By noon, he's already done 49 live TV interviews and his eyes are getting a little glassy. But sitting in the eye of activity in the National Hurricane Center, Neil Frank is racing through another burst of interviews with stations in the Northeast.
"Boston's next," says the sound man. A dozen producers and technicians stand behind the cameras in this maelstrom of TV technology. "No, I'm sorry, Washington is next," the sound man adds quickly.
"I hear a little noise in the background," Frank says. "They say they don't have a picture."
Another TV guy, hunched over a control panel behind a web of wires, yells out some technojargon and asks Frank to repeat it.
"Are you on satellite 4, transponder 20?" Frank asks, looking into the camera lens and smiling, because he's not sure what he's talking about. A second later, the picture problem is solved.
Mr. Hurricane is on the air.
For the 50th time today, the eyebrows pop up for emphasis, the right hand starts moving in a wild, wide circle. Then the left hand joins in -- and he's off and talking.
"If there's any good news about a very bad hurricane . . ."
Neil Frank looks like your neighbor Charlie, the one who tells you how to deal with your crab grass. Open-faced and crew-cut, he's the guy who sings a little too loudly in choir. But in hurricane season, the director of the National Hurricane Center is Dan Rather and Willard Scott rolled into one.
It's heady stuff for a self-described "introverted guy from the plains of Kansas." He had a strict Methodist upbringing, usually bites his tongue instead of cursingstill doesn't drink or smoke.
He didn't date his wife as a teen-ager. The only way he could spend time with her was at Sunday church functions.
All he wanted to do was coach high school basketball. But a professor at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan., told him he ought to make it a double major with science so he'd have an easier time getting a teaching job.
When he got out of school, jobs were still tight, and the Air Force was looking for science majors who wanted to become weather officers. So he joined. Afterward, deciding to stick with meteorology, he went to grad school at Florida State in Tallahassee, writing his doctoral thesis on "Weather Patterns in the Upper Part of the Atmosphere." In 1961, he joined the hurricane center and has been there ever since -- becoming deputy director in 1973 and director in 1974.
When he became director, he started taking his hurricane show on the road.
He was still the country boy from northwestern Kansas, intimidated by all the sophisticates in Miami. But slowly, as he schlepped through the Rotary Clubs and the chambers of commerce and the condo associations, his fear of public speaking diminished. "I realized the big boys from the city were just as scared about hurricanes as everybody else," he says.
He also realized that his audiences were nodding off over his slides. They couldn't understand them. So he concentrated on simplification, making sure the little guy could get a handle on what hurricanes were all about.
Back in Miami, his staff came up with probability predictions for hurricanes. He urged coastal communities to study how quickly they could evacuate their people.
But it was last month's hurricane, Elena, that first made him the object of this intense, repetitive media-go-round. He realized he could get widespread attention from tens of millions of East Coast and gulf-area residents with the revolutionary portable ground satellites that local TV stations were using.
A TV producer who has dealt with him for 12 years calls Frank a natural showman. He can look at the camera over and over again, achieving that one-on-one familiarity TV anchors die for. But he tries to divorce himself from the media madness that surrounds him at storm time.
He enjoys the attention, he says, but it's simply a conduit for getting out the information. "I'm thinking about that person out there who needs to know what's happening with the hurricane -- his life depends on it."
This morning, after a flurry of 10 o'clock interviews, he moves to the operations desk just beyond the cameras where a half-dozen meteorologists are collecting data and trying to plot Gloria's next stop. He huddles with them, digests their information and by 11:30 is sitting down at a video terminal, typing in the next weather advisory. Paul Hebert, one of the more eloquent forecasters in the office, stands behind him, helping to keep it in plain English. A few minutes later, Frank is pulled away for another interview. The rush will continue all day.
He usually has no idea whom he's talking to. The technician just yells out what city is next. The little voice fills his earphone, asking if he can hear, and he says yes. Then Bob from Philadelphia or Linda from New York becomes the vehicle to get the word out.
Each time, there's some repeating but some refining. Between 5 and 7 p.m., he does more than two dozen individual shots, and by the end of the day he has done more than 100.
Still, at some point in the middle of the mayhem, Neil Frank will step back from the hard cold facts. He will find a quiet room somewhere away from the storm. He'll put the science away for a moment.
And he'll pray to God that somebody is listening to his forecast.