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?”