“What happens after a hurricane has everything to do with what you do before a hurricane”
When Hurricane Andrew tore through southern Dade County and thrust WTVJ Channel 4 meteorologist Bryan Norcross to national acclaim, it could have seemed he was simply in the right place at the right time. But nothing was further from the truth, for in hindsight, it seems that Norcross’s entire life to that time was leading up to those long hours on the longest day in Miami’s recent history.
[The book details Bryan’s background, his love of rock ‘n’ roll radio which led him to broadcasting, then to Florida State University for formal training.]
He applied his genetic geekiness to earn a degree in physics from Florida State University, graduating in 1972. From there he went on a whirlwind tour of television jobs in Atlanta and Denver—engineering, directing, production, news producer. Hired in Louisville as news director, a blizzard struck the weekend before he was to start. He went to the station, introduced himself to the skeleton crew on duty, and proceeded to solo anchor special coverage until the regular news team could get in. That experience led him to go back to FSU to earn his masters in communications meteorology in one year, graduating in 1980. He got his first full-time television weather job in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, in Miami at WPLG Channel 10, the anchor team of Ann Bishop and Mike Schneider was about to knock Florida’s first television station, WTVJ, out of the number one news position. Channel 10 News Director Steve Wasserman was looking to expand the station’s weather staff, led by Chief Meteorologist Don Noe. In 1983 Wasserman hired Norcross for weekends, and he was soon promoted to weekdays at 5:30. WPLG’s executive producer was Sharon Scott—she and Norcross shared news philosophy and vision. When NBC bought WTVJ in 1987 they hired Scott as news director, and when Norcross’s WPLG contract expired in 1989, she asked him to join WTVJ as chief meteorologist. A six-month noncompete clause kept him off the air, giving him and Scott time to brainstorm what they could do to distinguish WTVJ’s weather presentation.
[The book explains about noncompete clauses.]
At the time, WTVJ was in the midst of reinventing itself after the January 1989 Big Switch of stations in South Florida. A long-running and top-quality local news magazine called Montage was a casualty, and its producer, a bright young man named Scott Siebers, was on the chopping block. Sharon Scott assigned Siebers to work with Norcross to create the WTVJ weather brand. “I remember the three of us sitting around a restaurant table in Coral Gables thinking, what can we do to make our weather different and special,” Norcross recalled. They concluded Channel 4 should become THE hurricane station.
With the exception of Hurricane David in 1979 (which threatened Dade but didn’t cause any significant damage), South Florida had not been hit by a major storm since the mid-1960s. Not only had the population exploded since then (meaning hundreds of thousands of people had never experienced a serious hurricane), but also the technical capabilities of local television stations had increased exponentially. “I wanted us to learn everything we could about hurricanes,” Norcross explained. “I said to Scott [Siebers], if we have a hurricane here, trust me, they’re going to come looking to me for answers. And I haven’t got any answers. What would we do—as a city, as a community, as a television station?”
So in the spring of 1990, Norcross and Siebers started interviewing people, asking questions, producing special programming about hurricane preparedness. “I remember meeting with the school board and saying, how are the shelters going to be coordinated with the schools? They hadn’t really thought that out very well. And pushing the phone company to put evacuation maps in the phone book. How were people going to know where an evacuation zone is?” Norcross asked.
“I remember sitting down with Scott and saying, ‘What DON’T we know?’ We don’t know about the bridges—how will they work, because boats have to go under the bridges but people are evacuating. So how’s that going to work? So we went to the Coast Guard. We tried to think of every question and find an answer. How about the ability to broadcast? How’s that going to work? This is not going to be a TV issue because the power’s going to be out. It will be a radio issue. We need cooperation from radio stations. Nobody had ever done that before. So I went to Y-100 (WHYI-FM) and made a deal that they would carry us if there was a hurricane. We ordered up special lines from the phone company . . . got that tested in the middle of August . A guy named Jim Ogle was the assistant news director—he was responsible for the planning. He ended up with a book that was about two inches thick with all our contingency plans. But of course, it was all theoretical.” After all, there hadn’t been any storms in Miami for decades.
