Future Tense

A Weather Channel Veteran Explains Why the Hell They Stand in the Middle of Hurricanes

A flooded residential road getting pounded by rain
Rain from Hurricane Ian floods a street on Friday in Charleston, South Carolina. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Stunning images and videos of Hurricane Ian’s destructive rampage throughout Florida have dominated social media feeds this week, giving faraway observers a scary—and sometimes bizarre—glimpse of what may be coming as the storm advances north through the Carolinas and up to the East Coast. As the Sunshine State attempts to assess the damage and prepare recovery efforts, local and national TV reporters are putting themselves right in the midst of the storm surges for their broadcasts, often at great personal risk.

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Perhaps the best example of this was viral footage of veteran Weather Channel anchor Jim Cantore struggling in the midst of heavy winds in Punta Gordon, Florida, and then getting whacked by a loose palm tree branch. What Cantore did was nothing new, but the clip sparked wider concerns and questions over how TV meteorologists should do their jobs in crisis situations, especially as such disasters become more frequent and devastating, thanks in part to climate change. Should TV weathercasters keep having to brave horrifying events for the sake of the reporting? What does it mean to be an on-screen meteorologist in these times, and how should they adapt as both the news business and our climate shift drastically?

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To talk through these tricky questions, I spoke over the phone Thursday with Liz Jarvis Fabian, a former colleague of Cantore’s and a veteran reporter who worked as an on-camera weathercaster for the Weather Channel during its early years, afterward spending decades reporting on public safety and extreme weather in Georgia and throughout the South. We talked about going on the ground to report on big storms, the role of weatherscasters during major crises, and how journalists should prepare themselves—and the public—for the worst. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Nitish Pahwa: How did you get started at the Weather Channel? Were you doing many live shots like we see now?

Liz Jarvis Fabian: I joined the Weather Channel in 1986 when they were hiring anchors to do more of a weather-news format in conjunction with on-camera meteorologists doing forecasts and standing in front of maps. I sat at a desk, but because of my news recording background, when it came time for hurricane season, I was generally tapped to go out. In prior storms I covered, we didn’t have the capacity to go live.

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I just so happened to be with the crew that did the first live shot from an approaching hurricane for the channel. That was with Hurricane Gilbert back in 1988. We hooked up with WXIA TV out of Atlanta because they were also down there on the Gulf Coast chasing the storm. We were able to do live shots with their truck in conjunction with their coverage. Hurricane Gilbert was an interesting storm. At the time, it was one of the most powerful on record, but it skirted the United States and made landfall just south of Brownsville, Texas.

We were never out in the elements like people are today. I did go to South Padre Island and did a stand-up there just showing the weather conditions at the time. We had winds gusting probably to 60–65 miles per hour, and it was difficult to stand. But for the rest of the storm, we were in safe locations.

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I was also on the anchored desk for Hurricane Hugo [in 1989]. At the time, the tropical expert at the Weather Channel, John Hope, was so aware of the potential for catastrophic damage with Hugo that he didn’t want the crew really anywhere near the coast. They were set up about 30 miles inland in Walterboro. It actually worked out better because we didn’t really have cellphones back then, so I could make calls from the office in Atlanta and get more up-to-date information that I could share with the viewers. We’d have to stop and use payphones to call back to Atlanta.

In the course of my career, as I moved back into middle Georgia and worked at the television stations here, I did get to chase a couple of more storms and even ran into my pal Jim Cantore in Wilmington, North Carolina, I believe for Hurricane Fran [in 1996]. When I would come back in from a hurricane, Jim was always so excited because he hadn’t gotten to go out yet. He was relatively new. And so he was like, “Lizzie, tell me all about it. What was it like?” Now he’s just this big icon over the world for his coverage.

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It’s very strange when you’re the only one heading to the coast and the other side of the highway has two and three lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic. You’re going where everyone else is fleeing, and that’s a little bit daunting. There will usually be a hotel that stays open to accommodate the media. I remember that for one particular storm in the ’90s, all of the different crews from the Weather Channel and local folks and networks, we were all together at that hotel and the man who owned the place cooked hamburgers for us.

How long were you officially in weathercasting?

I worked at the Weather Channel for three-and-a-half years, but I was a public safety reporter here in Macon, Georgia, and did extensive coverage when we had Tropical Storm Alberto in 1994. It just sat here and we got upward of 20 inches of rain, which caused flooding for days. First there were flash floods and then the rivers rose and flooded people out and flooded our water treatment system, which left us high and dry. We did not have running water for almost three weeks.

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That reminds me of the stories of what happened in Mississippi last year, with the storms knocking out the treatment plant.

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Exactly.

How did you get into weather?

In my first job back in the day, whoever was the female news co-anchor also did the weather. I had done weather from the start of my career, which helped me get the job at the Weather Channel even though I wasn’t a “meteorologist”—I was a reporter who could handle weather news and such. Knowing the state of destruction that can happen with these catastrophic storms, and to be able to warn people and keep them safe, that became a calling and a mission. I always thought that if we could show people what was going on, they didn’t have to come out and put themselves in danger. Plus, you could let people know what’s happening downstream.

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Most recently, I was a premier video journalist for our local newspaper because of my television background. I was named Associated Press Beat Reporter of the Year back when we had our coverage of Hurricane Irma [in 2017]—that came through and did just minimal damage. But I was out in the middle of the night recording things, showing where trees were down, running around all over. I was my own little mini Weather Channel that day for the newspaper.

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Sometimes I think people get molded to complacency with storms because they say, “Oh, I’ve been through a hurricane, it wasn’t that bad, I can stay here.” But every storm is different. I’m afraid we’re going to see after Ian that the people who thought they could ride it out may have made a fatal mistake.

