Unless you spent all of last week in some kid of weird cryogenic chamber, you no doubt saw a number of rain-slicker'd news reporters flailing in the winds of Hurricane Isabel. As much as I'd like to deny any involvement in this time honored cliché, I cannot. Truth is, I spent all of last week in the shore side hamlet of Pine Knoll Shores, where myself and five other colleagues parked our garishly-painted satellite truck at the foot of the Iron Steamer Pier. All week long we up-linked customized live shots to Fox stations all over the country, as well as a handful of ABC affiliates in the Southeast. We even did a live shot for that bastion of frivolity, "Good Day Live!" If you were by some chance forced to watch this nationally-syndicated tripe-fest on Thursday and saw a cute and perky reporter named Shannon Smith go LIVE(!) from the North Carolina shore, might I suggest you immediately go have your eyes rinsed out with cold tap water.
Now, Hurricane Isabel wasn't THE BIG ONE, nor was it the first time I've ventured out in Mother Nature's wrath in the name of higher ratings. Those of you who know me well may remember my Kitty Hawk adventures in 1993, when a Hurricane by the name of Gordon bitched-slapped me and high-dollar camera into temporary sea-soaked oblivion. While nothing that dramatic happened with Isabel, the week was replete with all the hallmarks of 21st century storm coverage: from the stoked surfers chasing the perfect wave (or at least pretending to long enough to get on camera), to the stoic locals pledging to ride it out (all while boarding up anything that didn't move), to the giddy media sticking cameras and microphones in everyone's grill (until there was no one else to interview but each other, a sure sign of the coming apocalypse). Now, I don't want to sound like an innocent bystander - it's my chosen profession to document the tragic and the trite and Isabel afforded me the chance to snap out of my usual feel-good end-of-show soft-news coma, and dig on a real story for a change.
Having said that, here are the Top Ten Things I learned covering Hurricane Isabel.
1) Fishing Pier Employees are NOT Preoccupied with Dental Hygiene.
I met some good people at the Iron Steamer Pier but none of them will ever threaten the livelihoods of any toothpaste model. In fact, to a person, they all sported smiles reminiscent of the rough-edged planks that made up their beloved pier. Must be part of their benefits package. If you're ever at The Iron Steamer Pier, check out the wall of Polaroids behind the counter. My group will be the one with the brightly logo'd rain wear and all our own teeth.
2) Expensive Electronics and Driving Rain Don't Mix.
No mystery there, but I cannot tell you how difficult it is to keep your average TV camera up and operational when it's raining up your nose. For all the customized camera rain-covers out there, nothing beats trash bags and duct tape. Perhaps my station should invest in one of those Plexiglas Pope Mobiles, or buy up all those useless telephone booths that so litter our nation. The pay phones in them certainly don't work.
3) The Bigger the Market, The Cheesier the Anchor.
Like I said, we did satellite live shots for stations across the country, from L.A. to Tampa to Philly to Vegas and all points in between. Without fail, the bigger the city, the more over-affected and cartoon-like the anchor's voice on the other line. I heard enough booming voices and over-enunciation to last a lifetime - or at least until I do another self-serving piece on the local Top 40 radio station. Or a profile on the visiting tent evangelist. Like Sting says, they all sound like game show hosts to me.
4) Eat Enough Granola Bars and You'll Soon Welcome Starvation.
With all reasonable-minded folks headed inland, all seaside restaurants and stores sit vacant behind a sheath of hastily erected plywood. This leaves your friendly media crew sifting through their own meager rations, and what seemed like a good idea on aisle five quickly proves otherwise. At one point some National Guardsmen offered me an M-R-E , citing the plugging qualities of said dried foodstuffs. Thanks, but I'm not quite ready to eat a meal based solely on the bowel movement it produces. Not yet, anyway.
5) When Facing Danger & Discomfort, Pick your Playmates Wisely.
Imagine teaming up with five of your least favorite co-workers for an extended trip into the Great Unknown. That's what covering a hurricane with the office asshole can be like, and in times past, personal conflicts have caused much more trouble than hundred mile an hour winds. I was lucky this time. Everyone on board was a veteran of prior storms and a good buddy to boot. Who needs an expensive Outward Bound excursion to build employee morale? At the end of our trip we had enough group hugs to fill up a Hallmark commercial.
6) The Media's Appetite for Over-Hyped Clichés Knows No Bounds.
Again, no real news flash there - but I was a bit flummoxed by all the verbal hackwork pouring from my soaking-wet earpiece. "Residents are battening down the hatches as Mother Nature's Fury takes aim at the Crystal Coast" And how about all those second references? I heard Hurricane Isabel called "Dizzy Izzy", and "The Angry Lady". But my favorite was some yak on The Weather Channel, who kept referring to the approaching weather system as"The Malevolent Cyclops" What is that? A Pink Floyd bootleg? A Dean Koontz Novel?
7) The Southern Side of a Category 2 Hurricane is Nothing to Sneeze At.
Much was made of Isabel's previous Category 5 status, and some of my ilk were pooh-poohing the downgraded punch it packed onshore. But even the comparatively safer side of the hurricane that passed by us made it rain sideways for about 18 hours and anything that wasn't nailed down became an instant projectile. It's my belief that the only person allowed to trash-talk a hurricane better have an "S" on his chest. As for me, my suit's at the cleaners.
8) Local Law Enforcement CAN Be Bought Off With enough Logo Wear.
I won't name any names, but let's just say the Pine Knolls Shore Police Department has a brand new collection of assorted FOX NEWS ball caps. Move any higher up the law enforcement tree and you have to dig a little deeper. That being said, don't pull that crap with any State Troopers. They'll take your schwag and re-pay you with a new pair of shiny, oversized matching bracelets if they see fit. Try asking what part of our fine state they hail from. Always seems to throw them off.
9) Viewers Do Want To See News People Pelted by Mother Nature
I know, I know - it's stupidity in action, but research and ratings show, for the most part, people LOVE to see reporters and anchor types bracing themselves against the storm -- despite what they may claim. Whether it's our duty to put a human face on the story, or just an excuse for some good ole high-tech showboating, the viewing public tunes in in staggering numbers. At least that's what I told my reporter when I took away her umbrella.
10) Sleep Deprivation Is a Stronger Force of Nature than Hurricanes.
By the time Isabel came ashore, I was existing on four days of four-hours-a-night sleep. Factor in long workdays and lousy food, and I was tapped out by the time the wind really picked up. Around midday on Thursday, I took advantage of a break in the broadcast and crawled in my by-then filthy Ford Explorer to try and catch some Z's. This I did with no problem, despite the fact that wind gusts of up to 100 miles per hour were rocking my news unit. About a half hour later I woke up, only because driving rain was seeping in through a tiny gap in the window and soaking my left temple. Mildly annoyed, I gave up on any slumber, hopped out of my company vehicle and trudged across the windswept parking lot to the battered satellite truck I called home.
Does that make me strange? Maybe where you work. But where I sit, a casual attitude, false sense of immortality and a good dose of gallows humor are exactly what you need to survive. I'm not defending the oftenstupid behavior exhibited by news people during times of crisis, in fact, I'm usually befuddled by it the most. But every time a stiff wind blows up and they slap a name on it , I get the urge to race to the edge of the ocean and taste it for myself. Seeya next year!
High Point NC
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