Meanwhile, there were storms brewing within the owned-station division of NBC, with a leadership change at the top. Since the big network affiliation switch in 1989, WTVJ’s overall ratings had dramatically declined. The pressure was on General Manager Dick Lobo to “shake things up,” said Norcross. “Of the contracts of the top four talent, mine was the one that was coming up [at the end of the year] for renewal. Sharon let my agent know she wasn’t going to be able to renew me.” This was in June, six months’ notice. “So my agent . . . was shopping me around. We had come up with a job at CBS in New York, “early-early morning news,” Norcross said. “I was excited to go to New York. I had several interviews at CBS, and we had pretty much come to terms in August.”
There are no secrets in television stations, and Norcross learned that Irv Gikofsky, “Mr. G” in New York television weather circles, was due to visit WTVJ on Monday, August 24. Coincidentally, that was the same day that Norcross was supposed to meet his agent at CBS in New York to finalize their deal. Neither Mr. G nor Mr. Norcross would make their meetings.
What happened next is a textbook example of the uncertain science of hurricane prediction, and the need for everyone who lives in hurricane-prone areas to pay attention. For broadcasters, it is a lesson in preparedness, decisive action, and a little luck.
Monday, August 17: The season’s third tropical depression became its first tropical storm, dubbed Andrew, in the far eastern Atlantic.
Wednesday, August 19: Norcross told his television audience during the regular evening newscasts, “Andrew has about a fifty-fifty chance to survive, maybe a little more likely that it will hang together. And if it does, we’ll have to watch it carefully.”
Thursday, August 20: “The situation [is] not a whole lot different than it was on Wednesday,” Norcross reported. “It [is] still a relatively weak storm—the expectation [is] that it [is] going to turn north. It [is] still way out there.”
Friday, August 21: The slow weather fax machine took what seemed like an eternity to print out charts, but when Norcross finally retrieved it before his evening newscast, he didn’t like what he saw. “The weather pattern presented . . . was really conducive for the hurricane to strengthen and for it to be forced south. I wasn’t predicting where it was going to go, but it looked like the eye was going to strengthen, and therefore would [increase] the forward speed of the storm. So I went to Sharon about 3:30 in the afternoon and said, we need to raise the flag. There’s a risk we could have a significant hurricane here over the weekend or early next week.” Norcross raised the flag during the 5:00 p.m. newscast, showing excerpts from the station’s hurricane specials, and reminding people that it takes a lot of time to prepare for a hurricane. However, the official updates from the National Hurricane Center still projected an air of watchfulness, not action. By the eleven o’clock newscast the hurricane center had revised their forecasts—saying the storm could hit next week—but without any sense of urgency to prepare over the weekend.
Saturday, August 22: Andrew became a hurricane. Norcross recalled, “We went on the air for large blocks of time. As the storm became stronger, it became clear that it was a likely threat for South Florida—it could have been the Keys, could have been Palm Beach County . . . As we went through the day it became more obvious that the threat was likely in the Miami–Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area.” They stayed on the air most of the day, with Norcross simply standing in front of the chromakey (a lime green screen for electronic placement of video or graphics “behind” the talent) with tracking maps, answering viewers’ phoned-in questions about storm preparation live on the air. By eleven p.m. Andrew had grown to a Category 3 storm on the Saffir/Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, with 125 mph winds, forecast to get stronger. Norcross and Channel 4 kept it up until one o’clock Sunday morning. “There was no end of things to talk about, but I said, this is enough. It’s time to go to bed. I said on TV, something like, ‘I’m going to go home now and get some sleep, because tomorrow is going to be a very big day and we don’t know when we’re going to have a chance to get to bed again. I suggest you do that as well. We’ll be back in the morning, we’ll see where we stand, and we’ll be here through the storm.’”
Sunday, August 23, 8:00 a.m.: “I went over with the news department what we were going to do, what we were going to say. We’re going to take this in order. Right now there is a significant risk of a significant hurricane. Later today we may take away the ‘risk,’ and say there ‘is’ going to be a significant hurricane. We need to do it in order, and we need to be sure people understand that what happens after the hurricane has everything to do with what you do before the hurricane.”
