monday, September 9
Well, Hanna finally arrived here in New Hanover County early Saturday morning. Our crew (photojournalist Chris Hart, live technician Ron Wich and me) was on the air from 10 PM Friday until eight o'clock Saturday morning. We had very little rainfall but winds were gusting to over 50 m.p.h. Those winds were blowing out of the east until the storm came on shore. That's when they shifted and began blowing out of the south. Up until that point the beach was relatively calm, but the south wind changed all that. The blowing sand on the beach brutally battered our bodies and equipment. We could only take it in short bursts. All that said we've certainly endured worse storms. Even the power outages were brief. As it turned out, there was minimal damage and erosion in our vicinity. But I digress.
My main intention in this blog was to talk a little about the "behind the scenes" of hurricane coverage. After 24 years of covering storms like this, I've come to view each one as sort of a media "reunion". Although it has boomed in the past couple of decades, in many ways our business is a small fraternity. There are very few media people who don't know somebody you know in the biz or who used to work for your boss when he/she was at another news organization. Tropical storms draw people from all over the country to the Carolina coast. You often see people you haven't seen since the last big storm, crews from The Weather Channel, the major networks, freelancers, etc. So it's always nice to renew old acquaintances. We were the only crews, however, that stayed up and on the air all night.
There are other things that one who covers storms seems to revisit and then forget until the next encounter. This time though, I took notes to assist my recall. Late Friday afternoon while brushing my teeth prior to a three hour nap before our shift began, I glanced over at the hotel room commode. I realized that the water (clean water – I'm not trying to gross anyone out here) in the bowl was standing still. I immediately knew the storm had not officially reached Wrightsville Beach. That may sound like a weird observation, but those of us who have covered hurricanes for many years know that when the storm hits in earnest the water in the toilet bowl undulates. Don't look at me like that. I have never figured out why, maybe it has to do with wind and barometric pressure, but all I can tell you is that when the storm is rocking, so is the water in the commode. When I awoke for my 9 P.M. shift, I wasn't disappointed. The water in the bowl was indeed moving. Maybe one of the many brilliant engineers back home in the Triangle will read this blog and call or e-mail to tell my why. I'd love to know but it's way beyond my level of expertise. As a reporter I'd like to think I know a little about everything. More likely, the truth is that I know a lot about nothing.
We saw many more "usual" things - surfers crowding the beaches prior to the storm being one of them. Although for them ,the waves were breaking much cleaner around Johnny Mercer's pier in the strong breeze on Thursday night, than they were Friday morning. In the A.M. on Friday, the water was so choppy and filled with whitecaps there was foam from the breaker line all the way to shore. All this I observed from the hotel restaurant where I was having a solo breakfast. I also saw a larger than usual number of tourists taking pictures of the overcast sky during a light rain. That's because only a voluntary evacuation was ordered and didn't appear anyone left. As I reported Thursday night, local officials were concerned about mandating an evacuation with other more powerful storms brewing in the Atlantic. The theory being that if you force people to evacuate for what turns out to be a minor storm, they'll be more resistant to doing it when they really need to in the face of a stronger storm the next week. As we now know it was a wise decision that won't likely be second-guessed in the face of Hanna's fizzle. Except for those who stayed up all night (our crew and few all-night, dare-the-storm, partiers) no one who awoke Saturday morning had any idea how rough the weather was from midnight to 6 A.M.
Also while sitting at the restaurant, I noticed Stephen Whalen, the Mayor of Wrightsville beach walking across the veranda toward the beach. I bolted out the door, stopped him on the stairs and asked if he would be willing to do an interview with our crew on duty. He said he was headed out onto the sand for a quick survey and graciously agreed to our request. I called reporter Sabrina Zimring and informed of her of the opportunity. Fifteen minutes later a light rain blew up and in a few minutes I saw the Mayor returning, sufficiently soaked.
