Coping with Crisis
Florida stations face coverage challenges during Hurricane Charley
By Ken Kerschbaumer -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/22/2004 8:00:00 PM
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When Hurricane Charley slammed into Fort Myers, Fla., two weeks ago, it caught the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and local stations off-guard. "Tracking a hurricane can get pretty esoteric," says John Emmert, news director at WINK in Fort Myers. "It's not an exact science because there's never a fixed point where it can land."
That meant local forecasters in Fort Myers had to make a life-or-death decision: Do they listen to government reports or trust their own meterologists?
In this instance, they were hobbled by conflicting reports from the NHC, which delayed notifying TV stations and the public about Charley's velocity and danger for nearly an hour. Aware of the pressing need to get viewers critical information in a timely manner, Fort Myers broadcasters decided to call the shots.
WZVN and WBBH Fort Myers share a weather department, a Baron Services Millennium Doppler radar system and Nexrad information. At 9:45 a.m., Jim Reif, WZVN chief meteorologist, and WBBH meteorologist Robert Van Winkle both made viewers aware of the hurricane. But it wasn't until 11 a.m. that they reported it was heading toward Fort Myers.
The delay was due to the NHC, which first thought Hurricane Charley was hitting Tampa Bay; then the hurricane wobbled and changed course. In fact, Bay News 9, the local cable news network in Tampa, was the first to report Charley would hit land before reaching the city—even before the NHC. And it went on air with the news, a move that resulted in a swift response from FEMA.
Bay News 9 General Manager Elliott Wiser says that at one point, a local emergency-services official told his staff not to believe the reports. "But the channel remained confident, having invested in its own Doppler radar and assembled a staff of five meteorologists. "That's why you hire these guys," Wiser says.
Yet it's precisely this lack of consistent and timely information—NHC claimed one thing, FEMA another—that stymied TV stations.
At 10 a.m., the NHC's Hurricane Hunter plane reported winds of 120 knots per hour. At 11 a.m., it confirmed a drop in pressure, both signs of a move from category 2 to category 3. But NHC didn't raise the danger level. At 1 p.m., the plane reported winds of 141 knots per hour—enough to move from category 3 to category 4. Again, it was nearly an hour later before TV stations, and the public, were notified.
"The NHC needs to figure out how it can disseminate information in real time," says Reif. He hopes upcoming meetings between broadcasters and the NHC, as well as the Florida government, will improve the distribution of information.
The drawback is this: Real-time information could lead to improper evacuation procedures. Hurricanes and storms wobble all the time, so when Charley began wobbling around 9:45 a.m., the NHC stuck to its guns, claiming it was heading toward Tampa. To do otherwise may have stopped evacuation plans. If it wobbled back, people would not know whether to stay or go.
Local stations had to go with the information and technology at hand. "We actually sent our truck down to Tampa," says Emmert. "Within an hour of knowing it would hit north Charlotte County, we had the truck back in the area."
Van Winkle says the Doppler radar system showed Charley's strengths while he was talking to a reporter on his cell phone. "The reporter said a roof just flew by him, and I told him the eye was just about to pass over him," says Van Winkle. "Two minutes later, he said the sky was sunny. It's really an amazing tool for us."
Reif applauds the zoom-in ability of the system as the most useful. "It's meter-mapping capability allowed us to see individual details of the bands as it came in," he says. "We could watch a close-up of the eye and see it approach the coastline."
WINK Fort Myers, Fla., has a combination of Doppler radar from Advanced Designs Corp. (ADC) along with data it pulls in from NEXRAD Agencies, which has a radar operations center based in Norman, Okla. Nexrad pulls in data from the National Weather Service, Air Force, Navy, FAA and other support contractors. It also helps track a storm while it's still days away from land. But as it gets closer, it's up to systems like the ADC's to help narrow a storm's path. For all the science involved, there are still variables, such as the 200- to 300-mile range of landfall that may be affected.
Emmert says WINK follows the lead of the county's emergency management center when it comes to evacuation warnings. But when it comes to information from the NHC and its storm path recommendations, differences can arise. "We have the right to [switch gears] if we get other information," he adds. "We aren't alone with our concerns," says Reif, about stations meeting with the NHC in March. "We'll have a continuing dialogue, so the next time, we'll be headed in the right direction."
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