Wednesday, January 16, 2013

I Survived Hurricane Bret

"There's nothing like a hurricane for news coverage," a reporter friend once said. "You won't believe the amount of stories you get out of a hurricane." She was right, but you can't apply that statement to Hurricane Bret, the superstorm that let the Rio Grande Valley off with a slap when it hit the Rio Grande Valley in August 1999.

I was the 6:00 and 10:00 producer at KRGV when Bret moved in. It would be my first time dealing with a hurricane; we'd had near-misses over the past five years, but not ever a direct hit. The news department would hold hurricane planning meetings in June to talk about the things we were prepared to do but would never do, and that was that.

This time, Bret had me nervous. It wasn't weakening. It wasn't recurving. We were going to get hit and that was that. I expected I would have to sleep at the station and pull some long hours. What especially stunk was that it was hitting on a weekend, robbing most of us of a couple of days off.

Bret spun offshore on Saturday night, but I came in early to help produce our shows. In my nervous state of mind, I barfed all over the front seat of the car driving in. Our weekend producers, who normally would be executing our coverage, found themselves subjugated to mere assistants as my executive producer and I planned the newscasts and whatever else we needed.

"We love you, Ruth, but we have to take over here."

Hurricane coverage is divided into three acts: the preparation, the impact and the aftermath. We had the preparation out of the way. Now we were stuck in the second act, waiting for it to hit with a Category 4 slam. But the storm was moving more to the north than the northwest, meaning the eye could miss the Valley entirely. Our bosses let me go home to sleep late Saturday night while the storm still spun offshore, leaving me to wonder, what next?

When I woke up Sunday morning and flipped on the TV, the storm was starting to make the turn towards land way north of the area. Bret was weaker but still dropping a lot of rain, and our anchor team soon reported a ceiling had collapsed at a store in McAllen. I drove into work and hit the ground running.

I can't remember how I handled the next few hours because I was on autopilot, lining up stories and live shots and getting news on the air. We were live everywhere we could be, even out our back door, where one of the meteorologists held a microphone into the air to point out the unmistakable drone of a hurricane. Willacy County got the worst of it as far as our coverage area was concerned, but the eye hit in Kenedy County, where there's more cattle than people. I call that Providence.

On Monday, the back side of Bret started tearing into us -- those "feeder bands" the weather guys talk about on TV. A line of severe thunderstorms pushed through the Valley, dropping a tornado near our studios in Weslaco. We went live on the air as it unfolded, and one of our camera people rushed outside to grab video of the wall clouds falling down.

"There it is, there it is!"

Inside, the legendary Tim Smith, in his calm and professional manner, guided viewers through warnings and statements rolling in from the National Weather Service. Our tower camera pointed live at the developing funnel.

"A tornado has been spotted near Weslaco," he said, quoting from the official bulletin. "A tornado has been spotted outside the Channel 5 studios," he added.

High winds blew open the doors to our weather terrace and rain threatened our studio equipment. Our general manager, the legendary Ray Alexander, jumped in to help the camera crew, holding a cable and helping where he could. The storm finally moved on, leaving us alive and still standing.

Then during the 10:00 news, just as we had polished off the wrap-up of all the days storminess, we went into another round... or two... or three. Two more tornado warnings came down with lots of rain, and we stayed on the air for four straight hours of live special reports.

I had a photographer shoot video of flooding in Weslaco and we were talking live to Weslaco Police on the phone, along with the Texas Department of Public Safety, Accu-Weather, and the Willacy County Sheriff’s department. With no other lead producers to help, I ran around getting tape, lining up phone interviews, and directing my associates to call up graphics and add new lines to previous ones.

In addition, I'm trying to get a morning newscast started because I’m not sure if those producers are going to make it in on time with all the flooding. In our parking lot, water is up to bumpers. And yet, Providence spares us again, we dry out, and the waters part for our morning team. I leave around 3 in the morning, having had all I could handle.

The next day we finally moved into the final act, surveying the damage and what we would be getting out of the state and federal government's disaster relief coffers. Bret did indeed let us off with a slap, but it was still a hard one. A few weeks later, after we had moved back to "other news," a box of t-shirts arrived at the station, and our assistant news director handed them out.

"I SURVIVED HURRICANE BRET" they read, over our "Eyewitness News" logo. Survived, yes. Survived through all the challenges thrown at us. Survived even though there wasn't a clear plan in place on who would be doing what and when. Survived even though one of our producers managed to slip out of town for a weekend hurricane party, leaving us holding the grunt work. Survived, yes.

I knew after that I didn't want to deal with hurricanes anymore, at least the way I had to deal with Bret. I was already looking for a way out of the Rio Grande Valley before the storm. Now I had more motivation to move on.

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