9:00 a.m.: WTVJ had been in special report coverage since 5:00 a.m., Bob Weaver was in the Storm Center, along with the weekend weatherman, Brian Allen. Norcross sat at the anchor desk with sports anchor Tony Segreto, who was raised in South Florida, and news anchor Kelly Craig. That subtle difference changed the dynamics—Norcross was the authority. When a reporter commented that people at a shelter “were still hopeful,” Norcross took charge. “This IS going to happen for Dade County tonight.” He later said, “I didn’t want anybody holding onto hope that it wasn’t going to happen.”
At that point the tone changed. “I started thinking about the people who did not evacuate . . . Here are some things you can do. You can get your dining room table and put a chair on top . . . if you have a saw, have it ready because you may have to cut a hole in the ceiling. Think about how you are going to get above the rising water, because if you’re at the bay front and this storm comes into Dade County, you’re going to have extremely high water, perhaps as high as the roof of your house.” As part of his two years of preparation for this night, Norcross had read a book by L. F. Reardon about the Great Miami and Pensacola Hurricane of 1926. “At one point,” Norcross recalled from the book, “when the wind was whistling through his [Reardon’s] house, he put his children in the laundry washtub and covered them with a mattress.” He told his audience, “‘Friends, here’s what I want you to do. Get a mattress off the bed and have it ready. When you go to your safe spot, get your family in there, get the mattress over them, and wait this thing out.’ It was the smartest thing I have ever said in my life. The stories I have heard from people who spent the storm under a mattress still give me the chills.”
Monday, August 24, 3:31 a.m.: Throughout the early morning hours Norcross had told his audience, “When you see us move, we want you to move to your safe spot.” That time had come. Later, some would accuse the station of theatrics, moving from the studio to a storage room they called The Bunker, but it was part of the plan. “One of the things we had studied [in the two years prior] was roof designs—flat roofs versus hip roofs versus gabled roofs. Flat roofs have some of the strongest uplift potential . . . the old WTVJ building had a flat roof over the studio. As the storm got stronger I thought the roof could be at risk. And also, diagonally across the street was this huge crane they were using to build the federal courthouse. So that was my initial thought—we should move out of the studio. But as soon as we did it I realized it was really smart because it was a clue to everybody else. ‘Holy crap, they’re moving out of their studio—we’d better do what he says and get to our safe place.’” With winds increasing, power out to most areas, news crews in the field hunkered down, the broadcast changed again to intimate talk radio—desperate homeowners calling in on still-working landline phones for advice and comfort. Madeline, crying on the phone from under the mattress in the bathroom as her husband and son shouldered the door to keep the wind from breaking through.
4:30 a.m.: As the eye wall crossed the South Florida coast about ten miles south of WTVJ, Norcross, Segreto, and Craig watched the last radar sweep from the National Hurricane Center as the dish blew off the building and winds peaked at 164 mph—a Category 5 storm. “The storm was moving fast, about 20 mph. So the worst of it was there and gone in about three and a half hours,” Norcross later wrote. “The first reaction of the people in South Dade was stunned disbelief. When they opened their doors or got out from under their mattresses, they found it impossible to comprehend what had happened to their neighborhoods and their lives. From the TV studio in downtown Miami, we knew there was damage, but we couldn’t tell how much. There was no communication from the south end of the county. I said on the air that the fact we had not heard from Homestead, Cutler Ridge, and points south was not good news.”
As dawn broke and after the national news programs reported that Miami had “dodged a bullet,” the grim reality slowly became apparent. Hurricane Andrew was one for the record books, according to the best estimates by NOAA, FEMA, and the Miami Herald, as published in Florida’s Hurricane History:
- Over $30 billion in damages
- 700,000 people evacuated
- 175,000 people homeless
- 80,000 people housed in shelters
- 25,000 homes destroyed, 100,000 damaged
- 8,000 businesses damaged or destroyed
- 278 K–12 schools damaged, 23 heavily, 9 destroyed
- 2,300 signal lights destroyed
- 50,000 street signs destroyed
- 29,300 troops deployed
- 100,000 people forced to leave Dade County permanently
- $70 million donated to the Red Cross for relief
- 35 million tons of debris, more than 30 years’ worth
- 6,382 construction fraud complaints, 1,125 charges filed
Despite a direct strike on a county of almost two million people, the death toll from Hurricane Andrew was relatively low—43 in Florida, 15 directly, 28 indirectly. Much of the credit was due to improved forecasting from NOAA and the National Hurricane Center, but much was due, too, to South Florida’s news media, particularly the broadcasters who provided life- and property-saving information and advice to citizens before, during, and after the storm.
