As coverage continues of the devastation left in Hurricane Sandy’s wake, we asked Weather Channel field reporter Eric Fisher, who began the storm in Rhode Island and then made his way to New York City, to describe his experience.
By Eric Fisher
I was at my desk on Oct. 15 when I called over a co-worker to ogle my computer screen. It’s not what you think; we were looking at computer models. And this one in particular caught our eye. It predicted a huge storm, riding up the East Coast with all manner of weather attached to it, set to arrive near Halloween. “Probably will never happen, but that’s interesting,” was the refrain from both of us.
Fast forward to Oct. 29 and an unprecedented storm, named Sandy, was re-writing record books in the Northeast. Water flowing into places that had never seen it before, snow so deep and heavy that rooftops were collapsing, massive waves sinking boats on the Great Lakes, and coastlines changed forever.
How does one prepare for such an event? Very carefully.
We all know that when it comes to the weather, there is no 100 percent, and there is no zero percent. We live in a world of chance, where just about anything is possible given enough time to play out the scenarios. So relaying this disturbing forecast in the days leading up to Sandy’s arrival was a fine dance between what could happen and what will happen.
When the calendar reached Monday, Oct. 22, the tone began to change at the Weather Channel. Tropical updates from Carl Parker and Dr. Greg Postel became more foreboding as Sandy was born and churned through the Caribbean. Conversations led by Senior Meteorologist Stu Ostro in our Global Forecast Center were attended by a large crowd. At this point we knew that a major event was brewing. It was time to pack my (extensive) gear, book flights and hotel rooms for my crew and me, and get ready to head into Sandy’s path.
Our most difficult task in these situations is to convey the information without scaring people, but at the same time let them know that a life-altering storm could be headed their way (admittedly, two goals that seem at odds). I’m constantly humbled by the dedicated and professional team we have, and how they always excel in handling this important job. By Wednesday, crews were live in the field. By Friday, it was all hands on deck. And on Sunday, Sandy had started her final approach into the U.S. coastline. By then, my crew was on the ground, we’d staked out a place to report from that we knew would be impacted by the storm, and were focused on getting as much information as possible — near constant updates on conditions up and down the East Coast.
Working in a hurricane is, to say the least, an interesting job. Our team is battling sand in their gear, wind in their faces, texting and emailing on your phone’s wet screen with numb hands, intermittent cell service, high winds knocking out your satellite feed, sometimes dodging flying debris, and water…well…everywhere. During Sandy, some of us slept in hotels without power, heat, or running water (yes, no showers, no flushing toilets), and food is generally scarce — but that is all part of the job we’ve chosen. I was lucky enough to get a hot meal here and there, but generally you plan to subsist on a steady diet of beef jerky, energy bars, and bottled water you’ve hoarded from the hotel.
Weather events also tend to draw a crowd. But what starts out as a lively affair with crowds watching the waves, taking pictures, and planning hurricane parties, almost inevitably turns to fear at some point.
For Jim Cantore in New York City, that fear probably set in while watching water levels roar pass their previous records, knowing full-well that homes, businesses, subways, and tunnels were in the throes of a disaster, and that in a matter of seconds the lifeblood of the city would be crippled indefinitely.
For Mike Seidel on the beach in New Jersey, this moment likely came with the surge, which rushed in toward their live trucks and threatened to sweep them all away.
For my crew in Narragansett, Rhode Island, that moment came when winds ramped up to 80 mph, the rowdy crowd suddenly turned and ran for shelter, and the windows in the restaurant we were reporting in exploded all over the room. Even when we finish shooting, it’s nearly impossible to unwind. You know you need sleep, but the mind is still racing with what you’ve seen, what’s happening to people, and what you’re going to wake up to the next day. I have seen some unimaginable things while covering severe weather events, but I don’t think even I could have prepared for the images running across the television screen the next morning.
And indeed, for everyone else, that fear probably came with morning light on Tuesday. Homes washed into the sea, an entire neighborhood burned to the ground, protective sand dunes blasted away by the unrelenting waves, family vacation spots wiped off the map by the power of the storm, and the toll on human life, which numbers well over one-hundred souls from the Caribbean to New England.
My crew and I stayed in the field for the next few days. We moved to NYC to report on the aftermath of a badly damaged city — tunnels and streets underwater, facades ripped off of buildings, endless lines of people waiting for food and ice, among so many shocking and terrible images.
The aftermath of these storms tends to include political jockeying, shouting matches with power companies, and other unsavory aspects. But what I always find inspiring are the stories of neighbors looking each other in the eyes and vowing to help each other get through the storm. Helping each other to pick up the pieces, rebuild the businesses, and make things even better than they were in the first place. This part of the story has happened in every place I’ve traveled. And I hope that never changes.
What I do hope changes are the way we prepare for these events. While we will never stop nature’s wrath, human ingenuity can always help to adapt to it. Storms like Sandy show us that worst-case scenarios do happen, and that preparing for anything less is not going to cut it. As wealth accumulates, population grows, and climate changes, we will continue to face higher risks from severe weather. New Orleans is now stronger and safer after Katrina. New York and its surrounding areas will have to follow suit and make better decisions for the future. And while we’ll always be there to tell you what’s coming, hopefully those decisions will keep us from giving you bad news the day after.
Fisher is co-anchor of the Weather Channel’s “Weekend View.” Follow him on Twitter at @EricFisherTWC.