Hurricane Hugo, which hit just north of Charleston, S.C., around midnight on Sept. 22, 1989 as a Category 4 storm with 135-140 mph winds, confirmed that hurricane forecasting can be an around-the-clock, live news story lasting days. It captured the attention of Americans, like few storms before it.
Unlike floods, tornadoes, blizzards, and other deadly weather, hurricanes offer the drama of a slowly approaching threat. Television and radio stations, newspapers, and, unlike in 1989, Web sites use this drama to attract viewers and readers.
16 day satellite loop of Hugo, September 9 to 25, 1989 – from formation to dissipation (National Weather Service)
By 1989 around-the-clock cable news, including The Weather Channel, had come into its own. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) had honed its skills at using the news media, especially television, to communicate life-saving information.
The National Hurricane Center as part of the National Weather Service is, of course, a government agency. Nevertheless, can you imagine any other government agency where civil servants would be working in the scene I described in my Sept 21, 1989 report in USA TODAY:
CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Hal Gerrish and Gilbert Clark were the calm in the middle of a human storm Wednesday at the National Hurricane Center.
As the two forecasters worked on maps on a blue light table, reporters and television technicians swirled around seeking information on Hurricane Hugo.
“It’s like when you were in college and learned to do your homework with the radio blaring,” says forecaster Bob Case. “That skill comes in handy here.”
All eyes are on them as they track the hurricane. Early today, center chief Bob Sheets and the other forecasters will gather, set up a conference call with Civil Defense officials, and decide what to do about issuing a hurricane warning – more serious than the watch issued Wednesday.
Neil Frank, who was Hurricane Center Director from 1973-1987, and his successor Bob Sheets, who served as director until 1995, were skilled at explaining on television and to print reporters hurricane hazards, and how to use forecasts to avoid their dangers.
They were scientists who could translate complex meteorology into useful, potentially life-saving information. The Hurricane Center and its directors since 1987 have built on the work of Frank and Sheets.
To meet Hugo’s news demands Sheets established a pool system with two television cameras – one for English-language and one for Spanish-language broadcasters – in front a large screen that usually displayed a satellite loop of the hurricane.
Sheets or one of the other forecasters sat in front of the screen to give five-minute interviews to broadcasters who were at the Center or who had called in. Most of the time a satellite loop of the storm advancing, jumping back and advancing again behind the forecasters. Their answers were tailored to the concerns of each broadcaster’s viewing area.
As a print journalist with only a notebook I was free to wander around the working area, look over the shoulders of the meteorologists, and ask brief questions that didn’t interfere with their work.
A couple of things I heard soon after arriving at the old, crowded National Hurricane Center on Dixie Highway in Coral Gables, Fla. on Sept. 17, 1989 convinced me that Hugo wasn’t a ho-hum hurricane.
Someone told me that Hugo’s extreme turbulence had seriously damaged one of the two NOAA WP 3 hurricane hunter airplanes, which had made it safely back to Barbados, where NOAA grounded it until it could be thoroughly inspected.
Then, three hurricane chasers, who had just flown back from Puerto Rico, arrived at the NHC with stories of sheltering with 300 or so guests in the grand ballroom of the Caribe Hilton Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as Hugo’s winds blew out plate glass windows, which had been covered with plywood, spraying broken glass on those, including the chasers, cowering in the ballroom.
Television stations and newspapers were running stories photos and video of Hugo beating up Puerto Rico, making the storm’s potential to the East Coast more ominous.
One of the chasers said they had flown to Puerto Rico because they knew the odds were good that Hugo would hit the island. Their fellow passengers, many of whom were Europeans who had never heard of hurricanes, thought they were heading for a sunny, tropical vacation.
Before hitting Puerto Rico, Hugo had caused serious damage on the islands of Guadeloupe and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, especially St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The high odds that it would hit somewhere on the U.S. East Coast made Hugo a perfect, ongoing news story.
In addition to updating stories for the three editions of USA TODAY, I told my editors what the forecasters were thinking about when and where Hugo would hit, which helped them deploy other reporters to cover the storm’s effects.
After Hugo came ashore I passed along information the NHC had received from the local weather offices and ham (amateur) radio operators who were – at the time – often the only source of information from places a hurricane has hit.
While Hugo’s strongest winds and highest storm surge hit north of Charleston, wind and surge did serious damage to Charleston, including the city’s historic area on the waterfront.
After coming ashore Hugo raced across western Virginia, West Virginia, and eastern Ohio to Erie, Pa., on Lake Erie as it formed into an extratropical cyclone. Well east of the center, winds at Washington’s Reagan National Airport peaked at 37 mph.
By the time Hugo faded away people across the United States and in other nations who had watched broadcasts from the NHC had a better appreciation of the dangers hurricanes pose and knew a little about how meteorologists go about forecasting them.