As Hurricane Katrina's storm surge hurtled toward land, Weather Channel storm tracker Jim Cantore was reporting from an American Legion retirement home in Gulfport, Miss.
The rushing water—at more than 25 feet, the highest storm surge ever—engulfed cars in the parking lot and streamed into the building, flooding the kitchen, shutting down the electric generators and threatening to ruin years of medical records.
Cantore saw what was happening and took action. He and his team stopped reporting and pitched in to help move 450 senior citizens, along with food and medicine, to higher ground and out of danger.
“I wasn't a reporter anymore that day,” he says.
Cantoreo has been at The Weather Channel since he earned his B.S. in meteorology at Lyndon State College in 1986. He's now the network's official “Storm Tracker” on nightly program Evening Edition, the host of documentary series Storm Stories, and a go-to on-air personality for storm-related specials.
The list of storms Cantore has covered in just the past few years reads like an elementary-school attendance list: Andrew, Fran, Claudette, Floyd, Lili and Isabel; Bonnie, Charley, Frances and Ivan; Dennis, Wilma and, of course, Katrina. As viewers know, he has had more than his share of standups during which he has been just about knocked down, battered by ferocious winds.
“I've always been passionate about what I'm doing,” he says. “In the studio, in the field, my job is to get people out of harm's way. That's all I live to do.”
Scott Libin, on the faculty of journalism think tank The Poynter Institute, doesn't single Cantore out, but he says that TV journalists and their news organizations walk a fine line between reporters' taking too little risk by watching stories from the sidelines and risking too much by reporting under dangerous conditions.
“War correspondents go off to war. They don't sit back at the Pentagon and just look over the latest reports from the field,” says Libin. “They go see it for themselves. Weather correspondents want to be as close to the subject of the story as they can, within reason. That's where it becomes interesting, because, while it's possible to take too little risk—which is to say stay inside where it's safe and just look out the window—it's also possible to take too much risk.”
That, Libin observes, can put journalists' credibility and the safety of themselves and their viewers on the line. If a reporter can withstand the storm, some viewers may think, then so can they.
“That's dangerous at a different level,” Libin says.
Cantore says, “A lot of people have no idea what to expect with the water, wind and other attributes of a hurricane. I'm concerned about people taking unnecessary risks. I take calculated risks. I'm not going to take an unnecessary risk.”
Still, he predicts, “We're going to see loss of life. I hope it's not me, but I wouldn't be surprised if somebody loses their life within the next few years.”
Cantore says that Katrina marked the first time he was wrong in his assessment of a hurricane. Like many forecasters, he underestimated its power.
He seems to be permanently changed by the devastation (he says he lets out his emotions in little bits) and by misjudging the impact of Katrina. Over and over, though, he assures himself that he did what he could But the devastation strengthened his commitment to taking care of his viewers.
“I knew it was coming, but I didn't know it was going to be that bad for all those people,” he says. “There are people living in tents and trailers. We had to tell the rest of the country that there are people who are going through this and have to wake up to that destruction every day.”
Katrina changed his emotional wattage, he admits And Cantore is not the only one, to be sure.
In its aftermath, Hurricane Katrina served to usher in a new breed of emo-journalism, skyrocketing CNN's Anderson Cooper to superstardom as CNN's golden boy and a darling of the media circles because of his impassioned coverage of the storm.
Cantore hasn't been as openly emotive, but the images do linger: “To go out and talk to people who have lost everything, you can't help but lose it. How would you feel if you lost everything? When I'm talking to somebody and hearing their story, it's gut-wrenching.”