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Right, because there was hope that Ian would not be as damaging. Obviously that’s not been the case.

I went down for the relief efforts of Charley back in 2004 and it had a very similar path to Ian, but it was a much more compact storm. I remember, as we drove down for the aftermath, seeing the big tall lightposts on the interstate that were bent over at an angle like a coat hanger. It was amazing to me to see that force of wind ripping leaves off trees, and it’s devastating when you go to a place after a storm. What Hurricane Michael did to the Gulf Coast [in 2018] was just incredible, especially around Panama City in places where entire streets were wiped out.

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Something I feel like has been very striking for me is how people go out with their cellphones in the middle of these storms, documenting what’s going on. Then you also see TV anchors standing in the middle of these gusty winds and rains and trying to speak into their microphones, to the camera, trying to get to viewers if they even have power. Is it really necessary for reporters to go into the thick of these storms?

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That’s a tricky question in the sense that it’s hard to predict where the worst part of the storm is going to be, although Jim Cantore always seems to get there. In terms of keeping yourself safe, I’ve seen people take risks that I think are unnecessary. The advent of GoPros and cameras that you can mount has helped significantly, especially in some of the dramatic footage we’ve seen of storm surges captured by cameras where people didn’t have to hold them.

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I think that throughout the decades, these professional crews have figured out the way to position their live trucks next to sturdy buildings. So even though it may look awful all around them, a lot of times they are protected. I was seeing someone do a live shot the other day and I could see he had the truck on one side and then the hotel on the other side. Nothing really was going to get to him.

I didn’t see it, but somebody told me Jim Cantore did get hit with a palm frond during part of his coverage. There is danger out there. I think, though, in the height of the storm reporters do take shelter, and the ones who have been doing it for a long time, it’s kind of like the military, where they know how to handle themselves in certain situations because they’re trained. I believe the Weather Channel and other professionals are conscious of the risks. What is substantially more dangerous, I think, is tornado chasers. You saw it was a few years back where a crew was actually killed chasing a tornado. Then you have the novices. The movie Twister set off a whole bunch of folks going into the stormchasing industry.

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You can now know when devastating outbreaks are coming and that there’s going to be a lot of tornadic activity. There’s a lot of technology aiding and assisting professionals getting out there, but the novices who aren’t as trained, who may not have all the equipment, are putting themselves in great danger.

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We have made such advancements in public safety that people expect somebody to be there right away to help them. But often that’s not the case, particularly in these devastating storms. Sometimes roads are washed out. People think more about prepositioning supplies and power trucks. I always made sure that everything was charged up—my phone, my computer, backup batteries, so that during inevitable power outages we could keep going.

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That’s very smart—gotta be prepared well in advance.

Well, I wasn’t prepared for the whole internet to go out when we had Hurricane Irma. I thought I had every contingency planned, except for no internet. There was a point in time where I felt very helpless. There’s just a time, particularly with these devastating storms, where help is not available. That’s what I try to get across to people. But it’s hard because people say, “They told me to evacuate the last time and the storm didn’t even come to Tampa.” There are a lot of expenses when somebody has to pack up everything and close down the house and try to find a hotel somewhere. A lot of times gas trucks can’t get to the area, so you have shortages of fuel days afterwards and people really need to have their own emergency kits at the ready. Everybody has manpower shortages post-pandemic, so I don’t know how that’s been complicating the situation in Florida. But preplanning is key, and so is being able to sustain yourself.

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Here, locally, our main television station and even our smaller stations understand the importance of weather coverage, and they have very strong meteorology teams. One of our stations even has a car that goes out and has all the appropriate equipment to measure the wind speeds. It’s their own mini storm lab where they can report from.

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Another issue is that lot of local news is that resources have been gutted, and the enterprise has become more nationalized and outward-facing in focus.

There are a lot more partnerships and conglomerations. An individual town may not have its own fully staffed department—it may be shared between two cities and they use resources that way. In the newspaper business, too, we were getting directives to do aggregate reporting, sitting at your computer trawling social media, trying to find out what’s out there. If some major story or unusual event happened somewhere near you, you could get the breaking news coverage by simply pulling from the reports that are already there from people on the ground, and you just quote whatever news source it is. That always bothered me because I always want to make sure the facts are substantiated and that I can verify things as opposed to taking somebody else’s word for it. Sometimes things get misreported in the heat of a moment, and you don’t want to perpetuate false news.

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When you turn on the Weather Channel and there’s any kind of event, like a tornado, it used to be very rare that you had footage. Now you have six different angles of the same storm because everybody’s shooting it on their cellphone. There’s so much coming in, it’s hard for people to sift through it all. I think part of the issue too—and I always felt bad about this—is we’d be there to cover a storm, and then as soon as the storm was over, we usually left. Then it’s left to the locals to report on the devastating consequences, sometimes years later. You’re rebuilding whole communities or you’re having to put up a new bridge or do infrastructure improvements or take care of beach erosion. Puerto Rico had such devastating conditions [after Hurricane Maria] just a couple of years ago, and we heard a little bit about that, but the island didn’t have electricity for such a long time and you wonder about the suffering of the people. It’s hard for everybody to fully cover everything, considering the lower level of staffing we have in most newsrooms now.

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If a younger journalist were to come to you and say they were interested in weather reporting, what advice would you offer?

To me, the hallmark of a good journalist is to have the trust of the community. I’ve just always tried to be ethical and responsible and not overblow a situation or oversell a storm. Always be talking about worst-case scenarios so that people can be prepared, but also let them know conditions can change. Know who your audience is and be able to communicate in ways so people can assimilate the necessary information that will keep them safe and help them prepare.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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