Fluent in authentic weather gibberish

We’re in another Atlantic Hurricane Season and the most active time is basically from now to October. In just the past week Hurricane Chris bypassed an East Coast landfall and puttered north over the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Beryl went pitthhh — a highly scientific term, I admit — before entering the Gulf Coast. I hope it remains precisely this quiet.

I monitored a few big storms in my time in newspapers with the Daily News in Jacksonville, North Carolina. And I watched a lot of Weather Channel updates, many including Jim Cantore, the Super Dave Osborne of TV weather heroes. In this video he voluntarily goes into a wind simulator that would exceed the highest measured levels of hurricane winds. He didn’t fare well.

Here’s our man Jim again, performing during a real storm, Hurricane Isaac, for a camera crew and broadcast audience. TV news reporters have rich history of holding on to power poles for the camera as assorted debris fly by. I always thought it to be rather strange, but whatever. Makes for entertaining TV for people in other states who still power.

Yes, hurricanes were and are a summertime way of life for those of us who live on the east coast — or own property there. All of that weather watching got to be a bit much over the 15 years I lived in the Swansboro area. And then I realized that other folks around the nation are watching our weather, too.

One example. We used to get wrong number calls at the Jacksonville Daily News office all the time. Typically, it happened when people would dial information seeking the 800 number for whatever their hometown newspaper might be. Because a lot of folks aren’t aware that Daily News is a relatively generic name, they would ask the operator for “the Daily News” without any geographic point of reference.

So in Jacksonville we would get calls from people trying to call the New York Daily News or the Los Angeles Daily News or the Virgin Islands Daily News or … well, you get the idea. The wrong numbers became so prevalent that we added the right numbers for the New York Daily News and Los Angeles Daily News to our staff telephone list for easy access.

Some of these wrong-number conversations could get interesting. I had a guy once who kept me on the line for 10 minutes before I figured out that he was complaining about corruption in Brooklyn, not North Topsail Beach.

One day in late summer I got a call and didn’t have much time for chit-chat  because we had a hurricane blowing up our backsides. This caller had a concern about how a story was covered in the newspaper. I quickly discovered that he was talking about something in California, not Jacksonville, Camp Lejeune or Onslow County.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the caller said. “But while I’ve got you on the phone, let me ask a question: How do you guys stand all those hurricanes? It would scare me to death.”

I thought for a second and replied, “How do y’all stand those earthquakes? At least with a hurricane we can see it coming and prepare.”

“Never thought of it that way,” he said. “Good luck.”

As I already mentioned, I never became accustomed to hurricanes. I did develop fluency in authentic weather gibberish, gleaned from hours of tuning in to the Weather Channel for its hourly Tropical Update. I learned, for example, that wind speeds are measured in knots or nautical miles per hour by forecasters at the National Hurricane Center, which we would then translate into miles per hour (by multiplying the knot figure by 1.15). I also learned that while a milibar contains no calories, the higher the milibar reading the weaker the storm.

My spouse, on the other hand, frequently became alarmed at my Weather Channel addiction.

Otherwise, I discovered that hurricanes in and of themselves are hateful, destructive, time-sucking and often dangerous things. And while I remained close to home or work during nearly a dozen damaging hurricanes, starting with Bertha and Fran 20 years ago, I never once considered riding out a storm near water or attending a hurricane party.

Both fall into Category 5 folly on the Homer Simpson Scale. We reported on more than enough of those horror tales to last me a lifetime, often about people whose homes broke apart around them into the advancing ocean at the height of a storm. We also wrote of Marines taking beer to a barrier island to check out hurricane conditions first-hand and narrowly escaping their cars or winding up deceased. One was found in a tree not far from North Topsail Beach after Fran.

And in the newspaper business, we cover the advance of a hurricane a week before one lands. Then after it departs, we write about it for weeks, stretching into months of debris removal, roof repair, rebuilding, road restoration, and debates over whether people should be allowed to put homes back on a patch of land the size of a shrimpburger.

When we moved to Burlington nine years ago, I was often asked why I would leave the coast — a place people pay big money to go and relax — and come back here.

“I got tired of hurricanes,” I said.

That won’t ever change.


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