The biggest change in the TV weathercasting business wrought by Hurricane Andrew when it roared across South Florida 20 years ago this summer? That’s easy to answer, laughs WSVN-Fox 7 meteorologist Phil Ferro: that a newspaper reporter would be calling him up to ask such a question.
“Before Andrew, meteorologists were mostly behind the scenes,” he says. “Now we are definitely right there on page one. If there’s even a little burp in the tropics, we’re up there leading the newscast.”
With another hurricane season about to start, TV meteorologists and their crews are gearing up, devising new graphics, stockpiling historical information, and — their greatest and most eternal challenge — trying to hone in on the fine line between warning their viewers and panicking them.
And they’re looking back on the viciously brutal storm that revolutionized their jobs: Andrew, which killed more than two-dozen people, left a quarter of a million homeless and did $26 billion or more (the economists are still arguing) in damage.
“Hurricane Andrew is really a benchmark storm in a lot of ways,” says WFOR-CBS 4’s David Bernard. “It redrew the map of South Florida, shifted the population around in Homestead and Florida City. On the scientific side, it totally redefined how we study hurricanes, it led to a much better understanding of hurricane science. And on the television side, it forced us to become a lot better at articulating our message.”
Local TV coverage of Hurricane Andrew — particularly meteorologist Bryan Norcross’ 23-hour marathon in the anchor chair on WCIX, as WFOR was known at the time — got very high marks from almost everybody once the storm was over. But local weathermen unanimously agree that they will do a better job if another monster storm blows ashore this summer, because technology has improved so much.
“It’s almost impossible to go back in time and think about how we did stuff before computers and the Internet,” says WTVJ-NBC 6 meteorologist John Morales. “Back then we depended almost entirely on what the National Weather Service told us in its bulletins every three hours or every six.
“Now everything is available, instantly, from forecast models to sea temperatures to satellites, which can not only look at clouds but take a sounding, get the temperature at different levels and the moisture at different levels, which tells you a lot about what to expect.”
“The technology enables us to communicate a lot better,” Bernard adds. “Instead of the maps being four or five hours old, we have them immediately, and they’re crisp and clear. On those old ink printers, if it was smudged, oh, too bad.”
That same technology, however, poses new challenges for local TV stations.
“I always tell people that our real competition isn’t channel 4 or channel 6 or channel 10,” Ferro says. “It’s your smart phone. When a hurricane is headed our way, there’s no reason anybody needs to wait for the 6 or 10 p.m. newscast when you can get an update right away on your cellphone. One of the ways we combat that is to be very visual, to provide pictures and graphics that just won’t work on a cellphone.”
And here’s a little footnote about those pictures: It bugs TV people like crazy to hear snarky criticism — especially from print journalists who should know better — that their reporters are showboating when they plunge outside into the wind, rain and high tides of a hurricane.