Sometimes, you do need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Especially if you’re in the path of four straight hurricanes, as Floridians were in August and September 2004. Along with many local journalists, viewers in the path of Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne depended on the Weather Channel—before, during and after the storms’ wrath.
“On Wednesday, Sept. 1, my family and neighbors were trying to figure out where to go to escape Frances,” Brevard County viewer Carmen Cortes-Ramos e-mailed to The Weather Channel. “We sat and watched the news as every possible way out of the state was congested. And the hurricane was so big it would not matter where you went in the state.
“I tuned to The Weather Channel,” Ramos continued, “and there is Jim Cantore with my answer. He said, after going through Andrew, he recommended people go to the nearest shelter to weather the storm. That way, you will be able to go back and check the house as soon as the storm was over. Well, that is exactly what we did.”
Not only did The Weather Channel beat all other news and information networks at key times, it broke its all-time viewership record. On Sept. 12, the day before Hurricane Ivan reached landfall, The Weather Channel earned a total-day (5 a.m.-2 a.m.) rating of 1.9, representing more than 1.6 million homes.
“When a hurricane takes over the news, we become the news event,” says Weather Channel Network President Patrick Scott. The Weather Channel is there when the weather gets rotten and dangerous, from tornadoes to snow to hurricanes. It is an odd position, though: success due to catastrophe.
“What we feel good about is the preparedness and safety message,” says Scott. “I don’t think there are many media that can genuinely claim to have saved lives. So yes, it’s ironic that what is our highest viewing period is an absolutely awful period in the personal lives of the people affected.”
Surprisingly, given the number of hurricanes or potential hurricanes that threaten the South nearly every year, preparedness still might be the most important component. “I guess people who live in these areas must have experienced similar things or know about them,” Scott says, “but you still see people running down on the shoreline or doing crazy stuff that they really are putting their lives in danger. So we constantly repeat messages about what you do to stay safe.”
Weather Channel’s on-camera field meteorologists—the people Scott describes as “at the sharp end”—must often do just the opposite.
“I had Jim Cantore telling me stories about sleeping in a room, fully clothed in his oilskins, and the window blows in, and there’s a foot of water on the floor,” Scott says.
Back in the Atlanta studio, “people come here wanting to film mayhem and madness, and in fact it’s actually pretty calm,” he adds. (But when things are rotten, hurricane expert Dr. Steve Lyons sleeps on a cot during days of 24-hour duty.)
There’s better on-air follow-up as well, a new wrinkle. “We used to just kind of follow the storm,” Scott says. Now “we do much more now about what happened afterward. It is still part of the weather story.”