Hurricane season is over for the year, but all of us vividly remember the television images of Hurricane Matthew bouncing up the East coast, with the Weather Service making hourly updates on where it might land. And, as the hours and days passed, the updates constantly proved the earlier predictions incorrect.
The Weather Service gave us hourly predictions of the storm’s probable path, based on the latest computer modeling that accurately predicted that the storm would do something, somewhere, at some time. Mark Twain once said the most ignorant thing imaginable was a lady’s watch, but I think it safe to add the weather service to that list.
Dan Rather was once asked where he thought a hurricane would make landfall. He answered that he had no idea, but was pretty sure it would not hit Virginia Beach. When asked how he could be so sure, he answered, “Well, the Reverend Pat Robertson has his headquarters in Virginia Beach, and he prays the hurricanes away.” So far, his predictions have been perfect.
I can talk about weather from experience: after six years of living on Galveston Island, followed by three decades of living in the high plains desert of New Mexico, I’ve seen a lot of weather. Between the two locations, I’ve seen a thunder snow, a flood caused by a 10% chance of light showers, several sandstorms, and the memorable day it rained mud. Not only did the weather service get most of this incorrect, but at least one of the possible tracks for Hurricane Matthew had it get fairly close to New Mexico. (And I’ve seen a couple of hurricanes up close—I have the scars and a slight limp to prove it.)
I can’t be the only one who is tired of watching the news channels report about storms by having someone (usually a reporter we have never heard of) standing out in the weather, telling us how dangerous—and difficult—it is to be an idiot standing out in the middle of gale force (or higher) winds. Usually, shortly after saying this, several teenaged morons in bathing suits will be seen running past the reporter as they play in the rain. I can excuse the teenagers for this—after all, they are the flower of American youth—blooming idiots.
What I cannot excuse, however, is the stupid reporter who is standing out in the storm, with the wind almost blowing him away, as he reminds us, not to venture out in the storm. I’d be willing to bet that at least half the viewers are wishing for a piece of errant roofing material to suddenly decapitate the idiot on live television.
Who started this nonsense? I blame it on Dan Rather.
In 1961, Dan Rather was the news director of KHOU-TV in Houston, Texas. A good Texan who had spent most of his life on the Gulf Coast, Dan knew something about hurricanes, and he knew more than a little about good television. At the time, KHOU was working hard to build ratings, mainly by focusing on violence. As Rather explained in his autobiography The Camera Never Blinks, “Houston was big on fires and car wrecks and murders.” The inside joke at KHOU was that the best stories focused on FUZZ (the police) and WUZ (the deceased).
A good hurricane would be even better, and Rather was watching one that had just crossed the Yucatan peninsula. In addition, he knew a few things the rest of the local news people did not: if the hurricane got near to Galveston, access to and escape from the island via the causeway would be cut off quickly by the rising water. More important, he knew that the Galveston office of the Weather Service (then called the Weather Bureau) had the only radar scope on the Gulf coast. This would show the storm’s approach toward Texas and long before the storm actually hit land (and thus hours before any other news agency had any television footage), Rather could show the storm approaching the coast.
So, Rather moved the station’s mobile unit to the offices of the Galveston Weather Service, that was then located on the fifth floor of the post office building and waited. Sure enough, the storm made its way toward the island and the storm surge cut off the causeway—the single highway link connecting Galveston to the mainland. Since the radar screen was hard to interpret, a clear plastic overlay showing the Texas coast was laid on top of the scope. Viewers were astonished to see the massive storm, estimated at 400 miles wide, approaching the coast.
The WSR-57 radar was primitive by today’s standards, but this was the first time a live radar image was broadcast to show a hurricane. This event changed television news reporting forever.
KHOU not only won the ratings war but its dramatic reporting of the storm's approach prompted the largest peacetime evacuation of civilians in history up to that date: an estimated 350,000 people fled the coast. For days, Rather reported from Galveston as the storm landed just a few miles south of the island. Rather was smart enough not to go stand in the storm, but took live photos out the fifth floor window. His coverage was picked by the station’s network, CBS, and seen by damn near everyone in the country. At one point, Walter Cronkite—another good Texan—joked that because of rising water, “Dan Rather was ass deep in water moccasins.”
The snake story was a little fanciful. Far be it from me to say that a fellow Texan stretched the truth, but while I have seen a lot of snakes following a storm on that island, I’ve never seen them five stories deep.
It doesn’t matter--Dan Rather’s fortune was made. CBS had seen him think on his feet, had seen him cover a live event, and they hired him away from KHOU television. Two years later, he was delivering film to a bureau office in Dallas while President Kennedy was passing through town. Not directly connected to the news coverage of the day, he decided to walk over and see the presidential motorcade pass by. He arrived at the grassy knoll overlooking Dealey Plaza just in time to see the panic following the president's assassination.
I’m sure that there are lots of reporters who would say that Dan Rather was just lucky. Possibly true—after all, Dan Rather certainly had the luck that frequently comes to people who work hard. But ever since Carla, every time a storm gets close enough to photograph, every local reporter who owns a rain coat heads to the beach and hopes that lightning will strike twice.