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High pressure: TV meteorologists try to predict an unpredictable Dorian

A total audience of 3 million hangs on their every word for directions on what to do as a monster hurricane approaches. If they’re off and the storm turns 20 miles earlier than expected, it could be the difference between calamity, or a near miss. No pressure, though.
Left to right: Mike Clay of Bay News 9; Denis Phillips of ABC Action News; Paul Dellegatto of Fox 13; and Grant Gilmore of WTSP Channel 10. [[Special to the Times]]
Published Aug. 31

They are part of a small army of men and women charged with informing the public about the dangers of Hurricane Dorian.

They command the Tampa Bay media market, the 11th-largest in the nation, sharing an audience of 3 million residents, workers and vacationers that for the past week has been hanging on their every word.

Viewers need to know if they should evacuate, board up their house, alter travel plans, buy generators to run oxygen pumps, stock up on non-perishables. All that preparation takes days. They will do what these forecasters tell them to do.

The margins for error are razor thin. As of Friday night, they tell us, Dorian is projected to approach Florida before making a sharp right turn north. If the storm turns 20 miles earlier than anticipated, or later, it could be the difference between unfathomable devastation — or a near miss. That’s pressure, and the storm is still 600 miles away.

With so much hanging in the balance, finding the right tone on air is key, said ABC Action News Chief Meteorologist Denis Phillips.

“When it comes to hurricanes, hype is every bit as dangerous as the storm itself," Phillips said. "Because it can create a false sense of security, and worse than that, it can create a false sense of panic. And that does nobody any good when they’re trying to prepare their family for danger.”

Sometimes, hurricane forecasting can be straightforward. Hurricanes naturally want to head toward the poles, Phillips said. That means they travel north in the northern hemisphere if there are no air masses, or bubbles of high pressure, to impede their path. It gets harder to predict, however, when there are air masses, and the hurricanes get redirected.

Dorian would have headed north if not for an area of high pressure that nudged it west toward Florida. Now it’s predicted to again head north soon, squeezing between two high pressure air masses.

“There are times when the atmosphere is kind of locked into place and we have a high confidence," explained Fox 13 Chief Meteorologist Paul Dellegatto. "But there are times... when you’re waiting for changes in the atmosphere because it becomes more a jigsaw puzzle and you’re watching different elements of the atmosphere and how those change.”

Dorian has been a puzzle. There’s still much riding on exactly when it swings north.

In cases like Dorian, transparency with viewers about the limitations of hurricane forecasting is important, said 10Weather WTSP meteorologist Grant Gilmore.

“Forecasting is not an exact science,” he said. “And there are elements of error that are always going to exist in a forecast. ... So be straight up and say ‘This is our best guess at this point.’”

Much of what the meteorologists do is driven by the weather models. Some of the well-known ones are the American model and the European model, both of which have their strengths and weaknesses, and neither of which are perfect. Forecasters get much of the same information, but each station’s weather team interprets the data slightly differently. That’s why each station’s forecast is different.

“We’re looking at models that are quite often wrong. and we have to figure out how wrong they’re going to be,” Dellegatto said. “We’re not ripping and reading, we’re not reading a teletype.”

Generally, though, meteorologists take their cues from the National Hurricane Center. But the hurricane center can be abstract for the audience, so it’s up to those on television to bring forecasts to life. It also gives the meteorologists a chance to provide needed perspective in what at times can look like a dire scenario.

During Hurricane Irma two years ago, Phillips said, the forecast tracks showed the monster storm heading for Tampa Bay. He reminded viewers that hurricanes change quickly. Sure enough, Irma’s local impacts were much milder than feared.

That’s why Bay News 9 Chief Meteorologist Mike Clay said he isn’t afraid to tell viewers if he disagrees with the National Hurricane Center.

“People trust me,” he said. "They watch me. I’m not (the hurricane center’s) spigot.”

Like Phillips, Clay said he tries to stay measured when briefing viewers on hurricanes. After all, it’s only a matter of time before Tampa Bay gets hit with “the big one," he said.

“If everything’s a 10," Clay said, "then where do you go from there?”

2019 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm

BUILD YOUR KIT: The stuff you’ll need to stay safe — and comfortable — for the storm

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job

NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter

What Michael taught the Panhandle and Tampa Bay

What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael

‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael

What Tampa Bay school leaders fear most from a storm

Tampa Bay’s top cops fear for those who stay behin

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