In December 2002, Mother Nature furiously pummeled Guam with winds of over 150 mph for nearly 16 hours.
When Supertyphoon Pongsona finally blew past our shores, she left us with no power, no water, and for a few days, no phone lines. (GTA had not yet been privatized and cell phones were far from the rage we see now.) Oh – and a real gas shortage.
Several of the fuel storage tanks at the port caught fire during the height of the storm and literally melted. So not only was there an actual shortage of gasoline, but the dock area was so hot that tankers couldn’t offload fuel into the remaining storage tank due to the huge risk of more fire. As I recall, we rationed gas by last name alphabetically to assigned days of the week, for several weeks.
And how did we know when to head to the gas stations? Because Guam’s daily news media were present and accounted for. The Pacific Daily News and the Marianas Variety were in print - PDN one day after the storm. I was a columnist at the time and had to drive to the PDN newsroom to type in my column, which I hand-wrote on a notepad (hard to believe, I know) because I had no power to type it into my computer and email it.
Unfortunately KUAM was back to being the only television news operation on island. Guam Cable TV had ceased its news operation and KGTM hadn't started TV news yet.
In the aftermath of a disaster, radio is king. It gives people instant information and probably more importantly, the feeling that you are not alone. We had Newstalk K57, KStereo, I94, Power 98, Hit Radio 100 and a few other stations. How did most of them get back on the air so quickly after the storm? Dedication and ingenuity. One station’s crew tied their tower to a fence in order to broadcast. Plus, they all had the foresight to gas up their generators and vehicles before the storm.
Lack of power for listeners wasn’t an issue - most everyone had a battery-powered radio back then. We were typhoon veterans.
In the aftermath of Pongsona, government agencies used radio to announce gas rationing, where to get help from FEMA, debris cleanup, etc. Businesses announcing openings, cash only, take out, and more. GPA and GWA spokespeople were on the radio every single day with a schedule of where they were going to be working to restore power and water. People called in to share their storm experiences.
Twenty years later, Typhoon Mawar has ushered in a completely apocalyptic communications scenario for our island.
For several days after this storm, all I could hear was white noise across the radio dial.
Instead of an actual gas shortage in the days after Mawar, we had a panic because people thought there was a gas shortage. We had no access to radio news, TV news, or print news, because no one had power or connectivity to get to any of the entities’ online sites, or to any of the information being put out by the Joint Information Center. You could maybe get something through Whatsapp - if you drove to where you could find connectivity. And even then, the signal wasn’t strong enough to download anything. No one knew for almost a week that there was no actual gas shortage. All those long lines and people waiting in them for hours were for naught.
When a few stations finally squeaked back onto the airwaves, we heard GPA General Manager John Benavente pulling double duty as its spokesperson. GWA doesn’t have a spokesperson - they just put out fancy graphics and podcasts that few people could download to see, much less listen to. Little of what they produced told people even an estimate of when precious H2O would start flowing through their pipes again.
PDN doesn’t offer a printed version of their paper any longer, and for nearly a month after the storm, the Guam Daily Post was only digital. KUAM is now the lone local commercial television news station on island. Most of radio stations have given up the ghost with regard to generating their own news.
Now they partner with either PDN or the Post and an announcer just reads a few of the paper’s stories over the air. K57, once the island’s newstalk leader, is a shadow of its former self.
One small glimmer of hope is KPRG, the local NPR station, which just hired an NPR reporter to produce local news. The Pacific Island Times and Marianas Business Journal are two other hybrid online/print sources. The Pacific Island Times publishes monthly and MBJ publishes bi-weekly, but both have daily updates.
This lack of competition among the daily news media is dangerous. It makes for lazy reporting. Back when I was in the trenches at Guam Cable TV, we all watched KUAM’s 10 p.m. rebroadcast and listened to K57 in the morning to see what they had that we didn’t have, or vice versa. We read both newspapers for the same reason.
That doesn’t seem to be happening among the very young cadre of reporters we have now. I’m not seeing the who, what, when, where, why, and how in a lot of the news today. When you have more questions than answers after a news story, the reporter hasn’t done their job. And don’t even get me started on blogs. Blogs are not news - despite what a name might suggest.
Another issue is that we’ve all become too complacent about - and way too dependent on - digital technology over the last decade. No one has a landline to their house anymore. We listen to a radio station or a blog via an app on our cell phone – or on our computer while we are checking email or posting on some form of social media. We read the news on our “device.” Print newspapers are becoming a thing of the past.
Clearly, we can’t go back in time. But we need a strong, solid Plan B. We need to rejuvenate radio broadcasting. As Typhoon Mawar showed us, we need a form of mass communication that is only minimally dependent on modern technology. Especially as we face the very real threat of a cyber attack that could conceivably shut down our internet. A form of communication that connects us in ways that Whatsapp and getting our news delivered digitally cannot.
Because all of this cutting-edge communications technology that we’ve grown dependent upon over the last two decades is great. Until it isn’t. And then what are we left with to connect us to each other?
Nothing. And that is a more frightening scenario than any disaster - natural or manmade - will ever be.
Jayne Flores is the director of the Bureau of Women’s Affairs. She is a veteran journalist on Guam. Send feedback to email@example.com.
(This article has been updated with a correction. The earlier version stated that "KUAM and KGTM were both doing news" during Pongsona." Only KUAM was doing news at the time. Our apologies.)