I certainly didn’t invent chasing hurricanes, but was the first from The Weather Channel in 1985. The earliest chase I remember seeing was, believe it or not, Dan Rather, reporting on Hurricane Carla in 1961. He held on to a palm tree while being blown around in a major hurricane.
When I got to The Weather Channel (TWC), they were only a couple of years old and struggling financially. They had never actually covered the weather outdoors-everything was done with maps in the studio.
They had hired me to produce a documentary on hurricanes with the National Science Foundation, and I was having trouble finding enough good hurricane video. Then came Hurricane Elena. It was headed through the Gulf of Mexico on its way to Pensacola, Florida. It was a holiday weekend, so none of the big bosses were there to say “no,” so I asked the acting manager if I could borrow our photographer, head down to the coast (less than a 6 hour drive), shoot some video, and head back. He said “yes.”
Making a very long story short, Elena stalled in the Gulf, then turned east toward Tampa, stalled again, and finally turned around and headed for Mississippi. Six days and 3000 miles later, we returned to TWC. But not before going through adventure after adventure just trying to get video back to Atlanta.
Some local TV stations had sent satellite trucks to the coast to feed back live or taped video. We didn’t have one. So, we had to shoot video, drive to the nearest airport, and put it on a plane to Atlanta. The extra complication came when the Tampa airport was flooded and closed, even with Elena centered over 100 miles offshore. So, we had to shoot the video in Tampa, drive to the ORLANDO airport, put the tape on the plane, drive back to Tampa, tape some more, then drive back to Orlando,…….you get the picture. And if I wanted to call TWC, we would have to find a phone booth in the middle of the storm. One time we were in downtown Mobile, Alabama, and I was grazed near the eye with a piece of flying glass. A close call!
Watching TWC with 7 (seven!) meteorologists LIVE in various areas affected by Isaac brought back memories and also a great feeling of how amazing TWC has built over the years. There’s a sense of pride, like being an alumnus of a great college. Jim Cantore followed me as the main storm chaser back in the 80s, and he has done an incredible job ever since. Mike Seidel has logged tens of thousands of miles in great chasing as well. And several others have joined the parade. The legendary Al Roker was able to be added to the team once NBC purchased TWC.
We’ve come a long way since 1961, when Dan Rather jump-started his career covering Carla. Now dozens of reporters and meteorologists representing stations across the country compete for the best spots for live reports. Sometimes the only vehicles near the beach as a hurricane approaches are the various giant satellite trucks. I-pads and cell phones are big help, too. Quite a change from my phone booth days. Now that’s progress.