A Louisiana girl through and through, I’m sitting outside under shelter from the rain in guarded anticipation of the wrath of tropical storm/Cat 1 Hurricane Barry. The storm has been a slow mover in the Gulf for interminable days now. Barry has been taunting us, making us guess which route it would ultimately take, and allowing TV station weather people and ancillary staff the headiness of self-important celebrity status with incessant coverage.
With the lull in activity as the storm sits gathering its energy, these weatherheads have to keep their mouths going, as if they constantly have something of consequence to report. Again and again they run through coordinates, spaghetti models, possible scenarios, statements from "officials" of any kind, and lists of precautions and preparations we common folk should take. They occasionally find a warm body to “interview” about their plans, what kinds of provisions have disappeared from grocery store shelves, or why they choose to stay and ride out the storm.
Once in a while, the Weatherheads discover someone in a small community or neighborhood where streets are already flooded. The heads or their bosses send a sub-head to the community to go stand in the water and wind just to demonstrate to viewers how brave and how vital they are to our well-being. How up to the minute. Most regular local programming is either halted or intermittently interrupted to bring us 24/7 chatter. Some Weatherheads have even admitted – for all the world to see – their giddiness from lack of sleep.
But I can say truthfully say I miss the old days when highly respected meteorologist Nash Roberts, with felt marker in hand, used to calmly show and tell us the information we really needed to know – nothing more, nothing less.
When working years ago as an announcer for WWNO Radio in New Orleans, I had the privilege of interviewing that man who had become a legend in his own time. Nash had no gimmicks, circus tricks or extravagant, colorful digital screens to fill viewers’ heads with so much chatter or useless information to awe or frighten us. “You don’t have to hype a hurricane” Nash told me. “A hurricane is hype enough.”
So many people depended on Nash’s insightful (as well as technology-aided) information and experience-founded intuition for them to be confident in their decision to evacuate or not, that when Nash decided to retire, the TV station wouldn’t let him. After his retirement they would call him back in when a dangerous hurricane might pose a threat to us.
Nash recounted to me a story about an experience he had had during Hurricane Betsy in 1965 during the actual storm, while broadcasting his report from the ground floor of the old St. Charles Hotel. Behind him was a large plate glass window. Nash said, “All of a sudden, I heard a crash of glass and felt that the back of my head was wet. I thought I was bleeding, but I just went on telling people what they needed to know about the storm.”
It turns out he wasn’t bleeding. His head was wet from the incoming rain, but, “There were wires crisscrossing all over the floor getting wet,” he said. “I could’ve been electrocuted.”
I believe Nash Roberts’ steadfastness, his commitment to accuracy in reporting, and his Zen-like calm helped all of us much more than the hyperbolic showmanship of today’s weather reporting. While I do appreciate the information today’s reporters share, it’s all too often overkill, which contributes to our already high stress level. Nash’s attitude didn’t do that, but instead it helped us to respect the storms and their power.
Over many decades, I’ve found myself caught up in the preparation, the anticipation, and the struggle through storms and their aftermath. The worst were Hurricane Betsy which left four feet of water in my family’s home, and then Hurricane Katrina in 2005, after I had acquired that home from my parents’ estate, and floodwaters completely swallowed it.
I remember returning with my mother to our moldy home in 1965 when after first sight of it, she had said she wished she could just put a match to it – to the soggy sheetrock, to the buckled hardwood floors she had so lovingly and often waxed on her hands and knees, to the deep freezer full of meat recently bought, and to all the appliances, furniture, clothing, books, and memorabilia that had been ruined. Of course, she didn’t torch the house. The government stepped in and offered an SBA loan – not a gift – for my mother and father to gut and renovate it. They didn’t have any other options.
After Katrina and much soul-searching, I couldn’t bear the thought of starting over from a shell and restoring the house again, while everyone around me in the community would be struggling to do the same – the months or even years of being in the midst of destruction and constant reminders of what the storm had taken away. Many did stay and did rebuild, and they deserve my admiration, but I had reached an age when I didn’t want to put my remaining years of energy there.
Over all these years though, despite what I know that hurricanes can do, and despite my dozens of times of evacuating the area in advance of the storm, I still love to go outside when storm winds are beginning to strengthen, breathe deeply, borrow some of the storm’s energy to revitalize my body and soul and to pretend courage as I imagine I’m looking a hurricane in its eye.