Talking TV: Ginger Zee On Preparing Viewers For Disaster

TVNewsCheck’s Michael Depp talks with Ginger Zee, chief meteorologist for ABC and co-host of Hearst Media Production Group’s Hearts of Heroes, along with fellow host Sheldon Yellen, about broadcast’s role in disaster preparedness and the frontline workers whose stories they tell in the show. A full transcript of the conversation is included.

Hearts of Heroes, an E/I offering from Hearst Media, looks at stories from frontline workers in the wake of major disasters in their communities. Ginger Zee, its co-host moonlighting from her day job as ABC’s chief meteorologist, is seeing her own role in such disasters evolving as an uptick in extreme weather has had a deeper impact on the American landscape.

In this Talking TV conversation, Zee and her co-host Sheldon Yellen, co-host and CEO of Belfor disaster recovery services, the show’s sponsor, look at their show’s efforts to better prepare viewers for extreme weather. They also explain how broadcasters can strike the right tone to ensure viewers heed warnings as signals in the noise, and how they can step up their viewer preparedness game beyond bullet points and rote reminders of proactive safety.

Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.

Michael Depp: Hearts of Heroes is a series from Hearst Media Production Group that showcases the work of first responders across the U.S. each Saturday morning. The show is headed into its fourth season and is hosted by ABC chief meteorologist Ginger Zee and Sheldon Yellen, CEO of Belfor Property Restoration, the show’s sponsor.

I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV, the podcast that brings you smart conversations about the business of broadcasting. Today, a conversation with Ginger Zee and Sheldon Yellen about telling the stories of first responders, a frontline group whose mettle has been tested like never before, given that we seem to be careening between natural and man-made disasters at an unsustainable velocity. We’ll be right back with that conversation.

Welcome. Ginger Zee and Sheldon Yellen to Talking TV.


Zee: Thank you so much for having us.

Yellen: Thanks for having us.

Thanks for being here. Ginger, you’ve been doing this show for going on four years. And the number of disasters that we all seem to confront seem to be multiplying by orders of magnitude all the time. In your day job as ABC’s chief meteorologist, you’re looking at meteorological disasters happening regularly across the country. What’s your take on what we’re facing here?

Zee: So, I started covering storms and chasing tornadoes back in the late ’90s and early 2000s. My first big hurricane was Hurricane Katrina. I would say in the last decade, I have seen a remarkable difference. And that’s when I started with ABC and I had the opportunity with the network to travel to almost every tropical storm, every hurricane, every major tornado outbreak wildfire. And I’ve seen a remarkable shift and the implications also to more humans happening more quickly so that the breaks between these storms and the breaks between disasters globally as well, I’ve seen an uptick.

Science tells us well below, you know, well beyond my anecdotal evidence of what I’ve covered and what I’ve done, that this is true. And we are able to. Yes, technology has allowed us to actually see more where we have a camera and every place. But there’s actually data behind an increase in extreme events and their proximity together, and that’s where we really see it. It’s the ramp up of the intensity with how closely together all of this is happening.

It’s not just that it seems to be happening all over, but it really is. The data is there to back it up, the sort of calamitous period that we’re in. Sheldon, is the purpose of this show chiefly to share stories of frontline responders, or is it just as much about disaster preparedness? What do you want viewers to take away?

Yellen: I think that’s a great question. There are a few takeaways in that. We do want people to be prepared and we’re trying to get a message out about this don’t think it won’t happen to me. Think it could happen to you, and it’s happening, like Ginger just said, more and more often.

Additionally, to highlight these heroic first responders who without pause, just run in as everybody else is running out. And I think that the message of respect and gratitude to the first responders and at some point in time, somebody’s life is going to be saved by these heroic people.

Back to your original question. The more prepared you are, the better planning you have in place, the better chance of avoiding disaster yourself. And those are the messages we’re trying to put out.

And how do you source out the stories inside of the show, Sheldon? What are your criteria for inclusion? These are all situations where Belfor was involved in a disaster recovery?

Yellen: A lot of the situations do have a Belfor element to them, but we are hearing stories outside as well. And again, it’s primarily highlighting the first responders and how they are actively rescuing and saving people in moments of need. So, these stories are coming to us both internally and externally. But for people, again, to understand the severity of what’s going on out there, it’s really important for us to capture great stories, to get out a great message.

