Hurricane Charley From a Television News Studio
Where the Magic Happens...
"Welcome to the WINK News!"
Just a month or so after graduating from Full Sail in Orlando, I moved back to my hometown area and started working for WINK-TV, the CBS affiliate in Fort Myers, as a production assistant. My only prior experience with TV news was in my high school TV course taught by the wonderful Mr. Ray. It was fun, fast and exciting regardless of the extended amounts of downtime in between shows. (That would change after becoming a director, especially after adding extra HOURS of news to our daily line-up.)
Though hectic at times, our daily routines in the studio were generally laid back. It helped working with a fantastic group of people who were very serious about their jobs yet were able to keep the atmosphere surprisingly light-hearted and FUN.
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August 9, 2004
On August 9, 2004, the meteorologists at the station were discussing a tropical depression cruising through the Atlantic Ocean at a speedy pace. The next day, the storm was upgraded to Tropical Storm Charley by the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
As the storm continued to strengthen, soon developing into a hurricane, our meteorologists were careful to keep a close eye on the storms path. Chief Meteorologist Jim Farrell had been with WINK-TV since 1992 and is a well-respected expert when it came to tropical weather, especially Tropical Storms and Hurricanes aside from being an absolute joy to work with.
There was something different in the way Jim would talk about Charley, on and off camera. While most tracks for the storm were geared more towards Tampa and further North, Jim seemed convinced the storm would take an turn to the East MUCH sooner than others had predicted.
Storm Coverage Protocol
The week leading up to Hurricane Charley's landfall was full of preliminary warnings and advice from TV news vets on what to pack for covering the storm. That's right - I said what to pack. Most of us "kids" that worked the studio floor in the production department had no idea what storm coverage involved, but we soon found out.
We were told to pack for at least 2 or 3 days including a sleeping bag or air mattress, clothes, bathroom needs and any books/games to keep yourself entertained while on the OFF side of the 12 hours on, 12 hours off shift changing. People were jokingly calling out places to sleep in the sales offices and conferences rooms located on the second story of the building, not knowing we would actually be roomates very soon.
Most of the crew treated all of these warnings as though we were preparing to be involved in a multi-department sleep-over, one that would be fun.
Charley Takes a Turn
"I need to go on...NOW."
Early into my shift as floor director of the evening newscasts, I had stacked my hurricane survival supplies in our small break room, put on my headset and taken my place in the studio. Although I went in that day as a typical cocky Floridian, unafraid of storms even after Hurricane Andrew had destroyed my swing set years before after tearing across the East Coast, it didn't take long for me to join the veterans at the station in their somber tone.
While listening to the director over the headset, I cued the two lead anchors - the fabulous Lois Thome and brilliant Jim McLaughlin - to camera three as told, when I suddenly felt someone gently take my arm. I turned to see Jim Farrell standing behind me with a long piece of paper and his clicker that controlled the weather computer clinched tightly in his hand. "I need to go on...NOW," he whispered. Before I could relay the message to the rest of the crew, Jim had already walked onto the news desk and cut into the anchors story. They of course followed his lead, sensing his urgency and introduced him into the segment.
At that moment, we all realized we were in for the long haul.
"This job SUCKS."
Hurricane Charley had not only taken a turn toward Southwest Florida, it had also rapidly increased in strength skipping from a category 2 storm to a powerful category 4 Hurricane with wind speeds topping 150mph.
Due to the speed it was traveling and the sharpness of the turn, most of the crew was unable to safely travel to the station resulting in a 4 day marathon for those of us who were already in the building. We took turns rotating through positions and were mindful to give one another periods of much needed rest.
There were sleeping bodies piled in the conference rooms upstairs, trying to sleep through the sounds of a satellite dish being ripped from the roof along with the signage on the front of the building. Others were enjoying the much appreciated food in the kitchen provided by members from programming/sales whose offices were currently occupied by sleeping reporters and producers.
"This job SUCKS," was a frequently thought phrase in my mind having just started this job only a month before. In years past during hurricanes, I would hunker down with family and friends, playing games and enjoying one another's company while waiting for the storm to pass. Those days were clearly long gone.
It wouldn't be until years later that I would truly appreciate what it meant to be involved in severe storm coverage. It's an incredible responsibility to be people's only means of information after they had lost cable, electricity and only had their battery operated radios to rely on. WINK was broadcasting over all of our radio stations they shared our facilities.
Costliest Atlantic Hurricanes
Damage (Billions $)
"I Worked Through Hurricane Charley and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt"
"I Survived Hurricane Charley" was the print on the back of the brown t-shirt along with the logos from all of our sponsors and radio stations. Family and friends found the gesture a bit morbid given the amount of damage, deaths and how many people's homes were destroyed, but it felt like a form of survival. I still have that shirt and I intend on keeping it. If anything, it serves as a reminder of my news "roots" along with the incredible and talented group of people I had the honor of sharing this unprecedented experience with. I have since left my position at WINK-TV and now live of the East Coast of Florida, but I continue to keep in contact with many friends that worked (or still work) there.
TV news is a unique monster, especially when extended coverage kicks in. Love it or hate it, local media is truly your best form of defense when it comes to the moments leading up to and during Hurricanes.
(I realize that sounded like a commercial...I think it may have actually been at one point?)
An Everyday Charley Reminder...
Each year on August 13, I see my fellow Winkster's Facebook pages filled with reminders of what happened on Friday the 13th, 2004. I myself have a very happy reminder about that day - my dog Bowie.
He, along with his box of brothers and sisters, were among the hundreds of animals misplaced during Hurricane Charley. I adopted him just weeks following the hurricane after seeing the desperate plea from the Humane Society during a segment on WINK News mornings.
Being so young at adoption and unsure of exactly how old he was, I simply use August 13 as Bowie's birthday. He serves as a perfect reminder how something so wonderful (and chubby) can rise from a time that seemed so dark.