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'Going With Their Gut'

How Florida stations kept an eye on the hurricanes

FT. MYERS, ORLANDO & WINTER PARK, FLA

In their nonstop, live coverage of the four hurricanes that pelted Florida in quick succession--Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne--local television stations in the state proved indispensable to their audiences. The TV stations we spoke with expressed confidence that their diligent, accurate and timely reporting undoubtedly saved lives.

Because local broadcasters were able to focus their resources on the needs of their particular markets, their viewers were better prepared for the impact of the storms, or made a decision to evacuate based upon the judgment calls of their trusted local TV weathermen.

"There's just no doubt in my mind that our live weather reports saved lives. Our experience, especially in the coverage of Hurricane Charley, proved the case for why we still need powerful, local affiliates in each market," said Steven Pontius, executive vice president and general manager of Waterman Broadcasting, the licensee of WBBH-NBC 2 in Ft. Myers. Through an LMA with Montclair Communications, Waterman also manages WZVN-ABC 7 in Ft. Myers. Pontius said that the two stations' news and weather resources were combined into a highly competitive, informative round-the-clock simulcast, with audio carried on local radio.

CHARLEY TAKES A TURN

At 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 13, 2004, when the National Hurricane Center (NHC) was reporting that Charley was a Category Two hurricane headed north toward Tampa, the weather experts at WBBH and WZVN saw a different scenario emerging. Using the stations' live weather radar feed, they realized that the storm was actually turning--and the slight veer to the northeast put Charley in the direct path of their Ft. Myers, Punta Gorda, Cape Coral market.

"At 11 a.m., the NHC was sticking to their Tampa trajectory," said Pontius. "But our guys were certain that the storm now presented a danger to our market, so we immediately decided to go with it."

In their live report, WBBH chief meteorologist Robert Van Winkle and WZVN meteorologist Jim Reif explained to viewers that while the NHC had the storm heading for Tampa, they believed that Charley (now a Category Four) had taken an obvious and distinct turn to the northeast, making it a serious threat to their area.

"Our report gave our viewers a one and a half hour 'heads-up' in which they could evacuate or hunker down, before the storm knocked the power out," said Pontius.

In a letter to WBBH, Jan Ramos, a viewer in North Ft. Myers, thanked the meteorology team who "dared" to veer from the NHC's predictions: "I am certain that you are responsible for saving many lives. You gave many area residents a 'golden' hour or so to prepare for the completely unexpected! I am certain you made the difference between life or death in many, many cases."

During Charley, the broadcast facility housing WBBH and WZVN sustained significant damage, including its satellite dishes behind the building. The fleet of ENG trucks sustained significant damage, and two news vehicles were completely destroyed along with a satellite truck.

In Punta Gorda, the walls and windows of an office building that served as the stations' news bureau blew in, trapping WBBH reporter Amy Oshier inside. She was rescued by the station's videographer Mike Mason.

"They then got into one of the damaged news vehicles, which had its windows, windshield and headlights broken, and drove it in the dark for 30 miles over downed power lines back to the station," said Pontius.

Another news crew stationed on the fifth floor of a condominium on Ft. Myer Beach (one of the area's barrier islands) also provided live coverage of the hurricane.

By overlaying local Doppler and Nexrad radar graphics on top of the stations' newly installed Baron's street mapping software, meteorologists in the studio were able to predict the exact moment that the live crews would see the eye of the hurricane arrive. Pontius said after stripping everything off the Web site, they focused all their bandwidth on the delivery of this radar graphic via their Web sites.

MAKE OR BREAK

At WFTV-TV, the ABC-9 affiliate in Orlando, Chief Meteorologist Tom Terry had a similar experience. At 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 13, he and his weather team determined that Hurricane Charley had veered from the northerly track predicted in the NHC advisory, and instead would likely go through Ft. Myers and ultimately into Orlando.

"At 11 a.m., we had to break into the ABC News Special Report where anchor Elizabeth Vargas was reporting that the NHC advisory had the storm headed for Tampa and that Tampa had been evacuated. We broke in and said, 'Folks, what you just heard is incorrect. Charley's coming to Orlando,'" said Terry. "We took a big risk here because the NHC continued to report the storm as headed to Tampa. In fact, our local emergency operations center was planning to dismiss everyone for the afternoon until they saw our report."

