Weather Channel goes into overdrive covering back-to-back hurricanes

Nora Zimmett, the senior vice president of live programming for the Weather Channel, in the control room as Hurricane Irma approaches Florida, at the company’s studios in Atlanta on Sept 8, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

ATLANTA (NYTIMES) - At 8.06am Friday (Sept 8) morning, Nora Zimmett had a minor crisis on her hands.

Zimmett, senior vice-president of programming for the Weather Channel, was in the control room here, monitoring the network's rolling coverage of Hurricane Irma.

The newsroom surrounding her was bathed in red lighting to signal that the network was in "severe mode," and enormous screens displayed the powerful storm in swirling black and pink satellite imagery.

But Zimmett was focusing on the monitor in front of her, which showed one of her star meteorologists, Jim Cantore, standing on a windy beach in Miami frantically waving off the cameras. His earpiece had malfunctioned just seconds before he was to be on live television.

"Let's fix that now," Zimmett said tersely, and in an instant, her team cut to another anchor in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the broadcast continued without interruption.

For most viewers, the Weather Channel is a utilitarian network, a quick stop on the basic cable lineup to check the day's forecast. Best known for delivering local weather updates every 10 minutes, it competes for attention with programming as diverse as cooking shows and Game of Thrones.

But as a pair of historic hurricanes disrupt large portions of the United States, the Weather Channel has never been more relevant, or more energised.

For weeks now, the network has broadcast live nonstop, first as Hurricane Harvey inundated Texas, and now as Irma menaces Florida. Roughly 70 reporters and producers are in the field, and many employees have all but moved into company headquarters.

"They're the only broadcast entity that's covering a Harvey or an Irma 24/7," said J. Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia. "On quiet days, it's tough for them, but they are tailor made for times like this."

Ratings bear this out. The Weather Channel averaged nearly 1.3 million viewers during prime time over the first half of last week, up sharply from an average of 150,000 viewers during the last week of July, when the weather wasn't a story, according to Nielsen.

Since the last week of August, reporters and producers have worked extended shifts. Employees from the human resources department have volunteered to help monitor social media. And all around the headquarters, there are signs that the Weather Channel has kicked into high gear.

As Zimmett emerged from the control room, she passed a table piled high with foil-wrapped breakfast sandwiches, the first of four free meals provided each day during big stories. And in a workplace not known for its perks, employees are being offered help finding additional child care and free massages in the office.

"People are tired," Zimmett said."But there is an adrenaline that comes with an event like this."

At Friday's 9.15am editorial meeting, Zimmett and a few dozen executives crowded around a conference table to discuss coverage plans for the days ahead.

At issue was where to position Cantore and the dozen other anchors - most of them trained meteorologists with graduate degrees - who would be reporting from the field. The tension, as always, was how close they could get to the centre of the storm without putting themselves in danger, or losing the ability to broadcast.

Even with the production support team - a roving fuel truck accompanied by an SUV packed with food, water, underwear, socks, bug spray, batteries, hard hats and cash - it was a juggling act.

Before the meeting broke, Stu Ostro, senior director of weather communications, briefed his colleagues on the latest forecast and what they should tell the public. Irma, having passed over the Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean, remained an enormous storm that experts said could overwhelm Florida. Farther east, Hurricane Jose was gaining strength.

"Two weeks ago, we were using the word 'surreal' for Texas," Ostro said. "What word do we use for this?" Yet in all the nonstop coverage there was no mention of climate change and its role in creating extreme weather - not at the morning meeting, and not at other planning sessions throughout the day.

With a major storm on the way, the focus was understandably on the latest forecast and how residents should prepare. Yet the omission reflects the network's delicate balancing act. Though there is no debate among Weather Channel executives and meteorologists about man-made global warming, they are wary of alienating their core audience, which leans right.

"I believe in climate change, and I believe it's man-made," said Dave Shull, the company's chief executive and a Republican, who spent much of Friday in the newsroom. "But I'm not a big fan of the term. It's been politicised."

It's not that the Weather Channel ignores climate change altogether. A recent series, Vanishing America, examined cities "threatened by the effects of a changing landscape". On the network's morning show, animated segments dramatised the findings of a recent study on sea level rise from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And the network does occasionally wade into politics. In March, when Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said he didn't believe that carbon dioxide was the leading cause of global warming, a Weather Channel meteorologist took to the air with a rebuttal.

But the words "climate change" don't appear in any promotional materials or show titles, and the phrase is only occasionally uttered on the air.

"We try to find ways to educate people without isolating people," Zimmett said. "To show it through science is less alienating than saying that everyone needs to become a vegan or methane is going to kill us all."

As Friday went on, it became clear that Atlanta would likely get hit, too. In preparation, backup generators and batteries had been tested and fuel tanks topped off. A satellite truck was standing by in case the generator failed. At nearby hotels, 75 rooms had been booked in case employees couldn't get home. And 100 air mattresses were at the ready for anyone who needed to sleep at the office.

"The storm is coming to the Weather Channel," Zimmett said.

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