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Black Heroics at WPAL Radio Ignored In Aftermath of Hurricane Hugo
9/24/2014 4:24:50 PM

William "Bill" Saunders
By Barney Blakeney

The Lowcountry Sunday observed the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo’s landfall here. The storm that took more than a dozen lives and caused billions of dollars in damage left an unforgettable mark in the memories of those who experience its wrath. As the Lowcountry marked the observance, it however continues to forget the significant role played in that history by African Americans. And that angers former WPAL radio station owner William ‘Bill’ Saunders.

Saunders said Monday he is pi..ed off about the media coverage local television and newspapers gave the observance. “They talked to a lot of people who had nothing to do with it and focused on leaders like Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley and (then) Charleston County Council Chair Linda Lombard. But they ignored us.”

While many people provided the glue that held the community together, Saunders’ radio station and particularly station employee Earl Wilson for several days was the only news media organization still up and running.

Saunders’ brewing anger is a feeling he gets often because ever since the Sept. 21, 1989 storm the station has not been recognized for being the only communications media operating during and after the storm hit the area.

As the winds of Hurricane Hugo roared toward Charleston and the city battened down to brace against the worst storm it had experienced in a generation local television stations, radio stations and newspapers sent most of their personnel home. Scheduled electrical outages guaranteed most residents wouldn’t be receiving television or radio signals and newspaper deliveries would be out of the question in the storm’s aftermath.

But WPAL, located on an isolated stripe of Wappoo Road West Ashley was preparing to do what it had done for nearly four decades previously, “Give you all the news you can Use”.

Earl ‘Tiger’ Wilson ran the late shift at the station. Wilson worked alone at night and had come prepared to work through the storm. The station was prepared as well. A year earlier the station had converted its petroleum operated generator to run on propane gas. And unlike other local electronic media groups WPAL’s antenna was located near Walterboro where Hurricane Hugo’s fury was less destructive.

As the storm ravaged the area knocking down trees and power lines Wilson was able to continue broadcasting for several hours as the storm raged. Only during the most furious time of the storm did the station go off-air when winds knocked over the propane tank that fed the generator.

But after the winds subsided Wilson, a former high school football lineman, went outside and saw that the tank had been knocked over.

Aside from his dedication to staying at his post during one of the area’s most devastating catastrophes, Wilson single-handedly put the approximately 500-lb. propane tank in position so the generator could be restarted.

Before his death a few years ago, Wilson often recalled the night of Hurricane Hugo. With the wind howling outside the station he worked to maintain a steady flow of information over the airwaves. And for days after he remained at his post feeding information to disk jockeys who came to relieve him and serving as engineer for the electronic equipment that produces what listeners heard coming out of the microphones.

After the storm Saunders drove from his Johns Island residence to the station where he found Wilson diligently manning the equipment and microphone.

True to its role as a community oriented radio station, WPAL opened its telephone lines to allow listeners to learn the whereabouts of friends and loved ones. It broadcast information on the availability and location of essentials such as water, gas and ice. The local post office, hospitals and Charleston Navy Yard asked them to broadcast work schedules and the station kept listeners abreast of power outages.

“We were proud that we could provide that community service,” Saunders beams when talking about the station’s role in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo.

But that pride quickly turns to anger as he is unfailingly reminded that role never is recognized. After the storm Charleston County Council recognized a Jacksonville, Fla. radio station as the only one broadcasting in the storm’s aftermath. Later, then Charleston City Councilman Robert Ford asked for a resolution recognizing WPAL’s role after Hurricane Hugo.

Over the 25 years the storm struck Charleston no documentary of the storm’s impact on the area note the bravery and dedication of Earl Wilson or the commitment to its community demonstrated by WPAL.

Saunders isn’t angry because they fail to get credit for what they did, but because the failure to recognize WPAL’s role after the storm is yet another example of how the contributions to this community by Black people becomes irrelevant.

“That’s always happened to our history,” Saunders explains. “The white media sanitizes our roles until we become invisible. It’s more than racism because it’s also about power. They will not recognize that we exist! We’re not recognized unless we commit a crime. It’s no accident WPAL no longer exists. Except for The Chronicle, there’s nobody her to tell our stories. The result is our young have nobody they can look up to except somebody white.

“Nobody sits around a table and plans that, it’s not a conspiracy,” Saunders offers adding, “It’s inherent. It’s become inherent since the institution if slavery and the Willie Lynch theory (for creating docile slaves).

Saunders also is angered that the exclusion of WPAL’s role in the storm’s aftermath and the general exclusion of Blacks in the history of this society will mean Blacks in the future will have little information about the roles their ancestors played. And he is angered that there is no penalty for the wilful exclusion of the role of Blacks in local history.

“Twenty years from now we’ll be dead and there’ll be no one of us left to tell the story,” he said.

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