Sunday, September 25, 2005

Inside Ophelia

I cant really explain why I like chasing hurricanes, as it is a thoroughly miserable endeavour. But whenever one of these churning monsters takes aim at the Carolina coast, I jones to be there when it slams ashore. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel this way if I fixed copiers for a living, but after fifteen years of habitual storm coverage, I’ve developed quite the nasty hurricane habit. Like a junkie who knows he ain‘t living right, I could barely look at myself in the rearview mirror of my news unit Tuesday as I made one more mad dash into dirty weather. Bright sun in the Triad disappeared by Raleigh. By the time I reached the edge of Wilmington, a long line of evacuating traffic choked the oncoming lanes while angry raindrops turned my windshield into an abstract painting. It was then I realized just what I’d volunteered for again and I spent the last few miles to Carolina Beach squirming in my seat with adrenaline and regret.

I blew into town around the same time Ophelia’s outermost rain-bands did. Snaking through the flashing yellow traffic signals, I scanned the storefronts for makeshift plywood and spray painted defiance. I found only the former, a sunglass shop with all her windows sheathed in expertly erected wooden planks. Swooping into a parking spot off the main drag, I threw the Explorer in PAR K, leaned on the door handle and tumbled into the drink.

Outside, shimmering curtains of rain showers undulated across the deserted intersection. I kept my head down, but still took on quite a bit of water in the two seconds it too me to pop the tailgate. Crawling into the overstuffed cargo stash, I grumbled under my breath and fumbled with Velcro straps. Only when my Sony was encased in tailored blue canvas did I venture back out, knowing all the electronic bravado I brought would all be for naught if water got inside my camera. As I poked my head out of the back of the truck, two shirtless surfers pedaled by in slow-motion, their tattooed necks twisting shaven heads toward the emerging newsman.

“Hey guys,” I shouted over the roar of the storm, “Ya got a minute?”

Bill and Ted were friendly enough types but had trouble putting more than three words together at a time. As they roped to express how stroked they were to ride out the storm, I searched for a way to blow them off quickly. Chewing my lip, I stared at the quickly dimming daylight behind Bill’s (or Ted’s) head. On my hip, an ancient cell phone rang.

“You got time to call this yacht guy?”, Wes asked from the cockpit of his own news cruiser. “We‘re about a half hour out.”

“Sure” I said, not knowing who the‘ yacht guy’ was. Six minutes later I stepped aboard the vessel in question; it sunk a bit under my weight, making it more of a boat than a yacht. Inching along the narrow walkway outside the cabin, I held my camera in a death grip and thought about a storm named Gordon. I was halfway around the starboard side when a older man in a lighthouse t-shirt and white beard slid open a door panel and beckoned me inside. Once belowdecks, I pinned a microphone on my host, a retired state trooper who’d spent the last ten years cruising the Caribbean. In a corner of his potted plant-filled cabin, his gray haired girlfriend giggled at his every on-screen retort. Less than ten minutes after boarding the boat, I gathered my tools and disembarked. I couldn’t help but giggle nervously as I gripped the railing of the bobbing boat. Nary a slip around the small harbor was empty, paint-peeled fishing vessels and gleaming pleasure crafts pitched and yawed along side each other, the sounds of rope rubbing on wood echoing underneath the slapping patter of the hard-falling rain.

‘The places I find myself’ I thought as I stepped off the boat and onto a floating pier of lashed-together boards. In the distance, I saw Unit Four parked by the condo entrance, its hazard lights still flashing in the downpour. Holding my head down to avoid a face full of rain water, I ran around across the Yacht Club’s yard with my camera lens pointed behind me. I was almost to the other side when I heard them.

“Woo-Hoo! TV Dude! Wanna Beer? C’mon on man, make us famous”

I looked up and squinted through the deluge. Three stories up a small group of young locals loitered and grinned outside the condo’s covered porch. Cigarette smoke hung over their heads, mingling with the smell of a nearby grill’s sizzling contents. Low voices and raucous laughter rang out from behind the screen, punctuating the sound of the wind howling through the breezeway. Climbing the condo‘s steps, I smiled and waved, grateful to have found a bonafide hurricane party to put on the ten o clock news. When I stepped onto their landing, the inebriated foursome clapped and cheered, welcoming me to their gathering like a guest of honor. As they all began talking at once, I pinned a lapel microphone on the soberest one’s shirt and peppered him with questions. Through fumes borne of an Old Milwaukee can, he spoke of how the boats berthed below would float up over their slips should the water level rise enough. I made a mental note to check back later on the area as drops of rainwater slid off my eyebrows and straight into my upturned viewfinder, distorting the drunk man‘s image. I was wiping off the water with a rain-soaked sleeve when my cell phone rang for the fifteenth time that day.

