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Coping with Crisis - Broadcasting & Cable

Coping with Crisis

Florida stations face coverage challenges during Hurricane Charley
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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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