Hurricane Earl swept through the Eastern seaboard on Sept. 2, swirling up the North Carolina coast with winds well over 100 m.p.h. (160 km/h) but never making landfall. The Category 4 hurricane (since downgraded to Category 1) flooded towns and caused surging waves to wash over at least one highway linking the state's Outer Banks islands. People had long since evacuated the area, leaving only soaking-wet weather reporters to tell us what the storm was like. What are they doing down there, anyway? And how do reporters stay safe in a hurricane?
"People always ask me, 'How did you get down there? Aren't the roads closed?' " says meteorologist Stephanie Abrams, who co-hosts the Weather Channel's shows Wake Up with Al and Your Weather Today. "But it's not like we arrive during the storm. We show up days ahead of time." Abrams has been in North Carolina since Monday, Aug. 30 a full three days ahead of Earl scouting the area, weatherproofing her equipment and making several trips to the grocery store to stock up on food in case of an emergency.
Abrams' location, at Kill Devil Hills, a small town on the Outer Banks' barrier islands, was chosen by a team of people at the Weather Channel's offices. "When we're out working, we can't analyze how bad the storm's going to be," she explains. "So we rely on people back home to tell us where to go and if conditions are safe." The Weather Channel picked Kill Devil Hills because the town is out in the water yet far enough away from the eye of the hurricane that reporters and their gear including several hundred thousand dollars' worth of satellite equipment should remain safe. Abrams and Wake Up with Al co-host Al Roker have been staying in a beachfront hotel room. They do their segments standing on the sand as the crew films them from 100 yards (about 90 m) away, on the hotel balcony, where the cameras are protected from the rain by an overhanging roof. Everything the reporters own gets wrapped in plastic. "Duct tape and plastic," she laughs. "That's our big weatherproofing secret."
Abrams has been doing on-location weather reporting since 2004. She says there isn't really any way to "practice" standing up in a hurricane, which is probably why there are so many videos on YouTube of intrepid reporters tripping over tree branches. When she's on assignment, she carries an iPad wrapped in Ziploc bags, an anamometer (to measure wind speed) and a special waterproof notebook and pen. She wears L.L. Bean weatherproof gear and knee-high rubber boots. Then she wanders out into the elements and gets beaten up by the rain, the sand and the wind.
"I love reporting in weather because I understand it so much better," she says. "I can feel it, taste it literally and experience head to toe, inside and out. I see what people are going through, and it helps me understand what they're dealing with." Abrams says the worst storm she's ever experienced was, of course, Hurricane Katrina. "I recall every minute of that day," she says. "I saw buildings gutted. A huge casino was moved hundreds of yards so that it was half in the water and half on land. Dead birds were everywhere. I can't even describe it, that's how heartbreaking it was."
Compared with Katrina and 2008's Hurricane Ike, Abrams says Earl which might be further downgraded to a tropical storm by Friday night was relatively easy. "I've been working in beautiful beach weather all week," she jokes. "There wasn't a cloud in the sky until the storm came. Who can complain about that?"