Bryan Norcross and WTVJ rewrote the book on how Florida’s broadcasters should prepare for the next storm. The Florida Association of Broadcasters 1993 annual meeting was held in Miami, in part to provide some economic assistance to the county, but also so that the people—broadcasters, hurricane experts, and civic leaders—who learned so much from Hurricane Andrew could pass that knowledge on to other broadcasters.
A fitting tribute to Norcross’s coverage is found on page 275 of Florida’s Hurricane History. There, in a photo of Stan Goldenberg’s destroyed home on 169th Street near the Metro Zoo, is the mattress that covered him and his family in their safe room.
One final note. WTVJ renewed Bryan Norcross’s contract.
Table of Contents
- “A voice in the wilderness”
- The Origins of Broadcasting
- 1922: Radio Comes to Florida
- “And to think it all began in the middle of a cow pasture”
- The Great Depression and the 1930s
- The War Years, 1940–1945
- Television Comes to Florida
- “We’ve got a barn, we could have a show!”
- The Weathermen
- Channel 10 in Miami—Bribes, Booze, and Bloodshed
- When Radio Was “FUN, FUN, FUN”
- “Can’t you just shoot the touchdowns?”
- Cuban Radio in Miami
- The Saga of Orlando’s Channel 9—The Longest-Running License Battle in FCC History
- The Eighties
- The Big Switch
- The Nineties
- The Twenty-first Century
- Florida Broadcasting’s Next 100 Years
1922: Radio Comes to Florida
Tampa, Jacksonville, and Miami were in a race to be the first city in Florida with a radio station. On May 17, 1922, Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union reported on what it thought would be the first licensed broadcast. Breathlessly, and with little punctuation, the newspaper announced:
PROGRAM WILL BE BROADCAST TONIGHT BY WCAN STATION ESTABLISHED BY SOUTHEASTERN RADIOTELEPHONE COMPANY
“Listen In” Tonight at 7:45 o’clock
There Will Be Talk and Music
Radio Parties Will Be Popular
The first official broadcasting program announced from a Florida station will be given tonight at 7:45 o’clock by WCAN, the station established at the Atlantic National Bank building by the Southeastern Radiotelephone Company.
For a couple of nights the “radio citizens” have been listening in and have enjoyed the impromptu music programs and last night heard one of the representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention in a short talk express its appreciation of the hardy welcome accorded the visitors by the city of Jacksonville, and announcing the date of the opening of the convention. Today at 12:20 o’clock the weather report will be broadcast.
The concert and general program will begin tonight at 7:45 o’clock. W. E. Arnold is in charge of the program and will have several delightful features. In future the programs which will be broadcast will be published in the morning paper prior to the event except as there are added attractions.
While there is a broadcasting station being erected in Tampa and it is understood that there is another one being constructed in the state it is believed this is the station which will have the honor of sending out the first program under the broadcasting regulations.
So “listen in” tonight at 7:45 o’clock, enjoy the program, because no matter how loud the static, you can get this concert in Jacksonville and many surrounding points, and only time will tell just how far these concerts can be heard during the summer season.
Jacksonville’s quest to be first was not to be. It was beaten by two days when WDAE-AM in Tampa, owned by the Tampa Daily Times, won the title of “first licensed commercial broadcast station in Florida” (license DOC #379), commencing operation on May 15, 1922. Clouding the question of which station was the first in Florida was the fact that at least three were on the air before they were officially licensed. In the free-for-all atmosphere of the day, stations went on and off the air testing, tweaking, and tuning—sometimes with three-month “provisional” licenses, but often unlicensed and generally undisciplined.