“Stewie, we’re at the Marriott. Chad needs your disc so he can log it. Didya get anything?” I could hear tinny audio playing at fast speed in the background, along with a considerable amount of trash talk.

“Yeah...good stuff too”, I said, fumbling through my run-bag for the feel of my small digital camera. Across the screened-in porch, the guy I‘d been interviewing convulsed with tipsy giggles as his friends fought to high-five him. I ran my fingers under the soaking wet station ball-cap and pressed the old phone to my ear. “Lemme say goodbye to my new best friends and I’ll be right there -”

It took the motel alarm clock several beeps to convince me to open my eyes. When I did, I wasn’t exactly sure where I was. But the rumpled co-workers shaking off sleep in the lamplight along with the freaky howl of the wind triggered some inner synapses and it dawned on me I was finally inside Ophelia. Then a colleague clocked me with a pillow and someone snapped a towel, setting the tone for the rest of the day. The four guys I’d rendezvoused with the night before - seasoned professionals who took their craft very seriously, were like myself equally capable of Grand Larceny Grab-Ass. I wouldn’t have it any other way personally, but I don’t always get a say. This time though I felt lucky, as all the jokers assembling gear and cracking wise around me were most agreeable - even at this ungodly hour in the morning. With the first of Ophelia’s Class 1 winds lashing the balcony, Wes squeezed through a gap in the sliding glass door to power up the lights he’d bungee-corded to the railing the night before. When he did, the a curtain of horizontal raindrops lit up like a theatrical backdrop - which of course it was. When Danny opened the hallway door to head for the sat truck downstairs, a slicker-clad Chad Tucker entered the room rubbing sleep out of his eyes. Meanwhile I donned my own protective suit of shorts, shirt and sandals. Joe, not due to run the truck for several more hours, lay in bed and questioned everyone’s lineage. Sensing all was well with my colleagues, I jammed a soggy ball-cap on my bed-head and hit the stairwell.

The heavy metal door on the ground level almost broke my nose when I tried to push it open. It gave way at first before a sudden gust of saltwater and warm air slammed it back in my face. I cursed as the driving rain soaked one side of my face, pointed my chin to my chest and jogged across the dark, wind-scoured parking lot. As I did, Danny poked his hooded head out of the sat truck’s rear door, half eaten Pop Tart in one hand, the other wrapped around a cell phone. He shouted something, a smart remark probably, lost in the din of the approaching hurricane. I answered with a one-fingered salute as I ran past, before stopping in front of trusty unit four to fumble with the car keys. By the time I climbed behind the wheel, I was soaked from head to toe. Jamming the key into the ignition, I thought of how I used to dress for hurricanes: heavy boots, two piece raingear, hood pulled tight. Since then, I learned that trying to stay dry during sideways rain was as annoying as it was futile. So I embraced a certain minimalism, choosing a wardrobe much like that of any other beachgoer. It was all gonna cling to me like a second skin anyway I reasoned as I dropped the Ford Explorer into REVERSE and backed out of the spot. Besides, I thought as I pulled out onto the deserted, rain-choked streets.

Zipping up and down the streets of a deserted beach town while a Class 1 hurricane whips sheet metal and shingles across the hood of your two-door SUV is nothing less than intoxicating, affording one the type of buzz familiar to hardcore video-gamers. But since there were more than pixels flying through the air, I leaned into the steering wheel and tried to stay focused. Back on the third floor of the hotel, Chad manned his windblown balcony perch and talked into Wesley’s lens. As he went live (!) for our station back home and countless affiliates across the country, I squinted through a bleary windshield and looked for icons.

It didn’t take long to find them. Stop-lights wobbling in the wind, fountain-worthy water formations arcing off the corners of shuttered buildings, flashing traffic signals swaying on their wires like laundry snapping on the line: everywhere I looked I saw the images I needed, so I parked my news unit’s nose into the wind and with a just a tinge if hesitation, leaned into the door. Outside, stinging darts of rain peppered my face and legs as the screaming wind tried to rip the raincoat off my body. Under the tailgate, I found solace, as well as quite a bit of camera equipment. I grabbed my tripod, plopped it down in the fives inches of stormwater swirling around my feet and placed the Sony on top of it. With a flip of a switch, light erupted from the viewfinder, bathing the camera’s eyecup in a soft blue haze. Leaning in, I squinted through the lens, trying to decide which water droplets were on the front of the lens, which were pooling up in the eyecup, and which were streaming down my fogged-up glasses. I twisted the focal tube and dabbed the lens with a balled-up t-shirt. As I did, a loud metal screech rang out behind me, snapping my head in that direction.

