Local Weather: Come Hell or High Water
Weather. It impacts everything we do or don’t do on a given day. If there’s one piece of information we need above and beyond anything else on any given day, it’s local weather. It impacts what we wear, how we do our hair, if we stay in or go out, or if we decide to throw “adult” to the wind and enjoy the day outside. On the extreme end, it saves lives.
There are times I wonder why I didn’t go into weather. I’ve loved weather and all its forms since I was little.
Growing up in the Midwest city of St. Louis, we got all kinds of weather. Storms in the spring & summer, snow in the winter, the occasional ice storm, and even tornado sirens blaring several times a year. We even had a few earthquakes (I know, not quite weather, but weather-ish, right?)
“Grab one thing you can’t live without and get in the basement!” – Mom
When storms were coming, I had polar opposite parental influences. My mom was the one who panicked. Her line of “Grab one thing you can’t live without and get in the basement!” lives on in family stories. I am pretty sure if she had her way, we would have stayed in the basement from the sun being out until the storm passed over and through the following three hours. I can still hear the crackly noise of the weather radio sometimes as a phantom sound when storms are coming.
My dad was on the other side of the storm spectrum. He would be outside as they rolled in. I would join him. He’d nestled me between his legs as I sat one step below him on the stairs and he would explain to me what was happening. The color of the sky. The rotations of clouds. The smell of rain coming long before it got to us. The clap of thunder and the time it took to be heard from the lightning strike. It’s a magical childhood memory I keep close to my heart. When the worst of the weather was coming my dad and I were the closest we’d ever be.
Until my mom would bellow “JACK! OPEN THE WINDOWS! GET IN THE BASEMENT! SHE’S GOING TO GET KILLED”.
In fourth grade, I remember a day of storms. My mom almost kept me home from school but relented. I was sitting in my classroom at Immanuel Lutheran School. The windows covered the side of the classroom. I was already prone to daydreaming with these windows, but the storms made it Level 12 Day Dreaming.
As the storm came in, the sirens went off and we all got under our desks and assumed the cradled position with hands over our heads. Despite the teacher screaming repeatedly “KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN”, I had to look. I saw a rotating cloud of hell outside trying hard to spin off a tornado.
I thought “I can’t wait to tell dad about this!”
The tornado didn’t happen and we all got back to our school work about an hour later. The storm had given way to a clear sky and a breeze, so the windows were open. Seconds later the all-too-familiar revving of my mom’s Chevy came into the parking lot. She ran through the school halls looking for her kids and took us home. After the storm was already over. As I said in the backseat “That was SO cool” I was promptly told I wasn’t getting a snack because of that comment.
One year in the late ’90s, I was with a group of friends at Riverport Amphitheatre outside St. Louis and the concert was Montel Jordan, Boyz II Men, and TLC. As we chanted “This is how we dooooooo etttt”, the sky was clear. By the time we got to The End of The Road, the storms were brewing above us. Once we were Chasing Waterfalls, we were also dodging hail and lightning. The concert didn’t stop and neither did we.
I’d like to tell you my biggest concern was getting hit by lightning, but I was really more worried about all the Aqua Net in my hair that was now a soggy wet-dog mess. And we were going to the bar after and how was I going to look presentable like this?
When I got home late that night, my mom was wide awake – seething. “Well, I’m glad you aren’t dead” followed by the obligatory mom “I worry about you and you don’t care enough about my worry” speech.
I said, “What are you TALKING about?”.
She then told me my location had been under several tornado warnings that night and it was “all over the news”. She also told me I looked like a drowned rat. Talk about feeling Unpretty. But my mom didn’t mince words and I guess that’s why I don’t either. For what it is worth, dad slept through the whole storm.
In 1993 a great flood spread across the St. Louis area. When you look at it and realize how surrounded by rivers St. Louis really is, you’ll see how it crippled the area. My friends and I got on boats and went out into floodwaters and saw the roof of a house, a stop sign “way down there” and so many other oddities of things that shouldn’t be underwater.
By the time I went to college that fall and had the first half of the semester, I had forgotten about my summer flood stories and just wanted to get home. I took “the back way” to save time down a windy, dark, narrow road that cut 20 minutes off the trip in good weather. I also hadn’t been able to take this road all summer because it was flooded. But that was over, right? As I turned left over a small bridge spanning the Meramec River, I came to a screeching halt in 6 inches of floodwater and the headlights of my car looked over a flooded basin.
“We’re not going to tell mom about that”, I said to myself as I carefully backed up and went back to the highway.
