Friday, March 2, 2012

The Weatherman

People who really know me know that I have always been, and always will be a dreamer.  I come up with some of the craziest ideas and goals, and I don't know that I'll ever really grow up.  When I was a kid I wanted to be a lot of things... first, of course, a NASCAR driver, then a paleontologist, a professional tennis player (I'm still holding up hope that I can get on the track someday!)... but I finally settled with "meteorologist" on the morning of March 13, 1993 when I witnessed one of the most intense and impactful winter storms in history, the March 1993 Superstorm.  While I had already been interested in the weather for quite some time, seeing this storm pretty much sealed the deal for me that I was going to go to school to study meteorology, and go on to forecast these storms in a career as a TV meteorologist. (Stay tuned for later posts on how I became a meteorologist and how my career has evolved!)

As I write this, I am reading reports of a tornado near my old stomping grounds in the Roswell/Marietta, Georgia area and watching radar as best I can while taking care of things at home.  Eight years ago, I would have been getting ready for a potentially very long night covering severe weather as Chief Meteorologist of Fox 24 News in Macon.  Five years ago, I'd have been tearing apart weather models in Savannah to see if I would need to go into work early tomorrow to cover potential severe weather on WSAV channel 3.  Now, I'm in Houston, Texas.  I'm no longer in the TV business, don't have to worry about staying up all night watching the radar for work, and my Saturday will be spent hanging around the house with my family.

The life of a TV meteorologist is not as glamorous as many people think.  The hours can be ridiculous (I have worked as much as 32 hours straight, and 17 days in a row on different shifts), the pay is horrible (unless you are much better looking than me!), and the business can be very cruel and artificial (I won't elaborate on that).  The reason I went to Florida State was to learn the hows and whys of weather and also craft my on-air skills through its outstanding TV weather program.  When I started school there and began performing weathercasts on the university's cable television channel, I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.  My dreams were coming true.  I wasn't just presenting the weather, I was also forecasting it, and being able to explain it and get the forecast right on the air really meant something, because I was trying to impress my peers in the meteorology department, as well as dignitaries within the university and government (our broadcasts were often viewed by politicians since we were in Tallahassee, Florida's capital).

After graduating from Florida State, I landed a job in Macon, Georgia as Chief Meteorologist and worked there for almost two years.  I had a blast working there.  I had the "Chief" title (I was the only meteorologist there), and the flexibility to do just about whatever I wanted with my weathercasts.  I even worked out a deal with my News Director to let me produce and anchor a weekly NASCAR news block during the sports segment!  Because I was the only meteorologist there, and I was responsible for all severe weather coverage, I still had the same feeling I had in college.  I felt like I was the "weather authority" and that my accuracy and knowledge was more important than anything else.

In 2005, I started working at WSAV in Savannah, Georgia as the weekend meteorologist.  I was the low man on the totem pole, working as a weather producer and fill-in talent during the week.  No disrespect to Fox in Macon, which has improved tremendously since I was there, but WSAV felt like a major market to me, with a much larger staff of experienced journalists and more substantial on-air presence. Over time though, and not really at the fault of anyone at the station, I think I transitioned into more of a "weather guy".  I was no longer the Chief or "weather authority" all the time... Except on weekends, I was the supporting role.  I found myself spending less time on the forecast and more time on working on presenting the forecast.  How I looked and sounded was becoming more important than what I was actually saying on the air.  Consultants were telling me I needed to "smile more" and show my personality more.  What happened to keeping people safe, explaining the forecast and teaching people about the weather, educating them about weather safety, and just being myself?  It worked in school, and it seemed to work in Macon... 

The reality was, I was in a bigger market, working for a major television news corporation, and in front of a larger audience.  I had reached the point where just knowing your stuff as a meteorologist wasn't good enough, you had to entertain people too.  I was the first person in the Savannah market to earn the "Certified Broadcast Meteorologist" seal from the American Meteorological Society, an accreditation that requires not only certain broadcasting skills, but passing a written exam to ensure you do actually "know your stuff"... but it didn't matter to anyone.  It wasn't even really promoted, in my opinion, because wouldn't it look weird to promote that I was a "certified" broadcast meteorologist when the Chief wasn't?  In late 2007, with my contract about to be up the following year, I started looking at other options, both inside and outside of TV.  Among other things, I think it was the day that we were taping our first HD promos and talent ID's that I decided I was ready to do something else.  As I sat in a director's chair with a makeup artist dabbing way too much stuff on my face, I thought "I'm not sure this is really me!". But when someone told me that there were a lot of meteorologists in TV who were great at the science side of things, but "quite frankly, they suck on the air", it truly hit me that I was in the wrong business.  Was I one of those people?

