“ON THE BEACH”
That’s what they call it when you’re unemployed in the TV business.
“So, what’s Harry doing now?”
“Oh, he’s on the beach”
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Well, I had been “on the beach” for several months after having my contract not renewed in Raleigh. Job prospects weren’t panning out. It was a rough time.
Then, on the morning of August 23, 1992, I got a call from my best friend, Jim Reif, who was the Chief Meteorologist at WINK-TV in Ft. Myers, Florida. WINK was a powerhouse back then, and Jim was “The Man” in that part of the state.
“How’d you like to work a hurricane?” he asked.
“I talked to my News Director, and he thinks it’s a good idea to bring you down to work Hurricane Andrew for us. I already booked you on the flight to get here, assuming you’d be willing and able to do it.”
“ANDREW”-FROM MINI TO MONSTER
Andrew became a Tropical Depression out in the middle of the Atlantic on August 16. This is known as the MDR (“Main Development Region”) for tropical development in the Atlantic. Some of the biggest and most disastrous hurricanes have formed in this area.
It had been an incredibly quiet hurricane season in the Atlantic, as evidenced by the first storm of the season not forming until AFTER August 15th-an extremely late start. This was largely due to the moderate El Nino in the Tropical Pacific that often leads to less active hurricane seasons in the Atlantic (just as this year). But Andrew turned out to be the classic example of: “All it takes is one to make it a bad hurricane season."
Andrew became a tropical storm on August 17th, but it was an unusually small storm, and, of course, a weak one. Here’s the track, via a great interactive website from NOAA.
“WORKING THE HURRICANE”
Jim had convinced his bosses to hire me as a consultant, and also to be on-air as an extra hurricane “expert." My background at the National Hurricane Center and as a Hurricane Specialist at The Weather Channel gave them confidence that I knew about hurricanes. And I already knew the area well, since I had visited Jim many times in the past. Jim’s wife picked me up at the airport and drove me to the station. And I went on TV only a short time later.
“Who the hell is this guy?” I can imagine people saying this as they tuned in to their favorite TV channel as the worst storm since 1960 threatened. But they put me on-air with Jim, the most trusted TV person in the area. That made all the difference. Being best friends allowed us to have an instant chemistry on-air. As August 23 turned into August 24, Jim and I continued our marathon. Once Andrew started strengthening rapidly and moving straight west toward Florida, there was no other news. It was all Andrew.
“DON’T PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT DAN RATHER JUST SAID”
WINK-TV was an affiliate of CBS, and an important one at that. Station ratings were among the highest of any CBS affiliate in the country year after year. That meant the CBS national news programs also had high ratings. So the #1 anchorman in the Ft. Myers/Naples area was Dan Rather. But as many meteorologists have discovered over the years, Dan Rather was not the most accurate or responsible communicator of hurricane information.
Andrew was an unusually small hurricane. Even when it became what is now known as a Category 5 storm (it was upgraded from a 4 to 5 many years later), the hurricane force winds only extended about 25 miles from the center, so the resulting damage was only in a narrow area. As we soon learned, the city of Miami had minimal damage, while Homestead, only 25 miles away, was basically destroyed.
We could see how small Andrew was, and also that it was moving straight west. I’ve attached a Florida map just to show you how ridiculous the Dan Rather quote would be:
Now take a line from Homestead straight west (right to left). Does that line come anywhere close to Fort Myers? Either Dan Rather didn’t know how to read a map, didn’t realize how small Andrew was, or just wanted to scare people, we didn’t know. All we knew was that he was dead wrong when, after showing the South Miami area getting clobbered, he said: “Next stop: Fort Myers!”
This was the #1 voice of the entire network, and scared the daylights out of thousands, or even tens of thousands of people who were watching at the time. Jim and I were furious! Our whole message that morning was that Andrew would track well south of the area, and only the Naples area would get significant wind and rain. And even then, it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as the southern part of the Miami area. But what do we say on CBS immediately after Rather’s comments?
Jim decided (and I firmly agreed) to directly comment on the words issued seconds before. “Don’t pay attention to what Dan Rather just said”, said Reif, and then we both explained in detail why he was wrong. And why our viewers shouldn’t think that Andrew had changed course and was headed right at us. There were very few people in the area that had ever experienced a hurricane of any kind, let alone a major one. The station was flooded with calls from frantic viewers who were going to stay home, but now needed to escape the area.
You might wonder if our management was upset that we slammed Dan Rather on live TV on their local CBS station. Nope. All they wanted to know is if we were sure it wasn’t going to cause major damage in the Ft. Myers area, and then gave us their full support. I can’t tell you what the competing stations said (we were a bit busy), but the feedback later in the form of calls, letters, and personal comments were unanimous in gratitude and congratulations.
“IT WAS LIKE A 20 MILE WIDE TORNADO”
The damage in the Naples area was on the minor side. And there was virtually no damage in the Ft. Myers area. Many parts of our area didn’t even see a drop of rain!
I went to the Homestead area shortly after the storm to inspect the damage and report for the station. “It was like a 20 mile wide tornado hit the area. Everything is gone. People can’t even find where there houses used to be.” It was devastating to see the destruction. We couldn’t help thinking, what if? What if Andrew tracked 20-40 miles farther north, with the “donut of destruction” directly hitting the Miami area? What if Andrew was a much larger storm? It could have been so much worse.
(After the storm, WINK offered me a full-time contract. It was only three more years before I made it home to Philly.)