Twenty feet ahead , a twelve foot section of gutter piping skittered across the pavement, driven by the winds toward my truck. Yelping out a curse, I hopped up into the back of the cargo bay as the razor-sharp piece of sheet metal passed a few yards by me. As it clattered out of sight, I sat there in the dark, knees to my chin, laughing nervously. I was wet, sleepy hungry - yet pumped - the exact conditions I’d dreaded as I crossed the bridge the evening before. Climbing back down to my camera, I popped off a few bleary shots of windblown streetlights and flash-flooded streets As the wind drove raindrops up my nose, I couldn’t help but think the same thing I did the first day of boot camp:

‘I volunteered for this?’

As the slow-motion hurricane scoured every crevice of Carolina Beach, we TV geeks got our broadcast on. Riding point was Chad Tucker, pushed out on a rain-lashed balcony bathed in electric light. As streaks of water strobed behind him, the young reporter held a finger over his earpiece as Wolf Blitzer asked him a question. Just inside the third story room, Wesley Barrett reached from behind the camera and wiped the lens. In his ear, Blitzer moved on to CNN’s meteorologist for yet another look at the radar. ’Not bad, Chad...’ Danny said, breaking into the line from the satellite truck parked downstairs, “Next up is Fox News -”. A series of telephone beeps and boops followed as Chad wept water from his brow. Inside, I was drying off too, back from another excursion through quickly flooding streets for images to accompany Chad‘s narration of the storm. Taking off my windbreaker, I flicked water on Joe McCloskey, who - still wrapped in bedcovers - manned the motel’s remote control. When Fox News Channel popped up on the TV, I grabbed my digital and waited for the right moment to click the shutter. Seconds later it arrived, with Chad’s image filling up the motel’s 19 inch set. The resulting image captured the satellite delay and satisfied me greatly. Unfolding my laptop, I plugged in the camera and uploaded the picture. A minute later it was on my blog. “Is that cool or what?” I asked the others, excited about what I may post on-line throughout the day. I did then realize we were about to lose power for the next twenty hours.

But humid hotel rooms, long hours and lousy food are hallmarks of hurricane coverage and Ophelia did not fail to hold up these long-held traditions. While only a Class One, the swirling Cyclops of wind, rain and debris inched through town at a wino’s pace, tipping over gas station canopies, downing power lines and sending heavy manhole covers floating down the streets. Through it all, I plowed through the flash-floods in trusty Unit Four, parking strategically into the wind and using the Explorer’s tailgate lid and overstuffed cargo bay for cover. As dim morning light shone through the thick layer of clouds, I was able to find humans to interview. All around the island, stalwart locals hunkered down. A hunched over old hippie behind the only open counter in town scoffed at Ophelia as he counted back my change. At his suggestion, I drove to the marina to interview his fishing buddies, but the gruff men standing in a circle under a fish shack’s roof and sharing a lumpy cigarette didn’t seem to want to talk. Three blocks away, a woman in a pick-up proved far more gabby and I soon had her in the crosshairs of my lens. A few minutes after I left her idling in a rain-swollen parking lot, her answers to my questions ricocheted through outer space.

As did Chad’s drenched image. Throughout the morning, the King, North Carolina native’s face appeared on TV sets across the nation. From L.A. to Orlando, viewers stopped to watch as the young man told in dulcet tones of the worsening conditions along North Carolina’s Crystal Coast. But by noon the producers and suits back at the shop had tired of Chad’s third story high wire act. From a fleet of soggy pagers came the terse order: ‘Get him off the balcony. Get him on the beach.’ With a good deal of eye-rolling and a wee bit of bitchery, we did just that - breaking down our camera, lights, tripod and three floors of cable all so we could set it up a half mile down the coast. Our new broadcast home wasn’t as palatial as the electricity-free Marriott. Instead, we holed up by a dilapidated oceanfront apartment complex, parking our sat truck close against the salt-encrusted building for protection from the wind and pushing Chad out onto the boardwalk as far as our broadcasting common sense would allow. In the process of all that moving, Wesley’s news unit sprung a flat tire, courtesy of a screw-laden piece of gutter pipe that attacked the underside of the Explorer. As a result, I ferried my co-workers from hotel to sat truck; light duty indeed - except for having to traverse a flooded intersection that rose a few inches with every passing. While one colleague would recommend I cross the swollen intersection at a snail’s pace, my next passenger would insist I merely ’punch it’ to get across. I found both methods worked fine - as long as I kept my but-tocks clenched in the driver’s seat.

