in the EOC but very few of them have witnessed Luis. Immediately after Luis we had rations, but this time it took much longer. But hey, maybe this is due to the fact that after Irma we had to deal with the threat of José, and after that with Hurricane Maria.”

Carty would like to see the EOC come together after the dust has settled for an evaluation and to establish where they went wrong.

He shares his daughter’s observation that people were poorly prepared for Hurricane Irma. “So long after Luis, many people have slipped into their comfort zone.”

But there is another aspect to hurricane preparation that may explain why so many people were not fully prepared: “Preparation costs money.”

Nevertheless, he adds, St. Maarten is located in a hurricane belt. “We need to start teaching hurricane preparedness in our schools – from kindergarten through primary school.”

One thing is certain; Laser 101 was well prepared for a disaster. “We had all the spare parts and the cables we needed to stay on the air,” Carty says. “But we will still hold a debriefing to discuss what went wrong in spite of all this and how we are able to implement improvements. We are doing all this because we have a passion for it.”

Carty wishes to set the record straight on one last issue: “Everyone kept saying that we were censored by the government. That is absolutely not true. The government never told us what to do. At times we were tired, some of us have lost their homes too and we may have tended to indulge people who complained about what went wrong. But our objective was to keep morals high; that’s why we played the national anthem and that’s why we sang Happy Birthday.”

Laser 101 hurricane team 20170922 HH

Photo caption: Laser 101’s hurricane team. Standing from left: Phyllis Meit, Sagan, Jennifer Carty, Suppa Kid, Gee Money, Glen and Francis Carty; in front: DJ Outkast (l) and Nelson de Lima. The dog is called Vincent. Photo Today / Hilbert Haar