In the Spring of 2008, after a lot of reflection and prayer, and even with our first child (not yet a year old) at home, I informed station management that I was not going to renew my contract, despite not having anything new lined up.  The details of what happened to my career after this are better left for another entry (probably titled "I Am the Luckiest Man on Earth"), but suffice to say my family and I went through a period of great uncertainty.  It was a tough time for me professionally, too... I did feel as though I was giving up.  I wanted more out of my career, whether it was in TV or something else, and if I was going to leave TV, was I going to regret it because I didn't realize my full potential or never felt like I had really "made it"?

On Saturday, March 15th, 2008, I kissed my wife and little girl goodbye and left for work at my normal time of 1:30pm.  It was the weekend of St. Patrick's Day, and in Savannah they celebrate BIG.  Downtown became a huge party by evening, just as severe weather began making its way toward southeast Georgia.  I began cutting into programming after the six o'clock news as storms rolled into the viewing area.  Not long after, I noticed a strengthening storm that was threatening Effingham County, where my wife, daughter, and dog sat alone at home.  There was no warning out for it yet, so I first called my wife to tell her to take cover in the bathroom of our small one-story home.  I then went on the air and started covering it.

In between live cut-ins, I tried to call my wife and update her, as the storm had knocked out power and she could not see me on the air.  I felt totally helpless not being there for my family, but at least had the peace of mind knowing that my wife was also a meteorologist, and knew what to do.  The only thing I could do was go on the air and try to warn others.  Have you ever been watching a show and had it interrupted by a severe weather update for a county or city 50 miles from you?  Did it make you angry?  Well, because of this and because there are paid commercials that are scheduled to air, many stations have policies for their meteorologists to follow so that they minimize disruption of programming, but it is usually the responsibility of the meteorologist to decide when to cut-in.  I think in part because I knew I wasn't going to be staying at WSAV and didn't care if I got in trouble for any reason, I made sure I stayed on the air.  I didn't care what programming was on... I knew this was a dangerous storm and people needed to hear about it.

As it turns out, the storm did produce a tornado.  It was an EF2 that dropped near Springfield, went through Stillwell, and finally lifted at a power plant just a few miles away from our home. The tornado traveled right along a path of high voltage transmission towers straight to the power plant, which provided power to downtown Savannah.  Remember I said that there was a huge party going on downtown for St. Patrick's Day?  Yeah... several thousand people were there when the city went dark.  It was chaos.  Thousands of drunk people, walking around by the light of their cell phones!  But the bigger story was just down the road from where my wife, daughter and dog were thankfully safe and sound.  This tornado damaged or destroyed several homes in these small towns, leaving people homeless and some injured.  I later heard a story about some kids who were thrown from their mobile home into the nearby woods (but somehow avoided major injuries).

It was a long night for the weekend news crew.  We were short-staffed, I don't think any of us had eaten anything since lunch, and we stayed on the air beyond our normal 11:30pm sign-off because there were so many people affected by power outages, and police were trying to take care of the mess downtown.  But toward the end of our newscast, our anchor told me that someone had called the newsroom, not to complain about us cutting into programming for a small town tornado, but to thank me for being on the air, warning those in its path of the danger.  The other day I googled my name randomly, just to see what I might find, and came across this archived article written on a couple days after the storm.  Couple Says WSAV Warning Saved Them from Tornado. A couple months later, and just one month before I would start a new career outside of TV, I covered another weekend severe weather outbreak which spawned even stronger tornadoes in parts of southeast Georgia.  Several emails and phone calls came through the news room thanking me for my coverage.

With the storms rolling through the southeast tonight, I am reminded of that night and what it meant to me.  First, I realized that if I could help it, I never wanted to go through another situation where I was on the air covering a tornado and couldn't be at home with my family, helping to keep them safe.  At the same time, I remember how happy I was that night to hear from my co-anchor that my work had made a difference in someone's life.  It was the only time in my short TV career I got a little choked up on the air.

TV meteorologists go through this stuff all the time.  Several of my friends in Atlanta and Macon are dealing with a much more significant outbreak than I ever covered right as I write this.  What I did was nothing unprecedented.  There are a couple things I really do miss about working in TV... talking to school kids about the weather, and trying my best to keep people safe during severe weather.  Though I've made the switch from warning the public about tornadoes to warning natural gas traders of impending cold weather (or this year, the lack thereof), I still find myself going into severe weather mode sometimes when storms threaten my friends and family (I did a little of that tonight!).  But for me, after receiving the phone calls and emails from people affected by those storms in the spring of 2008, I was able to walk away from the cameras feeling like I had made a difference, and that's all that any of us weather nerds really want to do. To this day, and especially after finding that article again, I still have no regrets.

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