Sunday, February 3

Twisting in the Wind

It was in the late summer of 1969. I had been out of college a few weeks, and had settled into my first job at WOOD AM-FM-TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was busy writing hourly five-minute radio newscasts and starting to work producing the 11:00 p.m. television newscast.

In those days there were no reporters and no photographers on weekend duty. The 11:00 p.m. (which might have been only 15 minutes long in those days), was delivered by an anchor who came in at 10:00 p.m. just for that purpose. For video it featured whatever national footage the network sent us. On the radio side the disc jockeys read the news.

There weren’t five people in the building (counting engineers) when all hell broke loose! The wire machine bells went off: a tornado warning was issued for our area.

I knew what to do. We all knew what to do. It had been drilled into us by News Director Dick Cheverton, after a debacle the year before. In 1968, major tornados had hit the area with no warning. An investigation had been held to find out why the word never went out. Who dropped the ball, the “Weather Bureau” (as we still called it: the official name was changed to the National Weather Service only in 1967) or the media? In the end, the NWS got the blame. But “Chev” was determined that in the future there never be even a hint that his station had failed the public, and he transformed the way we aired weather bulletins.

So I ducked into the little closet that served as an audio booth right inside the newsroom—not ten feet from my desk. In front of me I had a mic and a set of three lights and three switches. The first pair, white, signaled the disc jockey to introduce a weather bulletin when it was next convenient—after a song or after a commercial. That was for most weather watches. The yellow pair signaled the DJ to toss it to me now! And the red pair cut into all programming on radio and TV and put me on the air instantly.

I flipped the red switch and read the bulletin—a Tornado Warning—for both radio stations and television.

With a tornado warning—the NWS saying a funnel cloud had been sighted—our policy was to repeat the announcement every 7-10 minutes until the "all clear" was issued. That gave me a few minutes between sessions in the closet to start calling the staff in and to start calling local police agencies for reports before I had to air the latest bulletin.

It went that way for the next two hours while the staff hurried in: air the bulletin—make some calls—air the bulletin—make more calls.

Chev showed up and started to dispatch reporters and photographers to areas of reported sightings.

Finally, after two or three hours of non-stop activity, Chev came up to me. “You’ve done a great job. I’m going to have one of the anchors take over now, but I can’t let you go just yet. Take Tom (Chief Photographer Tom O’Rourke) and head north of here towards the latest funnel sightings."
The newsroom was in a half-basement—just a few windows high on the walls. I knew it was still a sunny day out, but it was great to be out in the sun and to be moving. Tom and I packed the car and headed down the driveway.

And I saw a man mowing his lawn.

And a “Mister Softee” truck making its way up College Avenue.

And a bunch of kids playing baseball in a vacant lot.

And another man washing his car.

And I desperately wanted to lean out the car window and scream, DIDN’T YOU HEAR ME???




And I learned that my professors at Michigan State had been right: to communicate you have to have a sender and a receiver. You can put it in books and newspapers and on radio and TV—and these days on the internet: but if no one reads it or hears it or sees it the job of communicating is only half-done, which is the same as not being done at all.

Turns out that most of the twisters that day stayed aloft, never reaching the ground and never doing any damage. The one or two funnels that did reach ground cut through farm fields: no one hurt, no buildings destroyed.

I guess I was the one who felt left twisting in the wind that day. I have felt that way a lot over the years: Didn’t you hear? Didn’t you see? Why don’t you pay attention? This is important!

We talk about "making a difference," but when I see how “informed” our citizenry is, despite our best efforts, I wonder sometimes why we bother. Have you got any good answers?


Anonymous said...

As a friend (who owns a radio station) told me recently: EBS is a joke. It wasn't even used on 9/11/2001!

It's a shame, we have no way to distinguish between the real thing and a close call...hence we get Andrews and Katrinas where people stay put.

But let NWS miss one...

Anonymous said...

Spending 33 years in radio/TV, I have no idea in hell whatever happened to EBS over the last 20 of those years. I only recall being at a station once that originated and activated an alert, and that was during the flooding of '96. No one knew how to do it, know one knew if it worked, if we should use it, if anyone ever heard it.

It was truly a tree falling in the emptiness of a desolate forest.

Just for shits and grins, next time we get t-storms hereabouts, check the NWS warnings; they all carry a request for an "immediate EBS activation." Da frick? Who activates? Who monitors? Then what?