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Covering Extreme Weather

When the world makes a run for it, COM alums make news

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If you’ve ever watched CNN national correspondent Gary Tuchman in action, you know he’s no stranger to peril. He’s flown in a helicopter toward an erupting volcano, risked encountering IEDs in Iraq, and clambered through tsunami wreckage to search for survivors. But it was a hurricane that gave him one of the closest calls of his career.

On the morning of August 29, 2005, Tuchman (COM’82) and three colleagues were in Gulfport, Miss., reporting on Hurricane Katrina for CNN. They had been shooting live footage from a satellite-equipped vehicle dubbed Hurricane One, but the winds were threatening to destabilize it. They were just turning into their hotel parking lot, says Tuchman, when there was a “tremendous, tremendous noise.” A chunk of fencing about 12 feet by 8 feet from a nearby property had flown through the air and struck the vehicle, crushing its back portion. No one was hurt, but had the debris fallen inches closer—who knows? What Tuchman did know was that it was time to stop reporting and get inside. “It was a very blatant message,” he says.

Coping with flying debris and raging elements is all in a day’s work for College of Communication alums who cover extreme weather. They work in a variety of fields, from broadcast journalism to meteorology to public relations. And as extreme weather events increase around the world, these alums put their talent, skills, and training to work to inform the public, share stories from the field, and survive their share of adventures.

“We respect the forces of Mother Nature, but are also anxious to cover them properly like any other story,” says Tuchman, “and that means being where the action is.”

Meeting a rising need

When Essie Hendrix, 54, looked out the front door of her workplace, she could see a smoky black cloud coming up the hill. She could hear it, too: it sounded like a thousand oncoming trains. As Hendrix scrambled under the front desk of the department store where she worked, the tornado hit. Tables flew. Cologne bottles shattered. When the ruckus ceased seconds later, Hendrix emerged into apocalyptic-like devastation: shattered store windows, buildings without roofs, scattered trees, and downed power lines. Then, said Hendrix, the sky cleared and the sun began to shine. “Up above,” she said, “it looked as though nothing had ever happened.”

Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider (COM’91) tells this story of the April 2010 tornado that hit Yazoo City, Miss., in her book Extreme Weather (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Schneider, who reports for outlets including CNN and Bloomberg, and who is developing a new TV show called House Indestructible, says her viewers helped give her the idea for the book. After Hurricane Katrina, she began receiving more viewer questions via Facebook and Twitter about extreme weather, such as “What causes a tornado to form?” and “What should you do if you are under a tsunami warning?” Extreme Weather recounts dramatic stories from extreme weather events, explains how these events happen, and provides tips for staying safe.

Schneider says she’s called upon with increasing frequency to speak about extreme weather, and it’s no wonder: some extreme weather events—understood as severe or rare for their place and time—are on the rise. For example, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the number of Atlantic hurricanes and major hurricanes has increased since the early 1970s, mostly due to the warming of the tropical North Atlantic. These events wreak havoc, especially as population and construction increase in at-risk areas. As a study by insurance firm Munich Re noted in 2012, the number of weather-related loss events in North America has nearly quintupled during the last three decades.

Natural climate cycles can spur extreme weather events. Global warming—the warming of the atmosphere near Earth’s surface—also can be a contributing factor. According to NOAA, global warming contributes to sea-level rise, erosion, storms, flooding, and because of changes in the hydrological cycle, heavier rain and snow. Some scientists also connect rising sea-surface temperatures to the potential for more powerful hurricanes. All of this keeps alums like Schneider very busy.

“It seems that every week there’s another huge event impacting millions of people,” she says.

This means that getting information out to the public is all the more important.

Trailer for House Indestructible

Walking on thin ice

Pieces of furniture, curtains, a mattress: WHDH Boston reporter Susan Tran (CGS’95, COM’97) watched them all wash out to sea. It was February 2013, during the blizzard that slammed the northeastern United States, and Tran was on assignment on the deck of a beachfront home on Plum Island, Mass. Wind, snow, and waves had taken out the basement floor of a nearby apartment, divesting it of its contents.

“Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that the storm’s going to get that bad,” says Tran. By emphasizing the seriousness of an intense weather situation and by being on the scene, she says, she and her fellow reporters can help influence the public to make safe choices.

Tran is willing to go pretty far to make that point. In 2003, as a reporter for WKTV in Utica, N.Y., she heard about some Massachusetts-area children who died after they ventured onto frozen lakes and fell through the ice. Wanting to prevent more such tragedies, she pitched the idea of covering ice safety to her station. In the final episode of the series “On Thin Ice,” which won an AP Award, Tran donned a full-body neoprene suit and jumped into a snow-covered lake in the Adirondacks. With water rescuers and a fire crew standing by, she vividly depicted the dangers of thin ice and provided viewers with tips on how to survive if they should fall in.

Reporter Susan Tran (COM’97) takes a dunk in a snow-covered lake in the Adirondacks to demonstrate the dangers of thin ice and to offer tips on how to survive after falling in.