Zee: And if I can just jump on to say that even before knowing Sheldon or Belfor, I knew of Belfor because I was that independent person who’s been in all of the situations, and we have this unique perspective of being the first people there. If we’re the first people there, aside from first responders, you also have the common first five people there and Belfor is often right there, right behind the storm or sometimes ahead of it.

I think that that’s an important part to distinguish. I don’t know that there’s much that you miss with Belfor, just like the American Red Cross would be there, just like, you know, that that’s kind of the progression, I would say that I’ve seen. And that unique perspective of being there and having the experience that whether Sheldon and Belfor or myself have is that we’ve kind of been in that second line right behind those first responders, and we’ve gotten to admire them. And now this is a way for us to share that with the world.

We’re in the midst of hurricane season, which seems to be extending along with getting more severe. We’ve just had a 1,000-year flood at Yosemite. Wildfire season doesn’t seem to be confined to a season now, but just sort of a year-round condition of life for people who are living in the West. Ginger, do you see people adequately adjusting their mindset around this as a new reality now?

Zee: I think the interest is there more than it was even 10 years ago. I think the education and understanding of what that means to them is perhaps not there. I’m still amazed on a regular day in Manhattan and if I’m walking around, I’ll see a mother pushing two kids in a stroller. And I know that we’re about to have a severe thunderstorm because I’m attached to my radar. I never let it go. I’m really up close with this. And I’ll find myself being like the town crier. And I’m running over like, hey, you know, there’s to be 60-mile-per-hour winds, so I might want to get the kids inside there.

I see that separation of people, it’s not necessarily even responsibility, just it’s not their first thought. And so, in a hurricane situation, it’s different. Usually, you’ve heard about it for three, four or five, sometimes up to 10 days in advance. But in a wildfire situation, our interface as humans with the natural world and the uptick in natural disaster is something that we’re going to have to also see education and preparedness go along with that rapid uptick.

In terms of flash flooding, the danger of that just seems to be more intense. And now you get these violent rainstorms, sudden inches of rain, it seems like it happens in a very compressed period of time. So banal events are not even banal anymore so much.

Zee: I’ll say Ida last year was a perfect example of this. So, I was in New Orleans covering it and here comes Ida, knocks out the power, does what it does, and the Gulf Coast knows how to do that. It was a really rough one, and they were out of power for a lot longer in a lot of places, even New Orleans proper. I had to leave before they even got water back on because we had to follow the storm. I knew as meteorologist this that there was to be four to seven inches of rain. Now, I’m a meteorologist. I sat there, I forecasted it. I rushed back so I could cover it. But that night, when I’m at home and I’m watching my rain gauge go to seven inches in four hours, I’m even amazed.

So, I’m the one connected to this, and I forecast it. But it’s one thing to forecast it, it’s another to then live it. And that’s something where these folks have never done that. The people in Queens that were in their basements, they didn’t think because they’ve never seen that. They’ve never seen the engineering fail to the degree that it did. And then they lose neighbors and friends and family members. So, I think there has to be a bit more urgency in the understanding of what four to seven inches of rain looks like in three hours.

Absolutely. I was also in New Orleans living through that storm for the 12 or so hours of hurricane force winds that were going through. I’d never seen anything like that.

Zee: That fury that lasts that long over land, even if it’s marshy land, was something I had never conceived of. If you would have told me that in my studies of meteorology, I’d have been like yeah, right the friction of the land will rip it up. Not the case.

No, no. So, Ginger, as a broadcast meteorologist, do you see the meteorologist’s role or responsibilities as changing in response to the dramatic uptick in deadly weather?

Zee: I think local meteorologists have always been the heart of forecasting for deadly weather. They’ve been the communicators. So even if the National Hurricane Center had the information, they were that communicator of it. The great part about most meteorologists that you’re watching at most stations is they are also scientists, and they can take their science background, their education and utilize the NHC and the NWS and all of that to put together the best broadcast that will give you the best information.

Is it changing in the way that we talk about how to prepare and how to prepare for more, you know, more storms more often or what this water could look like? Absolutely. Even at my position, I’m not that one that’s there for the 10 days. I’m probably in a big one there for three days in advance. Two days maybe. They’ve been talking about it and following there.