By 12:05 p.m., Terry was on the air with a graphic that he had physically drawn (using Doppler radar, Baron's radar software and WSI's weather graphics system) to show the new track, which was a whole lot different from the NHC track. Terry said that a big storm in the Gulf was pushing against Hurricane Charley, causing it to change course toward the northeast.

"It was a very trying time because we were going against the NHC advisory. A lot was at stake, but we stuck to it because we knew we were right," said Terry.

By 2 p.m., the NHC had corrected its track to show Charley's new northeasterly direction, but WFTV viewers already had a three-hour advance warning to hunker down or evacuate.

"We were already the number one station in Orlando, but that new storm track, and our coverage that followed, made my personal reputation in this market; and it boosted our station's credibility and standings," said Terry. "We made our reputation that day."

WFTV provided extensive coverage of all four hurricanes, paying particularly close attention to Charley, Frances and Jeanne, the three that directly affected the Orlando area.

According to Craig Mazer, WFTV's Web site manager, "We were streaming our live TV weather graphics on our Web site, along with text-based information about school closings and evacuations. Also, as a Cox-owned television station, our signal was simulcast by many Cox-owned radio stations in the market." Although there was no damage to the station's facility, WFTV did shift over to a back-up generator to ensure uninterrupted operations during the hurricanes.

REACHING VIEWERS

WESH-TV2, a Hearst-Argyle station in Winter Park, Fla., provided 35 straight hours of live coverage for Hurricane Charley, 68 hours for Hurricane Frances and 37 hours for Hurricane Jeanne.

"When a hurricane comes to our market, it's a total station effort. One of the things we do here that's important is our 'WESH Hurricane Helpline.' This year, we had 10 phone lines that were manned by employees and their spouses who were set up in Studio 3 and shown working there as part of our live coverage," said Bill Bauman, president and general manager of WESH-TV. "By having the Hurricane Helpline (1-800-TEL-WESH), we have an interactive connection with our viewers, and a means of providing a public service where viewers can get answers to their specific questions. This also takes the pressure off our assignment desk, where our news director is busy coordinating reporters, live reports and other news logistics."

Among the logistics to be determined are which of the neighboring counties' Emergency Operations Centers' news conferences to cover live, in addition to Governor Bush's 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. hurricane news briefings. At WESH, the station's Hurricane Committee also reviews procedures and checks supplies, such as fuel for the live trucks and backup generator power for the operations and transmission sites.

"After Hurricane Frances, 1 million homes were without power and after Hurricane Jeanne, 800,000 homes were without power," said Bauman. "We know we're on the power grid too so backup power and plans are essential."

If their viewers did not have battery-operated TV sets, they could turn to radio partner (Clear Channel) Magic 107.7fm to hear WESH's live coverage. Also, the station's two Web sites, www.wesh.com and www.orlandoweather.com, registered 30 million page views in August and September, surpassing all of 2003.

"We also live-streamed our on-air coverage to both Web sites, and people from around the world watched as the hurricanes passed over Central Florida. We got e-mails from Singapore, Japan, UK, Europe and throughout America," said Bauman.

During the live storm coverage, WESH's procedures split the station's personnel into an "A team," which worked from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m.; and a "B team" which worked from 3 a.m. to 3 p.m.

"On-air anchors got regular breaks, and we sent two crews with every truck, to keep the reporting fresh," said Bauman.

Immediately following the hurricanes, WESH-TV sent up its news helicopter (with gyro lens) to televise live "Sky Tours," where they flew over their market's key counties--Brevard, Volusia, Orange and Seminole--so viewers could get a firsthand look at the damage.

"Orlando had not had a direct hit from a major hurricane since 1961 and suddenly we had three come through in six weeks," said Bauman. "Our extensive hurricane planning really paid off."

The stations we spoke with said that, during the hurricanes, they were without overnight Nielsen reports, so there was no way to assess the impact of their storm coverage on viewership. They also said that they stressed safety for their news crews, and even allowed employees time off so they could board up their houses. Once they knew their families were taken care of, they could focus on covering the breathtaking experience and costly devastation of the Florida hurricanes.