Picking up the pieces

Don Van Natta, Jr. (COM’86) had been taking notes, but for the moment, reporting would have to wait. The ceiling was in danger of flying off.

Van Natta and several of his colleagues from the Miami Herald had been, in his recollection, in the only car driving south as Hurricane Andrew was approaching Miami–Dade County in August 1992. They’d planned to hunker down in a Comfort Inn, then venture out afterward to report on the damage. But Andrew decided to unleash its fury directly over their heads, and its raging 160-plus-mile-an-hour winds were tearing the inn apart. With the wind’s relentless groan in their ears, Van Natta and the few other hotel guests had been racing from room to room, trying to escape being sucked through the disappearing ceiling and out into chaos. When he wasn’t running or praying, Van Natta was jotting down notes. At the moment, though, he was helping to hold up the ceiling of the bathroom where he and the other guests were hiding, some of them under mattresses. There was already a crack in the ceiling. No one knew if the ceiling would hold.

“The storm was so ferocious, so much more powerful than we were,” recalls Van Natta. “You felt really insignificant and that this very likely was going to be it.”

COM alums help inform the public about extreme weather events, but they also help them cope emotionally after the fact. For those who suffer through events like Hurricane Andrew, some of whom endure harrowing incidents like Van Natta’s, the media can play a crucial role in the recovery process.

“The Herald was a lifeline to people to be able to cope with the storm,” recalls Van Natta. People would say that seeing the paper show up in the midst of such devastation returned a sense of normalcy to their lives, he says. It gave them the feeling that things were going to get better.

Sharing people’s personal stories in such ordeals—without being pushy or insensitive—also helps the rest of the country understand what people are suffering and how to help. As Tuchman once said while covering flooding in Missouri for CNN, through just one story “you can learn about what a whole community is going through, what they’re suffering.”

Yosemite National Park

Jeremy Miller (COM’06) above an unnamed lake in a glacial cirque at the base of Mounts Maclure and Lyell at Yosemite National Park. Photo by Kirk Keeler

Inspiring change

COM alums’ coverage of extreme weather sometimes extends beyond the personal and communal to the governmental and global, helping raise awareness of problems and calling people to action.

“That’s why most of us get into journalism—because we want to make a difference,” says Tuchman. The news media’s role in making people aware of the severity of damage in Hurricane Katrina, and of the government’s insufficient response, he says, was a prime example.

“By our extensive reporting, talking to people, explaining what was going on,” he says, “we feel we helped provide the impetus and proper pressure for the government—which these people pay taxes to—to get moving.”

Van Natta and the Miami Herald had a similar role with their reporting on Hurricane Andrew. The staff won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for public service. Their coverage “not only helped readers cope with Hurricane Andrew’s devastation,” according to the Pulitzer site, “but also showed how lax zoning, inspection, and building codes had contributed to the destruction.”

“You had to dig for the truth,” Van Natta says. “You had to be an instant investigator.”

For some COM alums, like science journalist Jeremy Miller (COM’06), this means examining and making known conditions that can contribute to extreme weather events in the first place—like climate change.

On a cold and windy day in Yosemite National Park in September 2012, Miller, an alum of COM’s Graduate Program in Science Journalism, trekked up Mount Lyell to report on the state of Yosemite’s largest glacier for Men’s Journal. From this height of approximately 13,000 feet, he wrote, he could see the two survey points marking the high point of the ice’s surface in the 1930s. He could also see the nearly 120 feet of bare rock between those survey points and the glacier today. Measurements taken on the hike by Yosemite National Park geologist Greg Stock and geomorphologist Bob Anderson of the University of Colorado at Boulder confirmed Stock’s hunch: the glacier’s days are numbered. Having already melted more than 60 percent over the last century, the Lyell has now stopped moving entirely.

When covering topics like climate change, Miller has a challenging task: he often needs to clarify complex scientific facts, keep them disentangled from politics, weed out disinformation, and show how a somewhat abstract issue affects people where they live. “The physical science is linked to the people in the community,” he explains. In the Lyell story, for instance, he noted how the disappearance of Lyell—and other glaciers like it—means that crucial sources of water for plants, animals, and people will also disappear.

Whether they’re backpacking up glaciers, wading through floodwaters, or writing about wildfires, alums who cover extreme weather give COM credit for helping them develop their skills.

Miller keeps a Post-it note on his computer with a helpful quote from Doug Starr, codirector of BU’s Center for Science & Medical Journalism: “The job is to simplify the writing, not to oversimplify the science.” Schneider and Tran credit COM with preparing them and giving them some of their determination and drive. The quick writing and organizing skills Van Natta developed through timed class writing assignments at COM, he says, were “a huge help” when reporting on Hurricane Andrew. Tuchman says BU opened his eyes to the ways in which journalism wasn’t just a career, but “a noble profession.”

Julie Rattey can be reached at jrattey@bu.edu.

A version of this article appeared in the summer 2013 edition of COMtalk.

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