by Brian Orzel
A meteorologist reporting live from the heart of the first hurricane to strike the Cape Fear coast in over a decade. Part of a team effort that set WRAL-TV 5’s compelling coverage of Hurricane Bertha’s landfall apart from our competitors.
In the past, every time a hurricane threatened life and property in North Carolina, reporters and news anchors were dispatched to the coast. This time, to augment our coverage, we decided to give accounts of the storm from a meteorologist’s perspective. One image permanently embossed in the minds of many viewers is not of boats tossed around in the waves like toys, or limbs snapped off trees like toothpicks, but of a meteorologist struggling in 75 mph winds to stay fully clothed. Strange, how what I perceived to be an embarrassing blunder became an important part of my story and earned me the nickname “The Caped Crusader”.
Ever since college, I’ve always dreamed of reporting live from a landfalling hurricane. Thursday morning, July 11th, I awoke to a ringing telephone. I was instructed to travel to Wrightsville Beach with photographer Rick Armstrong. That long anticipated opportunity had arrived. However, I was lacking one vital element, rain gear. On the way to work, I stopped at a local mall to purchase a rain poncho. Even though I only got to wear it once, it was $30 well spent.
Upon arriving, the excitement waned somewhat when first, local officials wouldn’t allow us access to the beach, and second, when Bertha weakened considerably and appeared to swerve toward the South Carolina coast. Barring a sudden reversal of circumstances, my role in the coverage this time would consist of a few live shots from our hotel on the Intercoastal Waterway Thursday evening and a trip home Friday. But…hurricanes are notoriously unpredictable. And Bertha was about to surprise everyone.
Early Friday morning, it became apparent that we were in for a rough ride. Gale force wind gusts and heavy driving rain…getting worse by the hour. Mike Maze confirmed what I suspected, that Bertha had strengthened to a Category 2 storm and was headed directly toward us. The noon producer had slated me for 5 live shots during the hour long newscast, that is, if Bertha would allow it. Winds increased to hurricane force shortly before noon, making it impossible for Rick Armstrong to stand while holding the camera, and disrupting our satellite transmissions. Was it all for not?
Fortunately, the engineers reestablished the signal just long enough for Rick and I to get out one live shot. Hurricane force winds forced Rick to shoot sitting on a step and had ripped my poncho to shreds. During the height of the storm, I updated viewers over the telephone (before the power and phone service was disrupted) and Rick photographed Bertha’s fury through our bedroom window.
The only question left was, would the relatively calm eye of the hurricane come over us? This would naturally add to the drama, but more importantly, allow us to reestablish a satellite link to uplink video back to the station. Around 3:30 P.M., the eerie calm started, winds gradually diminished, the rain stopped, and the sun made a brief, albeit, dimmed appearance. Reporters Debra Morgan and Terri Gruca were able to feed their packages, and I did my first live shot ever from the eye of a hurricane shortly after 4:00.
What do I remember the most about this grand experience? Things professors can’t teach you in a meteorology class. Such as, the “voice” of the wind, a constant, wicked moaning…the strange salty taste of the rain…the stinging sensation when facing the wind, similar to being shot in the face with a fire hose…the excitement, balanced by a certain measure of fear in the back of your mind. And, of course, that not all rain gear is created equal!