SPECIAL REPORT: SEVERE WEATHER

Serious Weather Is Serious Business

Meteorologists in the hurricane-prone Gulf and Atlantic coastal areas say they’re conscious of the power they wield and try to be careful with it, realizing the profound impact severe weather news and related promotion can have not only on people, but also on local economies. They also stress the importance of social media as an adjunct to broadcasting, contending that in a weather emergency, television screens are not the only place that citizens will be looking for critical information. This is the third in a series of articles that will appear this week and that collectively constitute a TVNewsCheck Special Report on Severe Weather News. The first two stories in the series are below.

When Gene Norman starting doing the weather on television back in the early 1990s, he never could have predicted the battery of forecasting tools he has today.

Now the chief meteorologist at KHOU, Belo’s CBS affiliate in Houston (DMA 10), he can run real-time Doppler radar, 3D projections of lightning strikes and localized models projecting hurricane wind intensity, rainfall amounts and storm surge sizes all along his 100-mile-plus coverage area on the Gulf of Mexico’s Texas coast.

“When I first started, the idea of zooming down to a street level and pinpointing where a tornado simply was not possible,” Norman says.

But for all of the dramatic leaps forward in forecast modeling and the unprecedented precision of his tools, Norman says the most important part of his job transcends technology.

“[I]t has always been a very delicate dance of not getting too taken with the technology [so] that you don’t forget that the storm or the weather impacts people,” he says.

People along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts are bracing themselves for the most dangerous stretch — August through mid-September — of a hurricane season predicted to run to the active side this year.

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And as storm systems invariably take on velocity, strength and names, the meteorologists in markets along these coasts will take center stage, assuming an uncommon power in TV news to either fray or assuage nerves, perhaps even to save lives.

These meteorologists say they are conscious of that power and try to be careful with it, realizing the profound impact severe weather news and related promotion can have not only on people, but also on local economies.

They stress the importance of social media as an adjunct to broadcasting, contending that in a weather emergency, television screens are not the only place that citizens will be looking for critical information.

And they concede that despite the latest technology, they won’t necessarily have all the answers when the hurricane turns their way.

For Norman, the responsibility was driven home when he led coverage of Hurricane Ike, whose effects were felt throughout the Houston metro area in 2008.

While KHOU wasn’t knocked off the air during the storm, 2 million people in the market lost power, but were able to hear KHOU’s reports through the station’s weather partners on radio. As the worst passed through, Norman advised listeners to “stay with us, grab the hand of the person who you’re with and we’re all going to get through this together.”

From the grateful letters he received, Norman knows the approach works. “Everything we say and do is really important,” he says. “We have to provide the right sense of gravity and the right sense of calm at the same time that we’re talking about a very dangerous situation.”

Frank Johnson, the chief meteorologist at WBTW, Media General’s CBS affiliate in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (DMA 104), says there is another kind of balance he has to strike. Hurricane season happens to run right up against the height of tourist season, a cornerstone of the local economy.

“I’m friendly with the president of the local Chamber of Commerce, and when I first moved to town the first thing he said was, ‘We don’t want hurricanes,’ ” Johnson says.

That has translated to a complex and potentially dangerous calculus for Johnson. The area’s beaches are separated from the mainland by a limited number of roads and bridges. As long as people start evacuating 48 hours in advance of a storm, the roadways won’t become choke points, he says. Waiting until the last minute, however, can make for disaster along the low-lying coast.

“If five days out I say watch out, this hurricane’s coming right at us, that may scare off tourists, which has a huge economic impact here,” Johnson says. “On the other hand, because we have so many tourists and there’s such a huge population right on the beach, it takes a long time to get everybody off the beach. So if there’s a storm heading our way, people need to know to start evacuating early, start making plans.”

In severe weather territory, weather promotion, like the forecasts themselves, also strives for a careful balance between urgency and self-restraint. “We’re careful to avoid false alarms, especially after Katrina” says Billy Pilgrim, creative services director at WDSU, Hearst Television’s NBC affiliate in New Orleans (DMA 52). “The viewers’ attitude is: ‘Don’t get me worked up if it’s not a real threat.’ ”

On the other hand, says Pilgrim, “we can’t forget that lives were lost during Katrina precisely because a lot of people didn’t evacuate because they just didn’t believe it.” In 2008, New Orleans residents quickly obeyed evacuation orders before Hurricane Gustav, which then-Mayor Ray Nagin called “the mother of all storms.”

Phil Ferro, the chief meteorologist at WSVN, the Sunbeam-owned CBS affiliate in Miami (DMA 16), says one of his biggest concerns is reaching out to hurricane neophytes who might tend to downplay his warnings.

“People down here tend to be savvy — they’ve been through a few of these systems,” he says. “Our biggest concern is always the new arrivals.” He counts recent retirees and émigrés among them.

In order to disseminate warnings as widely as possible, Ferro has turned to another kind of technology that has become a de rigeur part of severe weather reporting — social media.

“We have a variety of ways to get the warnings out to people,” he says, “not only through crawls or cut-ins to our air, but we also do it through the Web and through Facebook, Twitter and our blog sites.”

Finding a meteorologist who ignores the social media front is about as rare as finding one still using markers and magnets on a tactile weather map. But some tend to embrace this media more zealously than others.

One of them is Margaret Orr, the chief meteorologist at WDSU. A self-described compulsive tweeter, she even finds herself blasting warnings about areas far afield of her own coverage zone.

“With Twitter, I just find that you’re reaching more people,” she says. “It’s more immediate. I’ve got my phone with me all the time, and I’m checking it all the time.”

Orr, a 30-year weather veteran whose voice was among the most dire in the city leading up to Hurricane Katrina, says she’s motivated by deeply personal reasons. “I’ve always felt this way because I’m a mother. I’ve got three kids,” she said. “I’ve always felt the need to protect people because I wanted to keep my family safe.”

Orr’s Twitter feed is also directly routed into WDSU’s new hurricane-specific app called Hurricane Central, which also aggregates other Twitter feeds from emergency management offices across the metro area as well as offering storm tracking maps and highway contraflow guides, should they go into effect.

Citing an uptick in tornadic activity in New Orleans over the past decade as well as the ever-present, cataclysmic danger of hurricanes, Orr says it’s important to reach viewers on as many fronts as possible. Psychologically, information can be empowering, if not necessarily reassuring. “Now, people are really afraid of severe weather,” she says.

For all their technology and all the confidence they seek to convey, the meteorologists know that their forecasting and tracking are not perfect.

Carl Arredondo, chief meteorologist at WWL New Orleans, Belo’s CBS affiliate, says that hurricane modeling has one particularly troubling weakness. “The intensity forecasts by the computer models need to be improved tremendously from what we have right now,” he says. “That’s the main thing that concerns me about going through each hurricane season.”

He says the National Weather Service is working on improving that modeling. In the meantime, he’ll be passing on what data and projections he does have, taking his weatherman’s role as seriously as anyone in his shoes along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

“We tend to give you the information and tell you honestly without hyping it up or trying to scare you.”

 


Read other stories in this Severe Weather Special Report here.


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