EVER SINCE Dan Rather blew into the national spotlight on the wings of Hurricane Carla in 1961, the tropical cyclone has proven to be one of the sexiest attractions in all of television news.
To a savvy news director, a good hurricane is a dream come true. The main video -- death and destruction -- usually pans out only after a langorous and partially predictable journey originating in the tropics and lasting several days. After that, the obligatory church scene for The Sunday Evening News, and the nationally televised tears of the bereaved add up to a full week of lead stories.
It began with Carla in 1961, when Dan Rather anchored in front of the Galveston seawall for three whole days awaiting the final surge. As the barometric pressure dropped off the scale, the ratings went up, up and up.
Carla finally did hit, and paid off in bullets: 165 mile-an-hour winds, scores of dead and injured and some phenomenal footage of breaking trees and collapsing buildings. Camille did even better in 1969, but her 200-mph winds and 20-foot storm surge so disrupted the communications infrastructure that good footage wasn't available for days. She also hit on a Sunday night, meaning it would be another week before the obligatory Sunday Service.
Ever since then, the specter of a good Atlantic hurricane sends hordes of reporters -- usually young and hungry -- beating down the prospective track. And they're usually not disappointed.
Although there still might be a few stragglers out at sea, it's pretty safe to say that the 1985 East Coast hurricane season has about blown itself out. In fact, anything that might show up now is likely to act more like a good northeaster than a Cape Verde cyclone.
Hurricane Gloria was one of the latter, and appeared to wrap the best of Camille and Carla all up in one storm -- incredible potential and high visibility. When Dr. Neil Frank, director of the National Hurricane Center, announced on the morning of Sept. 25 that Gloria could be the biggest thing in history on the Atlantic Coast, he wasn't kidding around.
That morning, she sported a central pressure a little over 26.50 inches of mercury -- to give an idea, the needle on your storebought barometer would turn two complete circles before settling on that value -- all this while setting a course for Washington and New York.
If Gloria maintained that pressure and hit a populated area, we'd have a disaster rivaling the Mexican earthquake right in our backyard. Only this time, the earth and the cameras would roll simultaneously.
Gloria didn't oblige like Carla and Camille. Instead, and we don't really know why, she moderated on Wednesday evening into a storm more like Frederick (1979) or Hazel (1954) -- killers, but not mass murderers.
Further, a strange thing happened on her way to the Sunday Service, when Gloria took a sudden 40-mile eastward jog over the Gulf Stream before resuming her previous course.
The result was a modest ruffling of the Tidewater; but New York and New England still lay ahead. Media eyes and ears concentrated on Long Island, which would be the first land area to experience the destructive northeastern corner of the storm. The media stood in almost total disbelief when no one floated away. Gloria had simply unwound far enough so that even her still-impressive barometric credentials couldn't muster up enough wind to produce a rasher of corpses.
Backgrounding this entire melodrama, and, in fact, going back through Agnes, Betsy, Carla, and all the other alphabetic killers, is the National Hurricane Center. From the days of "Dr. Bob" Simpson to Neil Frank, the Center has employed the best and provided the best. Their very accessibility makes them a key player in the media hurricane sweeps.
Here's the rub: When Gloria didn't cough up the requisite number of bodies, at least one network anchor virtually accused Frank of overblowing the storm. The same thing occurred on the Sunday talkathons, a few hours before the missing Sunday Services.
Let's look at the facts: since its inception, the National Hurricane Center has saved more lives than would populate a reasonable television market. It's done with a very modest staff and consistent underfunding. A testimony to the esteem in which its pronouncements are held is the virtual lack of disagreement with them by other public and private forecasters -- a notoriously contentious lot.
The next time a snowstorm threatens Washington or New York, you might hear six different forecasts, depending upon your taste in television or music. But if it's a hurricane, you'll hear either Neil Frank or someone else reading Frank's forecast.
The National Hurricane Center official advisories on the night of Sept. 26 were perfectly clear: because of Gloria's proximity to the coast (which could weaken it) and populated areas (which would feel it, if it didn't weaken), "Hurricane forecasting skills are not sufficient to predict (exactly what will happen) . . . . Therefore, the course of least regret is to extend hurricane warnings . . . ."
If we want virtually perfect hurricane forecasts, we could probably get them by throwing a few billion into hurricane research. In return, we'd get back the proper number of bodies for the Sunday Service. Obviously, that's not going to happen. Instead, the errors will be on the side of caution -- even at the cost of ratings for the evening news.