WQAM-AM in Miami claimed to be Florida’s first radio station, despite the fact that its original license is dated January 23, 1923, eight months after WDAE began licensed operations. A promotional brochure published in 1941 entitled The Voice of Tropical America—WQAM, said that the Electrical Equipment Company, the station’s founder, experimented with an amateur station starting in 1921, “broadcasting weather and news as a goodwill gesture” of the company. Then “the company constructed a real broadcast station, WFAW—the future WQAM—operating on 50-watts power.” It’s unknown if this incarnation was actually licensed.
(The National Radio Club, in its publication All Known US Radio Stations 1920–1930, lists WFAW as signing on June 16, 1922, under the ownership of the Miami Daily Metropolis, which later became the Miami News. It’s possible that station was first constructed as experimental by Electrical Equipment and later taken over by the Metropolis.)
Regardless of the confusion and other claims, the FCC confirmed WDAE’s place in Florida broadcasting history in a letter on its fiftieth anniversary to Robert W. Rounsaville, its owner at the time:
August 11, 1971
Dear Mr. Rounsaville:
The years 1971–72 mark the fiftieth anniversary of operation for a few of the more than 6600 radio broadcast stations now licensed and operating in the United States of America. A research of the records of broadcast stations licensed in the early 1920’s by the Department of Commerce has revealed the fact that Radio Station WDAE was first licensed on May 15, 1922 and was the first radio station to begin operations in the State of Florida as a broadcast station.
The records disclose the fact that the first license was granted on May 15, 1922 to the Tampa Daily Times, located at Tampa and Locke Streets, Tampa, Florida, with 500 watts power using the call letters WDAE.
The records disclose that the station has been in continuous service, with the same call letters since May 15, 1922. You are to be congratulated for being the operator of one of the oldest operating stations in the country and the oldest in the State of Florida. A copy of that first license is enclosed.
Happy Fiftieth Anniversary.
Quentin S. Proctor
Chief, License Division
WDAE’s path to historic distinction had more than a few twists and turns. In a book commissioned by Rounsaville in commemoration of the station’s fiftieth anniversary, L. Spencer Mitchell, who served as the station’s general manager for thirty-three years, told the beginning of the story: “World War I had left quite a few Naval and Coast Guard installations of radio in Florida. This equipment was very crude and was used mostly for radio telegraph communications, but many fine and sincere young men, working in these stations, were interested in the new art and hoped to make it a peace time occupation.” One of these young men was Harold McClung, who had been attached to the naval radio station in St. Petersburg. He acquired the necessary equipment to build a radio station but needed a sponsor to make it happen. Mitchell said McClung first approached the University of Florida, but at the time they weren’t interested.
Mitchell’s story digresses a little from Tampa Bay historian Mary Rae Thompson. According to her, McClung first approached Charles G. Mullen, general manager of the Tampa Daily Times, “but it was all so ephemeral, Mr. Mullen was just not interested.” Then McClung approached the University of Florida, which was extremely interested but had to find the money. While Florida pondered, “Mr. Mullen had a change of heart, sensing publicity advantages in the contraption, with the result that the Times purchased the transmitter.”u
Either way, the Times applied for and received a construction permit for WDAE on February 12, 1922, signed by Herbert Hoover, then US Secretary of Commerce, the twelfth American newspaper to receive a radio broadcast license. Permit in hand, the Times hired W. R. McDonald and G. C. Warner, experienced radio operators, to get the station built and on the air. “A studio was rigged up in one of the rooms of the Citrus Exchange Building . . . and the broadcasting equipment on the roof, with the aerial wires strung around the cornice, here and there,” wrote Hampton Dunn in the commemorative book, WDAE Florida’s Pioneer Radio Station. “The first studio was a simple affair. A small room, with a microphone hanging from the wall. There’s all it was. In an adjoining room was the transmitting machinery, also simple.”
. . .
“On May 31st that year of 1922, the test periods for WDAE were over and the first regularly scheduled broadcasts were begun,” wrote Dunn. On the inaugural program, Tampa Mayor Charles H. