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"What's it like to be a meteorologist?"- Part II: Severe Weather
Submitted by Jerry Jackson on Wed, 10/09/2013 - 3:41pm.
In terms of staffing, a television station has different tiers of severe weather coverage. “Low-level” events are short-lived weather emergencies which can be adequately covered by a single meteorologist. An example of a “low-level” threat is the typical summertime thunderstorm. A “mid-level” emergency is an organized, longer-lasting event such as a snowstorm or tornado outbreak. Multiple meteorologists are usually required for adequate coverage. A “high-level” emergency represents a prolonged threat to our entire viewing area, such as a major landfalling hurricane. For high-level events, the entire TV station (including engineers, weather staff, news reporters/producers, managers, off-air staff) is involved in storm coverage.
A good example of a high-level weather emergency is Hurricane Floyd (1999). About 7 days before Floyd hit, our WWAY staff was preparing for a landfall. Vacations were canceled, equipment was secured, and provisions were purchased. Most importantly, each employee made sure his/her family had a safe place to go. Broadcast meteorologists must finish their personal storm preparations at least 4 days before everyone else. In the final days leading up to a hurricane (when most viewers are just beginning to prepare), our weather staff is already tracking the storm round the clock. There is no time for us to secure our families once Hurricane Watches are issued.
If watches are upgraded to warnings, meteorologists remain in the station until the storm threat is over. In the case of Hurricane Floyd, our staff “camped-out” together for about 3 days. We converted our sales offices into sleep rooms, complete with sleeping bags and cots. Our main conference room was transformed into a pantry with water, bread, peanut butter, crackers, boxed juices, grain bars, and a wide variety of non-perishable canned foods. Each staff member brought a toiletry kit, so the bathroom sink became our “shower”.
When Hurricane Floyd made its final approach, our newscast was essentially on the air 24 hours a day. This was no time for rehearsal or advanced preparation- everything was “live” and free-flowing. Storm analysis, interviews with emergency managers, press conferences with State Emergency Management officials, and updates from the coast; everything was done in real time. The overload of information was a bit intimidating at first, but adrenaline eventually took over. At the height of the storm, our station’s roof sustained damage. Reams of plastic were hauled into the newsroom to combat water leaks. Our computers were placed under “tents” in the center of the room, and a minor feat of acrobatics was required just to update hurricane coordinates on the screen.
Thankfully, high-level threats like Hurricane Floyd don’t happen every year. But even the smaller events can become quite time-consuming for meteorologists. Our station covers 10 counties. If a modest outbreak of severe thunderstorms occurs across several communities, the meteorologist on duty is responsible for updating storm information for every town in the path of the storms. This not only involves on-air work, but social media as well. The prevalence of Facebook, Twitter, and mobile apps requires our weather staff to constantly update information at all hours of the day/night. We also answer questions from our viewers. During the peak of a severe weather event, our meteorologists engage in dozens of online conversations at the same time.
Without question, changes in technology have altered the daily routine of broadcast meteorologists. But the underlying purpose remains the same… to provide an accurate forecast without all the “hype” that occasionally arises in the television business. Some people thrive on the excitement of calamity. As for me, I’ll take sunshine any day.
By: Jerry Jackson