Recap: A look back at Hurricane Hugo

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Our September meeting focused on the upcoming 25th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo with a panel of journalists who helped to cover the story back in 1989. Speaker were Elizabeth Leland, reporter for The Charlotte Observer; Frank Barrows, our chapter president and the O’s front-page editor back in 1989; and Eric Thomas, meteorologist for WBTV.

Barrows said the Observer had reporters stationed along the coast to cover the storm, but shifted plans to respond to the major destruction in Charlotte. Roughly 98 percent of the city was without power and about 80,000 trees fell. And without much radio or TV service, many looked to the Observer to get answers about cleanup and other assistance. The paper fielded calls from the public and published 2-pages of answers in the newspaper. He said other papers started doing similar Q&As with future storms.

Leland, who grew up in Charleston, said being in and covering hurricanes are very scary. She did rewrite during Hugo and when reporters weren’t calling in feeds from the coast on the first night, she called family and friends in Charleston to get a sense of what was happening there and to tell people that the storm was headed to Charlotte.(The Observer did deliver that first day)

Among Leland’s stories during the storm was a first-person account of going back to the Charleston area to look at storm damage with her father and others. The story was shared all over the state and nation, and Leland said “it’s really one of those moments when you know that what you’re doing as a journalist is important.”

The Observer did more first-person accounts during another storm. Barrows said reporters were told to write 350-word first-person accounts of interactions they had with someone else while covering the storm. He called it the ‘single-most powerful piece that we had’

Thomas joined WBTV as a weekend meteorologist the year before Hugo. In his first year, he covered another big storm: a F4 tornado in Raleigh. At the time of Hugo, his wife was seven months pregnant. The day the storm hit Charlotte, he remembered waking up to the “eery” sound of the sustained winds. As he drove in, he saw trees swaying in the wind and what he thought was lightening. It turned out to be transformers blowing up. Once at the station, Thomas said he began doing some weather cut ins, but the station lost power. By the time it was restored, the storm had passed and it was sunny outside. The outage cost many station officials their jobs. “We weren’t there when (viewers) needed us,” and there were consequences, he said.

Thomas said because hurricanes move relatively slowly, it is not as difficult to forecast the track of the storm. But he said meteorologists still have trouble forecasting the intensity of storms. Hugo, for example, hit Charlotte much harder than anyone thought, in part because the storm got stuck. There were still gusts of 80-90mph when it hit the city.

Thomas said he thinks his station’s core goals haven’t changed much when it comes to covering hurricanes or other major storms. Most important goal is to provide accurate, timely info and guidance on how to protect yourself and your property. If a storm is threatening enough, they will also look at special coverage to tell people the breaking news about the storm as well as info on how to sustain in the hours (or days) ahead. That includes reminding people to have prescriptions, diapers, food for pets, etc. in addition to food and water. He said he loses patience sometimes with the standups that show wind howling at the beach. Instead he’d like to see more stories that drill down and show people how storm affects them and others on a personal level.

A few more interesting tidbits:
— How many trees fell? Barrows said if all the trees that fell in Charlotte were chopped and stacked beside each other, it would stretch across the US and a couple hundred miles into the Pacific Ocean. Thomas said he heard an estimate that enough trees fell in South Carolina to build a home for everyone in West Virginia
— Hurricanes are not the most deadly weather event. Heat is, followed by hurricanes and flooding, Thomas said. Also, ice storms have knocked out more power than Hugo did.
— Until the 1950s, it was illegal for TV stations to broadcast tornado warning. Thomas said the government was skittish about getting people nervous. But a meteorologist in Oklahoma finally broke rank and likely saved thousands of lives.


-April Bethea, Greater Charlotte SPJ secretary


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