So all in all, it was a pretty uneventful storm except for several hours of 50 m.p.h. gusting winds and, strangely enough, virtually no rain to hold down the blowing sand that blasted my teeth cleaner than the dental hygienist at the office of Dr. Chris Martin (my dentist in Raleigh) and saved me any money I might potentially spend on exfoliation. In the end it was much less stressful than many other storms I've covered. I recalled that point on the way to breakfast when we passed the Comfort Inn on College Road. That's where stayed in June of 2001 during tropical storm Allison, when we were forced by the authorities to leave the Wilmington beaches because of the potential danger.
That was one of the more unique storms I've covered. Allison was one of the farthest ranging, longest lasting tropical storms in U.S. history. A tropical wave that moved halfway across the earth and back, finally became a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico on June 5th and wreaked havoc across the southwest and southeast before heading north and dying out near Nova Scotia two weeks later. It killed 41 people in its wake of wind and floods, according to Wikipedia. It stands as the only Atlantic non-hurricane to have its name retired because of the damage it caused and lives it took (27 of the 41 deaths were from drowning – again, according to Wikipedia).
At that time I was working with a tropical storm rookie – a really nice guy and good photographer who was a native of the central coast of California but always seemed like he was more suited for North Carolina and the South in general, since he loves NASCAR and sweet tea. He asked me on the way to Wilmington to tell him a little about what to expect. I said that when the storm got serious we would endure about eight to ten hours of stinging rain, sand and flying debris. Then the rain would clear along with the sky, the sun would burst out and it would be a beautiful day on a beach filled with shells washed ashore by the storm.
Twenty-four hours after the storm began raging he turned and said to me, "I thought you said this would be over yesterday!" I didn't know how to respond. One of the more notable things about Allison (and she has a lot of notations) is that she stalled over the Wilmington area for a couple of days. I'd seen nothing like it before and have seen nothing like it since. Our food supplies ran out and we endured endless hours without electricity, air conditioning and elevators – climbing stairs that were more like waterfalls. It was all the result of the prolonged soaking rain that caused some serious damage in the Port City and eastern North Carolina. When it finally cleared, a sizeable generator with a huge gas tank (the kind that's hauled around on its own trailer) we had rented was running on fumes. We waited in line for hours at the first gas station to regain electrical service in order to fuel our vehicles. The California reared photographer accurately and thankfully guessed that a local Chinese restaurant would be among the first to open for business and be willing to deliver to the hotel. The delivery guy was generously tipped as we had promised.
I've survived much scarier storms, but I don't think I've ever been so glad to return home from one of our tropical adventures. Of course returning home is always sweet, and since we've just merged onto Raleigh's beltline it's time to end this massive missive. Congratulations to all of you who have read it beginning to end. You are truly among the Eyewitness News faithful and I'm grateful. Remember, always end on a rhyme (my new motto).
Friday, September 5, 2:30 p.m.
Once you've worked at ABC/Walt Disney for 20 years, you get a gold ring. Mine is embossed with Mickey Mouse (what else?) on the top. On one side of the ring is the Disney "D" logo. On the other side is the year "1984." Inside the ring are my initials -- "TEC" for Thomas Edward Crump. Also inside is the date "9-10-84." That's the day I arrived in the WTVD/ABC 11 newsroom. It's a day I'll never forget.
I was supposed to simply observe the workings of the newsroom, but around noon, the assignment editor motioned me to his desk. He asked if I was prepared to cover a story that day. I remember remarking that if, after six years as a reporter, I wasn't ready then, I never would be. He said, "Great. Go home and pack a bag. We're sending you to the coast for a hurricane." The storm was named Diana, a name that has been recycled numerous times since. She would provide me with a fitting initiation into the ranks of what at the time was a very small fraternity -- hurricane reporters.