It’s kind of a double-edged sword because our science has gotten so good, especially with tropical weather, with hurricanes, that we can see these really far out, often with great, precise effort. But it was last year and 2020, it was within a couple of miles for landfall. Pretty outstanding. What we can do, communicating that change over time, just like medicine has had to communicate what we do know and what we don’t know. That’s challenging and that’s something that they’re going to have to continue to find ways to do on my end.

I walked away after Katrina and then Sandy and Harvey. But Sandy especially was the one that instigated this in me. One woman told me about losing her husband and her daughter, and she told me about how the storm surge had twisted her home off of its foundation. It had bounced down the street and then ripped apart, and that’s when they lost each other. And that’s when she lost her husband and her daughter.

That heartfelt story is one that’s been told before. But I thought scientifically, when I stand in front of a map and I show this line along the coast and I say, there’s going to be 10 to 20 feet of storm surge, people don’t know what that is. So, it was my job then to say, how does this apply to people? And we made these 3D graphics where it really showed the force of the water, the velocity of how quickly it would come in your home. And then we make this amazing 3D graphic to describe what that looks and feels like, right? To kind of make it apply to people’s lives. The panhandle of Florida, 2018. I am standing across from a home that does exactly what my graphics said. It does exactly what that woman said. So, it’s like being able to put it in real life situations instead of just a line on a map. That’s what we have to think about and what local meteorologists will have to do as well.

Visualizations are going to be more imperative, then.

Zee: Yeah, absolutely. Because video is one thing. You say, that’s not me. If you can put yourself in that virtual reality, you know, this is that’s kind of how people live now. It’s like, how would it look in my home? It would look like this.

Yellen: Of course, disasters are always a local story first. What do each of you think about what broadcasters should be doing to even further promote preparedness? Many of them do already. But where can they go further with that? Or what should they do that they’re perhaps not thinking of?

I think, you know, like Ginger said, that if people are listening and the broadcasters are saying this could happen to you, this could happen to your geography, people should take heed and listen because so many people for so many years have brushed it off like, well, it didn’t happen. They projected this and it didn’t happen. It was supposed to be a category five and it was only a category three. I think that people should hear these warning signs and absolutely react to them. If that doesn’t get reacted to it causes problems for people.

And I think people need to take heed of what’s being said by these broadcasters. Ginger said it. There’s science here. This is not a guess all the time. This is scientifically backed up and these things are happening. They monitor them when they show the 3D effects that can happen. It’s real. We encourage people to listen to the authorities and listen to the broadcasters.

Zee: And I think humility is important. I think it’s important to say when something went wrong, when it didn’t go wrong. But also proof of performance is really important to kind of hammer home. We told you it was going to hit right here, and it happened within two miles. Next door. We told you this was going to be a wall of water 10 feet high. Here’s the waterline. It’s 10 feet high. Humility is important, too. We thought we were going to get only four to six inches, but some places got eight. And that is a huge deal. And here’s why. Those are all important communication skills without worrying about what that makes you look like or what it makes you not look like.

In local, I really avoided the question mark. People would put like the 40% where they’d put a question mark. And I’d be like, why are we putting a question mark? I have no question about what I’m forecasting.

Only 40%, right.

Zee: Right, and my job is to explain what that means. Sometimes science doesn’t have the easy answer of like 49 degrees or 50 degrees on a March day in the Great Lakes. The big difference is how people perceive it, if it’s going to be windy, I’m going away from accuracy. I’m going to call it 49, even though we may even get a 50 or 51 because people need to know what to expect that’s going to impact them, what it’s going to feel like on their skin, how it’s going to fill their home with water.

So those are the more important things, the actual application versus just numbers and just science. And that’s something I’ve been so lucky and I’m sure Sheldon could say, too. And having the opportunity to be with these first responders, where we get the compassion of the storm, not just like my passion for meteorology, it’s the humanity of what we see. That’s really what these storms and what forecasting is about.

How often do you think that preparedness messaging should be a part of the newscast? It’s sort of at the beginning of a hurricane season. You’ll see also, you know, special reports about how to be ready. But should we start hearing about preparedness on a more daily or weekly basis with more frequency than we do?

Yellen: I don’t know that you can overdo it, but I think that, like you said, with the beginning of hurricane season, obviously it’s spoken of quite often and I think a few times throughout the year it should be mentioned. I also think, as Ginger said, educationally, the schools. I think, you know, education in the school systems, when the kids can come home from school and talk about a lesson today and find an exhilarating way to teach it and to transfer that knowledge to children, I think it comes home with them.

