5 Tips on Covering a Hurricane

By Merrill Knox 

With Hurricane Irene barreling toward the east coast and expected to make landfall this weekend, we thought it was time to call on some experts — meteorologists from Miami, Charleston and Tampa — for their advice on what to do, and what not to do, when covering a hurricane. Here’s what they recommend.

Give Viewers Information They Can Relate To


“Give a recognizable size of area to be affected, for example: ‘The area of hurricane-force winds is the size of the state of Pennsylvania,'” WFLD‘s Tammie Souza, who was formerly a meteorologist in Tampa, said. “Compare the weather system to something people relate to. A storm surge that is as high as their roof. A wind that will gust as fast as their car on an expressway. I usually explain how a hurricane has enough energy to power much of the United States energy for six months if it could be harnessed.”

“Don’t show the forecast line, show the cone,” Craig Setzer, a meteorologist at WFOR in Miami, said. “People are thrown off thinking if the line is not pointed at them they are not going to get hit.”

Be Responsible — On the Air and Online

“A lot has changed, including the explosion of social media and all the different ways you can get the information out,” WCBD chief meteorologist Rob Fowler, who reported during Hurricane Hugo in 1989, said. “When doing so, try to be as responsible as possible.”

“You are the voice of reason with your viewers on TV, and followers of social media,” Dave Williams, a meteorologist at WCIV in Charleston, said. “There is a lot of technical jargon in meteorology, but folks at home just want to know that their lives and their property are safe.”

Stay Safe and Calm in the Field

“In everything we do, safety first,” said Bill Walsh, chief meteorologist at WCSC in Charleston. “Think safely and tactically and remember that the viewer is counting on us to report the storm and it does no one any good to be a sidebar getting washed away or electrocuted.”

“Don’t put your crew in danger,” Souza said. “Take the lead and make safety decisions if needed. Keep your producers updated.”

“I know it’s hard to do, but try and stay as calm as possible,” Fowler said. “Your viewers can see it in your eyes, and hear it in your voice when a threat like this occurs. If you are nervous, they will be as well, and they might not react as they should.”

Organize Reporting Into Timelines

“A good meteorologist knows that the hurricane problem is only partially about the meteorology,” Setzer said. “It’s also about telling people what they should be doing to get ready, which is a stair-step process. For example, ‘Tomorrow if Irene is still headed our way we will be topping off supplies, buying water and batteries, filling gas tanks. The next day we will move anything that could blow around if Irene is still a threat.'”

“Give a timeline for them to prepare and a timeline for them to evacuate,” Souza said. “Remind viewers of possible traffic jams. Keep them updated.”

Don’t Be Afraid To Say “We Don’t Know”

“There is no loss of credibility in saying the phrase, ‘we just don’t know’ on the air,” Setzer said. “The fact is ‘we just don’t know exactly where Irene will hit or how bad it will be, but it’s time to start preparing for the possibility it may come here.'”

“From a meteorologist’s point of view, one should always communicate the uncertainty in the forecast to the viewer,” WFOR chief meteorologist David Bernard said. “Don’t be afraid to say ‘we don’t know.’ It’s honest and real.”

“Don’t ever guess about anything. Don’t say things you’re not sure of,” Souza said. “Don’t exaggerate. Don’t say silly things.”

“Be honest,” WTIC‘s Geoff Fox, who reported on Hurricane Gloria in 1985, said. “If you have worked to gain their trust and you haven’t hyped them in the past they’ll listen.”