Of course, I did have to tell my mom how I got home for Thanksgiving the next year. An ice storm froze everything along I-44, and I was told to stay at the sorority house – it was too dangerous to drive. That was just unacceptable to me, so I got in my car and started the slow trek in freezing rain. God was with me that day when he put a salt truck right in front of me as soon as I got on I-44, and I followed that dude the whole way into St. Louis. A three-hour trip took six, and while my mom hugged me she said “Damn you, it’s dangerous.” I could barely keep a straight face as I said “It’s really not that bad. They are making it sound more dramatic than it is.” She then told me she could tell I gained weight at college. Good old mom.
Once I ventured out on my own, I started seeing new kinds of weather-related events that piqued my interest. Living out west, wildfires are such a terrible sight to see. You quickly learn what’s a controlled burn, versus the ones they try to put out versus the ones they have to get to immediately. You learn about Defensible Space and how winds impact the spread of the fire. You learn to NEVER get under the water drop of a wildfire because they’ll take water anywhere they can get it – yep – even the local sewage pond.
Then in the desert of Arizona, I learned about Haboobs and Dust Storms and Dust Devils. You learn that Monsoon Season is a redundant term so you should just say Monsoon (at least according to my meteorologist, I know there is some debate on that). You see crystal clear skies turn to night in minutes and then within an hour skies are clear again. You learn about “washes”, those empty channels all across town that turn into raging rivers when it rains hard. You see rescues of people who went to go swimming and ended up dying.
In Memphis, there is a myth that “The Bluffs keep the tornadoes from crossing over into Memphis”, which isn’t the case. You also learn that at least as of 2000, Memphis didn’t have all its buildings up to earthquake code and that New Madrid fault line was going to shudder at some point and Memphis would be in shambles.
Then there was the time in Tulsa when I locked the entire staff out of the building during a tornado warning accidentally and we had to crawl in a window to get to safety.
In Las Vegas, I was there for a “once in a century” snowstorm. It was 2008. My mom had died earlier that way, ripping the seams of my family apart. My nephew who was 3 at the time, had said to me the day after her funeral “When you leave, are you going to heaven too?”. I said, “No buddy, I am going to Las Vegas. The difference is I can come back from Las Vegas, grandma can’t come back from heaven.” So, we struck a deal. I would come back for his birthday in December. That would show him the difference and rid his mind of worry that I was taking a one-way trip to the Golden Gates.
So, when it was about to “snow” in mid-December of that year, I didn’t think much of it. A novelty, yes, we’d seem a few flakes before in Las Vegas, but nothing substantial. As the hours passed before my flight the snow got heavier, thicker, and was actually sticking. There were no snowplows – it was Vegas after all! The airport had no de-icer or plow. So, everything shut down and I broke a promise to a 3-year-old. I was stuck.
I wish I could accurately write the feeling of being in the desert in a snowstorm and seeing people’s face who had never seen snow in their life trying to build a snowman, the weight the snow had on palm trees, the traffic that was at a standstill all over town because nobody could drive in snow.
In Huntsville, we got hit by a major ice storm. Our station was on top of a hill, and the road closed down when the ice started so we were stuck there. 2-3 inches of ice and it’s all downhill from where we were. I couldn’t even walk across the parking lot to my car without 3 falls and leg fatigue for days.
We did get a call from Good Morning America, wanting a standup from a reporter, and three of us went outside to plan the perfect standup on a sheet of ice with very little sleep under our belts to help the balancing act. It paid off – we made it to GMA.
And l’ll never forget this guy, who couldn’t be bothered to clean off his windshield more than that little bit. (Look in the rearview mirror to see him.)
By this point I had seen all the weather I wanted to see, except a hurricane. It was on my bucket list. I moved to Sarasota and got my fill. I learned about spaghetti models and the “dirty side of the storm”, which we always seemed to be on. I realized I actually liked the beach more when the sea was angry than when it was calm. I also learned that blowing sand on a beach is like taking rough sandpaper to your skin and can actually remove a few layers of it.
Hurricane Irma was “the big one”, and the spaghetti models kept up hopping. It’s coming right at us, no it turned, no it’s back, nope it’s clear, wait it’s back. I actually had a “if anything happens to me here’s what I want you to do” conversation with someone close to me, as a Category 4 storm was poised at us.
We were locked in the station and quite frankly it got to a point of “JUST GET HERE” because the mind games it was playing in advance were just too exhausting. I took one last picture of “The Beauty Before The Beast” and hunkered down in wall-to-wall coverage.
