Hurricane Ike Coverage

Many of you know me as a writer and language expert; however, I’ve been a meteorologist for over 20 years, and even though I no longer forecast the weather, I continue to have an intense interest in the weather. With that in mind, I wanted to share some observations about the non-stop coverage related to Hurricane Ike. It’s my belief that non-stop, live coverage of a hurricane provides little value to viewers and often distorts the perception of a hurricane–and hurricanes, being extremely dangerous storms, should not be distorted.

Much of the distortion, in my mind, comes from the fact that reporters, including meteorologists in the path of the storm, are talking and talking and talking even though they have access to little or no information. When a major hurricane is moving through a region, there is no electricity and little communication. Most residents have evacuated, and those who have stayed are most likely hiding in an interior room of a building. Emergency responders are often not permitted to respond to calls for help. As a result, facts about the storms are extremely limited, and some reporter or meteorologist who runs from the lobby of the building into the storm every 10 minutes doesn’t have access to any more facts (and usually fewer facts) than a reporter tucked safely inside of a New York studio. That doesn’t, however, keep the person in the storm from continuing to talk—so I ask you, what are they reporting?

Not only is that of little or no value to anyone, but it often distorts the impression of the storm. This largely uninformed person standing in the storm is usually standing in a location where it’s relatively safe (where the most intense part of the storm is not occurring), typically telling people to stay inside. How ridiculous is that? Since these people are “in the middle of the storm” and are not being killed by the storm surge, not being blown away by the wind (save the over-acting and swaying that is so often embellished when the red light is on), and these “reporters” on the scene are not reporting any of these things directly, the perception is often that the storm is not doing those things in any location. That can be horrendously inaccurate. I remember that initial reports from many of the same people who were standing in Ike’s rain and wind initially reported that New Orleans was spared the worst of Katrina. Keep up the good work, people.

Having said that, my friend and former colleague, Jesse Ferrell, has an outstanding weather blog (Weather Matrix). He’s not one of the people that I’m ranting about; he’s not sitting in the middle of the storm, and he provides actual information about the weather related to the storm on his blog—information about the weather (radars, satellite, facts about storm surge), not hypothetical information about what might or might not be happening in the darkness. If you like the weather, then you’ll like his blog.

It’s not his information, but he includes some tidbits about what various news outlets are reporting, and I want to share some of that, with commentary.

Someone on Fox News, a senator I believe, predicted that 125,000 homes would be destroyed by Hurricane Ike and $81 billion dollars of damage would be done. (My comment: That’s an irresponsible prediction; forecasting the amount of damage and number of homes destroyed is not possible. It’s possible to predict how high flooding will be and how strong winds will be, but the amount of damage done by water and wind cannot be forecast and should not be forecast. If less damage is done than predicted, then the perception will be that the storm was not as intense as it “was forecast,” leading to people not heeding weather forecasts in the future.)

Geraldo Rivera reported a 120-mph wind with his hand-held anemometer. (Comment: Please, Geraldo. I know that facts are sometimes optional on Fox News, but even the great Geraldo could not stand in a 120-mph wind. Mike Sidel, on the Weather Channel, can barely stay on his feet when the wind is blowing at 45 mph. Of course, Mr. Sidel either is a bit melodramatic or has a balance disorder, but that’s another story. Regardless, inaccurate information helps no one in any instance.)

Jesse mentioned that Fox News was reporting that officials stated that people who decided to stay on Galveston Island should write their social security numbers on their arms so that their “bodies” could be easily identified later. (Comment: I’m not saying that anyone who chose to stay on Galveston Island is not in grave danger, but that type of fear mongering, again, only leads to a perception that the storm was not as bad as forecast if we’re lucky enough to not have massive casualties.)

Final notes (I know that this is the longest blog I’ve ever written) on television reports that I’ve seen while writing this blog:

I saw Anderson Cooper standing outside in the wind, chastising those residents who were outside in the wind; Mike Bettes (Weather Channel) told people to stay inside while he was standing outside. Bettes also said that “we’re going to help people through this storm–that’s for sure,” as if standing in a storm and saying it’s windy with rain is going to help anyone through a storm.

Much of the in-house (not from the people in the field) discussion was about how much worse the storm would be if it were a category 4 or 5 rather than a strong category 2 or minimum category 3. That is a factor when talking about the intensity of the wind, but it’s not necessarily the case when talking about the storm surge. The surge, which is effectively the amount the ocean level rises when a storm approaches, is a reflection of the size, speed, and direction of the storm, along with the topography of the area it’s approaching. This surge in Hurricane Ike will be the most dangerous part of the storm for those reasons. Its surge will be massive.


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