When Hurricane Charley slammed into Fort Myers, Fla., two weeks ago, it caught the National Hurricane Center and local stations off-guard. 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. Aware of the pressing need to get viewers critical information in a timely manner, Fort Myers broadcast and cable newspeople 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.
For more on the NHC's blown coverage and broadcasters course change, see "Coping With Crisis" in the 8/23 issue of B&C.