Now I’m in Nebraska. My weather journey here has taken me through a storm with 14 inches of snow in 24 hours. Not since the mountains of the Sierra Nevadas had I seen snow fall so quickly. I’d never seen it fall like that at an elevation less than 5000 feet.
During “tornado season” and I keep my eyes on the sky at all times. I took a Severe Weather Spotter class with the National Weather Service so I could feel “official”.
My love of severe weather is still rooted in fascination but has taken a practical turn. People watch local news when severe weather is coming. I need them to watch the local news. I live to provide local news. Any eyes I can get, I will take, and will work tirelessly to get them the information they need to stay safe and informed on the most hyper-local of levels.
But “There’s an app for that!” you might say. Yes, there is. It can give you a lot of information. But it can’t tell the weather story as well as your local meteorologist.
You might start with the app, but eventually, you are going to turn to local news. You want to see timelines and future casts. You want someone you trust to walk you through what is happening in your neighborhood. Not some person in an office far away spitting out data – someone who is perfectly poised with information to break down weather to your neighborhood level.
I’ve done several meteorologist searches in my years of news management, and there is never a flood of applicants for the job. Mix in “other duties” for a weekend meteorologist and the pile gets thinner. Meteorologists aren’t always journalists. They don’t want to do news stories, they want to craft the science into the storytelling of weather.
Broadcast Meteorologists also live a life with puns and putdowns day-to-day.
“How’s the weather today?” times a trillion.
“It must be nice to be wrong half the time and still get a paycheck.”
“You said it probably wasn’t going to rain and it did. It ruined my birthday party.”
“Is it going to snow two weeks from Thursday?”
“Stop standing in front of my city on the map. Don’t you care about us in our city?”
“I liked the other weather guy better. Where’s he now?”
And so on.
But they also get their share of accolades.
“The only reason I was calm during Irma was because you were calm. Thank you.”
“When you tell me to get to my safe place, I run. I trust you.”
“I almost left to travel on I-80, but your forecast helped keep me from getting stuck.”
Meteorologists can’t predict the weather, they can only forecast it using all points of data.
Local stations have a thankless yet critical job during weather. The calls pour in during severe weather of any kind.
One woman in Sarasota was on the 12th floor of a building hours before Hurricane Irma hit and she wanted to know if she should evacuate. What was I to tell her? It was too late? Prayers are all you have now? Yes, hit the road – but risk putting her in a life or death situation? I could only give information and be a compassionate listener.
TV Stations have areas that can span far and wide. Their DMA, as it’s called, is the entire viewing area they cover. Just because it’s not storming at YOUR house, doesn’t mean it isn’t storming anywhere. Yet we still get the “Put my damn program back on. Who cares about a tornado in that county far away?” If I had a dollar for every angry General Hospital viewer I’ve spoken to over my years I could open up my own weather network.
We will provide emergency weather information to all parts of the DMA come – literally – hell or high water. We aren’t sorry you missed your show. Not one bit.
News people will cringe when they see a forecast for a storm during any kind of pro-sporting event timeframe. We know the calls are coming, the angry viewers want to see the game and we have no choice but to provide the weather information. Maybe we can just do a crawl – but then it might cover up the score. We might do a split-screen – but still, people are mad. We WILL cut in with a Tornado Warning and we know a bunch of EF-5 Level Angry Calls are coming in. When you call to complain during severe weather, you are keeping someone from doing their job of providing that critical information. I’m happy to just to say “I’ll go do that to myself as soon as these storms pass” when someone tells me to F-myself.
I love to do my own version of storm chasing or storm storytelling, doing Facebook lives with my dashcam and my trusty dog in the back seat. I scour social media for content when the storms are hitting. I join Facebook groups for storm chasers and I tweet our content to any meteorologist I can find. While I never really want Jim Cantore to come to my town, maybe there’s a secret part of me that does.
I respect the role we are given in our community to give information without sensationalism but also respect that while “yes, it storms here all the time” it still impacts people’s lives.
Or maybe I’m still that little girl inside, staring at the storms in bewilderment on the steps. Either way, I’m right where I belong and I’ll still be the last person to the basement.
Next time you see your local meteorologist, give them a “thank you” for all they do in your community to keep people safe and informed. We need to keep growing that next crop of scientists with the personality and dynamics of being on air. We need to never call them “Weather Girls” because they are scientists.
The app is fine, but the people who give you the weather and related information genuinely care about you. No app can do that. Just ask Siri.
“Siri, do you care about me?”