Despite having been raised in the Detroit suburbs and attending the University of Georgia, I was no stranger to the North Carolina coast. My parents were both North Carolina natives (my mom's family was from Alexander County, my dad's from Union) and I first set foot on the sands of Long Beach (now Oak Island) for the first time when I was about three. But I had never been at the coast during a hurricane or even a tropical storm. That would soon change. At the time I had no idea that hurricane Diana would christen a nearly quarter-century career of covering such storms.
We (myself and photographer Steve Vargha, who now works on our assignment desk) hit the road headed for the southern coast of our state. I marveled at how traffic was heavy heading inland and that we were the only ones headed toward the beach. But as it with these storms, no destination is certain (Hanna, for example, is one of the more erratic storms). We were soon told to head for the Outer Banks. There was one big problem. We barely had enough time to reach the Swan Quarter ferry before service was suspended because of the storm. If we missed the ferry it would mean a long and circuitous detour inland to the west, then back east to reach Highway 12. When we arrived at Swan Quarter, the ferry was minutes away from leaving the dock and there was room for one more vehicle -- our news car.
To make a long story short, a day after we reached the coast, Diana reach Category 4 strength. She did an excellent job of introducing a rookie hurricane reporter to the things that are now commonplace for me – skin stinging rain, a face full of sea foam, a coating of sand that covers every centimeter of your body and clothing, and probably the most amazing thing of all -- being able to lean forward into the sustained winds strong enough to keep you from falling on your face. In fact, such winds are often so strong you have to lean forward to keep from being blown backward.
Early on Wednesday, September 12, it appeared that Diana's eye, despite coming tantalizingly close to the coast would not make landfall after all. Instead, she headed out to sea. We began making plans for our return. But then she did something I have never seen since, she made a loop and headed back to shore. She made landfall the next day at Cape Fear. By then her strength had decline to a Category 2 storm. It was almost as though I had experienced two storms in one trip to the coast -- one unforgettable trip.
At one time, I kept a running count of the tropical storms I have covered. I lost count somewhere in the late 1990's. That was around the time a crew from The Weather Channel came to Raleigh to interview me for a documentary about journalists who were known for their hurricane coverage. I have to say I was humbled by the recognition. They even used some footage that had become famous locally – me being hit by a wave in the middle of the night on Long Beach right around the time the eye of Hugo was making landfall in Charleston. To this day, people still asked me about that video clip. I'm surprised it's not on YouTube. Speaking of The Weather Channel, I've enjoyed doing live shots for them and ABC stations around the country over the years. It enables my friends and family, who are not in our viewing area, to occasionally see my work. After storms, I still get calls from as far away as California saying, "I was watching The Weather Channel yesterday and… " My colleague Greg Barnes, who works in our Fayetteville newsroom, has had similar experiences. Although he has been at ABC 11 only a year so longer than me, he worked in Wilmington prior to that, so he has even more hurricane coverage under his belt. I'd be willing to bet that there is no tandem of hurricane reporters at one news organization anywhere in the world that has more combined experience than Greg and me.
One that first day in September of 1984, my wife, Donna, was surprised to see me return to our newly rented apartment in west Raleigh shortly after noon. She was none too happy to hear that I was leaving her alone in a strange, new town for an unspecified number of days. Fortunately, I had aunts and uncles and some cousins nearby (Raleigh, Cary, Hillsborough) in case of emergency. Unfortunately, our furniture had been lost in the move and she had only a folding chair and an air mattress. Donna has still never gotten comfortable with my trips to the coast for storm coverage. My eighth grade daughter, Kayla, on the other hand, is just now realizing that storm coverage is an annual rite in my career. We discussed it last night by phone. Coincidentally, following news coverage of the storm was part of her homework assignment. Interestingly, Kayla was born on my 11th anniversary at Channel 11. Her first birthday came just a few days after hurricane Fran left Raleigh looking like a war zone (BTW, Fran was so bad in 1996 they retired her name) for many weeks. Her 13th birthday is Wednesday. Let's hope Ike doesn't keep me from being with Kayla on her first day as a teenager!