By six o clock, we were firmly ensconced in our new locale. The wind and rain still roared but not quite as ferociously as before. It could still send sheet metal flying through the air, but it probably wouldn’t drive a pine needle through your skull like they used to talk about on those grade school filmstrips. We even got chance to break a little bread, in the form of frozen ham sandwiches and Pringle’s purloined from the hippie’s convenient store freezer down the road. Having been up and wet since 4 a.m., we were all delighted to hear our bosses’ plans of letting us sleep in the next morning, while our crews in Atlantic Beach covered their portion of Ophelia’s path. This news lifted everyone’s spirits, as while we all prided ourselves as swarthy news warriors, a little downtime in a pitch black hotel room that smelled of sweat socks was more than welcome. With only the ten o clock show to execute before we could all go get some sweaty shut-eye. I was hunched down by the sat truck ladder, catching rainwater while polishing off a Ham-sicle sandwich and a few soggy potato chips, when those glorious plans changed.

“Hey Stew,” my assistant news director said through the antiquated cell phone in my ear, “CNN won’t play ball with our guys in Morehead. Can YOU do live shots in the morning?”

“...Stewart Pittman is standing by live in Carolina Beach and joins us now, Stewart?”

I opened my mouth and began talking, but didn’t really listen to what I had to say. I’ve found that, for me, there’s no quicker way to mangle a live shot than to over-prepare or concentrate too hard. Back when I first began going live in the early nineties, I’d make the rookie’s mistake of writing out a script, only to fumble on a word, lose my place and somewhere in the process forget to breathe. This rarely made for a good performance and as a result, I have nothing but painful memories of my earliest attempts at live reporting. But time heals all wounds they say - even botched TV remotes. By the time the proverbial red light came on last Thursday morning, I tackled the assignment with nary a nerve on display. As I scrunched my toes in the sand and talked to Wes Barrett’s camera some two hundred feet away, my only real regret was that I’d rushed out of the hotel room without visiting the Little Photog’s Room. As a result, it was all I could do to stand and deliver the news without dashing offscreen to go desecrate the nearest sand dune.

Instead, I stayed on my mark and filed live updates for my own station, as well as Fox affiliates in Orlando and D.C. There really wasn’t too much to tell: Ophelia had taken her sweet time moseying through town the day before, toppling signs, ripping up shingles and flooding streets. But as anyone with functional vision could tell, that had all changed. With the sun poking through the clouds, a light breeze rippling off the ocean and seagulls swooping down on crustaceans, the day after Ophelia had all the markings of a beautiful day at the beach following a bad storm - which is exactly what it was. I’m not sure if it’s solely a matter of comparison, but the immediate daylight hours following a hurricane are some of the most tranquil displays of dazzling nature you’ll find on this heartless orb. Too bad you’re usually ready to pass out from sleep deprivation by the time it arrives. This time though, I was pretty well rested. Having made a beeline for the hotel as soon as I got my orders the evening before, I endured an ice cold shower in a pitch black bathroom before crawling on top of the covers for a fitful night of feigned rest in a humid room. By hurricane coverage standards, I was livin’ large!

Which is why I tried not to complain as I loitered on the boardwalk between live shots. Further up the coast, Eric White and Brad Ingram manned a similar post at Atlantic Beach, not far from where Ophelia had made a fine mess of my childhood vacation spot of Salter Path. I didn’t envy them, for while this latest hurricane was less than cataclysmic, covering the aftermath of even a Class 1 was work indeed. I’d much rather work the front end of a storm; as setting up electronic camp and screaming ’Here it comes’ is far less drudgery than churning out round-the-clock coverage of a community’s broken dreams. Been there, thank you very much - got the t-shirt, only to realize it smelled like feet thanks to being balled up in the corner of a sweatbox hotel room for three days.

No, I fared pretty well in the storm this time, I realized as I watched the sun‘s ray appear for the first time in days. Waiting for the voices in my head to prod me, I watched stalwart locals poke their heads outside, pick up shingles and carve one more defiant notch on their hurricane belts. That goes for me too, though I’m not quite as brazen as those crusty fishermen smoking discount menthols at the local store. I’m just a TV geek, one who loves nothing more than to suddenly race Eastward only to complain once I got there. I did plenty of that this time, though there in retrospect, there wasn’t THAT much to bitch about this time. Chances are, I’d once again toss my packed bags on the bosses’ desk the next time a marquee wind came our way. Until then, I’d man the sand at Carolina beach, tell the good people of the Piedmont what little I knew of Ophelia’s visit, before repeating the same message for Orlando, Atlanta and whatever other Fox affiliate that was jonesing for a satellite hit. I just hoped the Broadcast Gods would soon cut me a bathroom break, before I lost all control of my innards and made ‘The Daily Show’.

1 comment:

Mighty Dyckerson said...

Whew, that's a longass post. Far too much for Dyckerson to bother to read.

What this blog needs is a link to DYCKERBLOG.