And I think that will help because all too often we see people that are unprepared. And even in addition to that, the fact that once an event happens, they reaction that people do that they shouldn’t do and what people don’t do as opposed to what they should do after the event happens. So, I think education, not just from broadcasters, but in the school system itself, I think would help and go a long way.

Zee: I also think it’s making it engaging like, television-wise. I can’t tell you the last time I put up a bunch of bullet points of what to do for preparedness, because people do not listen to that. They’ve seen it before. It doesn’t really hit home. So, I would say that I’ve seen a couple of local stations — and I’ve been trying to employ some of this myself and the National Weather Service made the most effective changes with tornado safety when they did a national preparedness selfie day.

Basically, you go in your basement, you put your helmet on and you put all of your gear that you have there. They made it something that’s in the ether right now, and that’s selfies. So, they got you to take your kids, put it down there, you get your shoes in place, you get the whistle. All the things that we don’t always hear about with tornadoes.

And then you take a picture of all of it, and you share on social media. I thought that has been a very effective way because when I post that, first of all, people love seeing pictures of my kids, then they’re like, you need a helmet. Why? Right. And then you can explain what’s the whistle for, you know, just kind of changes things. The shoes, the rubber-soled shoes, those are all things that within the last couple of years have been changes in what people ask you to prepare for. And I think they’re more exciting than just go to your basement like we know that part, but what do we have to have there? It gets them engaged.

How do you get people involved? My mentor, who I interned with back in 1999, James Spann, he and his station are so good about, OK, so we all tell you, get to know weather radio. What do you do when you take it out of the box? It’s not the most intuitive thing in the world. So they go to the Walgreen’s, to the CVS, as to the places that people shop, and they have them for $10 and then they show you how to program it and they explain it. So, there’s a lot of like that. It’s kind of hands-on community involvement that goes a long, long way because then all you need is batteries and you’re good to go.

So, lose the bullet points, get more creative about the ways in which you’re trying to engage people on this. What about the tone? How do broadcasters strike the right tone between sounding too shrill or alarmist while they’re still getting across the severity of an impending potential disaster? Because, I mean, there’s a danger of disaster becoming a kind of background noise, especially given the frequency that we have them now, isn’t there?

Zee: I think I can answer for my end, it’s about how I always tell my child. I think that this is the same for everyone: Don’t be scared, be prepared. And that’s usually the tone that I go into every broadcast with.

If there are words that the National Hurricane Center are using, like you could see power knocked out for months. I’m going to hit that hard because that is scary, right? That is life changing. So, if there is something to that level, that’s where I’m going to take a dramatic pause and make sure people just heard what I said. I’ll repeat that. Months. We’re talking about that type of damage, you know, because that’s really an idle fear that will come true. The last three times I’ve said that it has come true every single time.

I think that that’s the other thing is I’ve had proof of performance of our own science by being able to be there when you see it come to fruition. So, I think that being more about preparation and being very even keeled because that’s what people want, I think.

The only thing I’ve really struggled with is in the political part of fake news. People, even in hurricanes, have come up to me in the last couple of years and they’ll get right in my face and say, ‘you’re fake news.’ And I’m like, I’m just talking about a hurricane that is right off the coast. It’s there on the satellite, but those are often the loudest voices. And I think not allowing any of that noise to deter your preparation and your broadcast would be very important. And that’s what I’ve usually done. I’m just speaking about it here because I think that that could impact someone in a smaller market.

People are really outspoken.

Yellen: I also think when you talk about tone again, if you listen to Ginger, there’s often intensity. I mean, this is it’s authentic. She is all invested into this. And I think that the messaging it’s real and I think it connects to people. And I think more people listen to this message than to some of the other messages that could be out there. So, as it relates to tone, I would say authenticity is absolutely critical.

All right. Well, so much disaster, so much calamity. Hopefully we’ll have a quiet summer, though probably not. 

Zee: We’ve got three areas of interest right now on the map, so let’s see.

Let’s just say hopefully they won’t be that interesting and they’ll just go down. I want to thank Ginger Zee and Sheldon Yellen for joining me today. Their show is Hearts of Heroes from Hearst Media Production Group. It’s on Saturday mornings as part of Hearst’s E/I offerings. Stay safe and stay ready, you two.

Zee: Thank you.

Yellen: Thank you.

And thanks to all of you for watching and listening. See you next time.

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