This weekend, as I began to write this, Tropical Storm Florence was passing overhead at the breakneck speed of all of 2 miles per hour. This is perhaps the slowest event I have ever seen. At first we were expecting a tiger in the night as the storm approached. Wednesday a week ago it was a threatening category 4 hurricane. But it finally came ashore near Wilmington NC as a category two. And that seemingly mild storm was bad enough, the tidal surge and heavy slow moving rains brought misery to the North and South Carolina coasts.
Slow moving is the operative observation. This meant the storm dumped over 40 inches of rain on some parts of the coastal areas. In fact, one of the television stations in New Bern, NC was inundated by flood waters in the middle of its live storm coverage. I don’t envy the staff there the work they are going to have to do to clean up that mess. The storm was moving so slowly, that the total distance the center of rotation moved during my Saturday midday show was only six miles.
My small part of the storm coverage during that show brought back memories of doing live radio shows during major weather events in the past. Back in the day, not unlike today, it was all hands on deck for the radio station staff. Not only the air staff, but everyone at the station was expected to contribute to the coverage effort. Salesmen and even engineers were out in news cars using the two way radios to report weather conditions and road conditions back to the news room. For example, back in the late 70s, I was the chief engineer (That’s what the lead broadcast technician was called back then.) of WIS-Radio. We had a major snowstorm hit the city unexpectedly. I drove a VW Karman Ghia back then so I was able to get to the station during the blizzard unlike most of the staff that had to wait for jeeps from the National Guard to get them to the studio. After making sure that the generator, transmitter, towers and studios were all ship shape and ready for the storm, the news director asked me to take “News Car One” out and do reports of road conditions. That news car was a Ford Station wagon outfitted with a Motorola Two way radio that connected us to both the radio and the television stations. Our helicopter was grounded and most of the news crew was still inbound. It was not lost on me that I was driving around in the midst of terrible road conditions reporting live on the radio that the roads were unsafe and that everyone should stay home.
I want to note here that we took great care to make sure that what we reported was accurate and to the point. News departments were generally independent with their leadership reporting directly to the general manager unlike today when they are usually part of the entertainment division. That alignment can sometimes create, shall we say, unusual situations. I’m sure that everyone has seen the viral video of a field reporter appearing to struggle mightily to stay on his feet during a live report. At the end of the report the camera shot widened to include two men casually strolling down the street with no difficulty. I’ve followed that reporter’s work for years and I feel certain that is not something that he would do of his own volition. There had to be some “expert” consultant out there that felt that the field reports needed some spicing up. That consultant should be banned from working in the industry ever again.
There was another factor that had an impact of the coverage of Hurricane Florence; duration! When the storm finally crossed the coastline of North Carolina the media had already been covering it for 10 days; each day with more and more intensity, resources and longer report duration. The result was that the storm finally came ashore, everyone, reporters, producers and audience was burned out on the story. Yet, no station that I was aware of, felt that they could bail out of storm coverage and go back to normal programming. The duration of this event also led to some controversial decisions by our political leaders. Their decisions would have been perfect for storms moving at normal speeds, but under these conditions not so much. We all have lessons learned here.
I think what we see today is the best that can be done given today’s circumstances. Not as many people are available but technology is better than what we had to work with back in the day. There is more information to work with now. Those men and women out in the field, in the air chairs, behind the consoles and on both sides of the cameras did a great job. I wish there were more of them. I’m sure they feel that way too.
A final note; as I complete this blog entry shortly after noon on Sunday, the latest tracking report from the National Weather Service has the storm in the western third of the state and picking up forward speed. There is still wind and rain overhead but this one is about to be put in the books. I just saw a post on Facebook from one of my friends who is a news producer at a local TV station. She has just finished a twelve plus hour shift and is back home cuddling with her sweet daughter. Hope you get some rest, my friend, thunderstorms are predicted for tomorrow. And so it goes! Oh MY!