Brice Phillips, Radio Hero

After Katrina decimated the western Mississippi coast, the first contact with the outside world was WQRZ-FM, the low power community station that functioned as just as Brice Phillips, the station's founder, anticipated. Brian "Hootie" Adam, the Emergency Management director for Hancock County, calls Phillips "a hero" for good reason. For the first two days, “WQRZ-LP, 103.5 FM, The voice of Bay Saint Louis, Waveland, Diamondhead and the Kiln” was the only communications link to the outside world, hunkered down in the cinderblock building housing the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency. The 100 watt low power FM community station, normally solar-powered, is the brainchild of Brice L. Phillips, 39, a skinny disabled ham radio operator (KB5MPW) on social security, who built the station two years ago in anticipation of a disaster like this, and his girlfriend, Christine Stach, 34, who has MS and constantly clutches their dog, who is the station’s program director.

The station, owned and licensed to Hancock County Amateur Radio Association, serves 17,460 households and more 39,000 individuals along the western Mississippi shore, previously operated at his house near the beach in Bay St. Louis. When he saw the hurricane was headed towards Mississippi on Sunday evening, he climbed the 130 ft tower above his house to remove transmitters and moved the station’s equipment to the courthouse on Highway 90. “I knew we had to come here,” Phillips said.
The station was off the air for four hours.

“We were back up on the air by five [pm], the night before the storm hit. We stayed on and then we got knocked out about two in the morning when we had that tornado warning before the eye of the hurricane [hit the shore]. We have the only emergency alert system here. That was the important part, to keep it up. That’s why we built the station. We had to temporarily move down here. I brought one of the four antennas from the tower [on the roof of his house], unmounted it, put it up here. We had great SWR [Don’t know radio lingo] because we have the four changers that run on DC power. We have a laptop that controls them and all of our announcements are on it so we were able to put messages on it. The Emergency Alert System was able to run because we’re the first warning for emergency alert.

During the hurricane, Phillips said, “We were broadcasting New Age music during the hurricane, like Enya, a little bit of light folk, a little bit of light rock. So it calms people down. That was the broadcast. Then we brought the amateur equipment, all the ham rigs, too. We didn’t get that communications system set up until the following day [Tuesday] right after the storm.

“We had six repeaters here. They all went down. Harrison County has one radio repeater, we’re still on it. We came online. We were adding antenna after antenna after antenna. For the first two days it was nothing but antenna building. Then once one system got in, we had help from volunteers who came in. It was kind of rough.

“We do all the public bulletins—where food can be found, points of distribution for food, water and ice, shelters, advisories, public notices--‘Don’t drink the water, folks’, if you’re lucky enough to have it. We haven’t had any water here.

“We’re a 501 ( C ) corporation [non profit station], Hancock County Amateur Radio owns the license. WQRZ stands for Who Is Calling Me? in amateur radio lingo. That’s why we chose those call letters.

“The day after, the guy from the only Radio Shack around here wandered in. Of course I have extensive doings with the local Radio Shack store. They had 12 foot of water in that store, in Waveland. He came in. I was so happy to see this guy. I said, ‘I’m commandeering your store.’ We were short on coax-Ns, other things. He told me, ‘Yeah, you can have anything in the store.”

“Right now we just finished recording that press conference, 47 minutes. We’ll run it again this evening, run it again tomorrow until another one comes out.

He doesn’t know if he and Christine still have a place to live. He shakes his head and holds back for a second, then says, “Somebody came in yesterday and said it lifted off the stilts it was on and set back down and piles went through the house. There’s 30 ft. of tower left.

“Come look at my van outside [in the parking lot of the courthouse]. We had bad luck. That’s my van.” The roof is completed sheared off. The wind flipped the top off and tossed it, “This is what I drove down here with all the stuff [equipment including the antenna beams]. This is my car [a gray ’96 Ford Crown Victoria that was a gift from another ham radio operator]. The water came up and then it caught on fire. I almost killed Killer [his dog] because killer was in the car. We had to get him out. The water rising under the dash started the fire. Christine was freaking out, she went into an MS attack because of the dog. She thought Killer was dead.”

“The water was this deep [waist-high] by the house when we tried to get out of there, about six o’clock that evening. The station was already online here, rolling. I went back to the house to get the van and all the supplies six o’ clock Sunday evening."

“I got all my clothes. Christine didn’t get all her clothes. I have food for a couple days and basically all the radio supplies because you can’t do anything if you don’t have communications. I had to run all these wires and put the antenna up."

Did you feel safe in the emergency center? “It was not cool. Water started coming in the door, three or four feet deep. That’s our safe room. It went under.” The roof started coming off the building.

The National Guard and FEMA pulled out, Phillips said, declaring “this building is no longer safe.” The only ones remaining were locals.

“We numbered ourselves,” Christine Stach says, showing a number scrawled in black ink on her wrist. In case they drowned, recovery teams could ID who the victims were. “Everybody lined up in the room before the water came up and we numbered ourselves,” Brice said.

Brice: “Water was coming in and we were in the safe room and the eye of the storm was here. We had no electric. We didn’t have any batteries inside. It wasn’t until the next day we started bringing batteries in and established communications and got our transmitter back up. I tried for a day and a half to turn the wattage up in the transmitter but there was water in the coax where the antenna is.”


“He predicted this years and years ago,” said Al Showers, 42 the local reporter for WLOX-TV Channel 13 in Biloxi [“I used to have a house near the beach on Cedar Point in Bay St. Louis”] “He definitely saved the day. For the first 48 hours he was Hancock County’s only link to the outside world, the only communications whatsoever. He was it. He works on my computers and scanners and told me, ‘One of these days, we’re going to have a hurricane and I’m going to be the only one with communications. It came to pass because of his ham set up. He stayed up around the clock, doing this. My station was broadcasting, ‘We haven’t heard from our reporter. Anybody, please. We were able to talk with my station through the Civil Defense in Harrison County. That’s the only way they knew their reporter was alive and well, because of Brice’s setup. As soon as Civil Defense activated, he was broadcasting and never left the air.”

“He saved the day,” said Kenny Daniel, a bald headed ham operator (KD5KWS), 38, who is an MP in the 115th Company of the National Guard in Brandon (sp?), MS ( who came from Jackson Sunday before Katrina hit to help at the station.

[Daniel shows one of the messages the station has received to carry to the outside world:
It’s to Sister Claudia Murphy, St Catherine Village, Madison Mississippi, (601-856-9023) It reads: “Pray, know that Rod, Dot, Margaret, and George are okay. We lost Nan, God rest her soul. Pearlington was leveled. Jane and I were in deep water for hours. Rod had lots of water too, haven’t talked with him but we heard. Devastation is surreal. Love you very much. Will call as soon as I can. Pray, Pray, Pray. Love, (signed Jan Murphy, Madison Parish, La Salle St. Tallulah, LA)]

WQRZ 103.5 FM 463-1035 http://baystlouis-ms.com/wqrz.htm

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