For seasoned meteorologists, there’s calm before, during and after the storm. Even when the storm is a major hurricane heading their way.
As the ABC11 weather team got ready to begin wall-to-wall coverage of the approaching Hurricane Florence Thursday afternoon, you might not guess it was anything other than a normal weekday afternoon.
In a scene likely played out in competing newsrooms across the Triangle, the WTVD meteorologists chatted casually about graphics for their reports, the shifts they would work over the next few days, and the immediate strategy for that afternoon.
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“What’s the plan?” Brittany Bell asked chief meteorologist Chris Hohmann as he entered the weather center in the station’s downtown Durham newsroom.
“I don’t think there is a plan!” Hohmann replied with a laugh.
And that’s not a bad thing, he explained. They all know what they’re doing, and when the coverage is on-going and there’s a lot to talk about, Hohmann describes it as “liberating.”
Before going on air, a promotions staffer pulls Hohmann aside to record promos for the ABC11 news app. Hohmann holds up his phone and repeats his lines, “Stay safe — download the ABC11 Eyewitness News app” maybe a dozen times. Hold the phone lower. Hold the phone higher. Not that high.
Then Bell sets up for a Facebook Live shot. Then she records some radio spots. The young meteorologist has been at the station for about a year and a half. She lives in Knightdale and had to board her dog, a lab mix named Stormy, so that she could work the long hurricane shifts.
And all the while, Steve Stewart tinkers with graphics.
Stewart, who joined the station in 2006, was a stand-up comedian before he was a weather man. “It’s how I paid my way through meteorology school,” he said. He once opened for Tim Allen and was voted the Best Young Comic in Denver in 1995. In his current life, he has distinguished himself as the resident graphics expert, creating the weather graphics for ABC11 and for all of the Disney owned-and-operated ABC affiliates. His skills are self-taught, he said, and he has a knack for it.
Stewart sits with Hohmann as they wait to go on air and they go over the various graphics. They like the buoys, but they don’t bob. Why don’t they bob? We can make them bob. Wait, that’s two buoy graphics in a row. What about 3-D?
Hohmann comments on Stewart’s attention to detail, how he’ll make sure the shadows move in the right direction or that the debris is flying in the correct way. He makes the buoys bob.
Missing from the group is Don “Big Weather” Schwenneker, who worked the morning weather shift.
Respect for all the models
The weather team also do that thing we all picture them doing: They study models. But how do they know which model to follow?
“Experience,” said Hohmann. “From living here and past events and how models did in past events. Or we know that some models have a bias in certain ways, so we know whether it’s snow or a hurricane or any other type of weather, one model may be better in one situation than another.”
Hohmann insists he has no real preference. Each model has something to offer.
“Everybody has an opinion,” Hohmann said. “And there’s a model Steve hates, he won’t even look at it. But I don’t find it as bad as he does. It’s kind of a personal thing. Some people love the European model because it’s the only one that five days out correctly predicted Sandy would make that left hook into New Jersey, but I’ve seen the European model blow other things since then. I try to just look at them and remember what they are good at or bad at. A lot of people have their personal preferences, but I really don’t.”
And Hohmann said viewers, for the most part, are understanding when weather events don’t live up to expectations.
“Most meteorologist don’t hype,” he said. “I hate to try to scare people at all. We try to just say exactly what’s going to happen. But if things don’t pan out, whether it’s a snowstorm or whatever, we always get some people very angry, but most people are actually very understanding. They know things can change and they know we’re just trying to do the best we can to keep people safe in situations like this.”
A recent criticism was more personal, but Hohmann laughed it off. “I was talking to my daughter today and she was reading some of the comments on Facebook and somebody said I looked really old! She was laughing about it and I said that used to bother me but now I think it’s kind of funny.”
No time for chaos
The most striking thing to an outside observer is how calm the atmosphere is just hours before a major hurricane is scheduled to make landfall on the coast. It’s in stark contrast to other storm scenes we’re used to seeing on the news and in real life: the frantic searches for gasoline, the scuffles over bottled water, the crashing waves while reporters cling to light poles.
Here, the work is methodical and efficient. There’s no yelling, no scrambling. There’s a little snacking between on-air segments.
“Once you’ve done this a few times, it runs smoothly,” Hohmann said. “It can get hectic sometimes. Mostly it’s just a long, tiring process, but not chaotic. In the past, we’ve done really well — the station as a whole.
“People think we love this stuff,” Hohmann said of dangerous weather events like hurricanes and ice storms. “Does anyone here love this stuff?” Bell and Stewart answer in unison, “No!”
“We don’t love this,” Hohmann continued. “It’s fascinating work, but it’s not exciting. We don’t like weather that hurts people.”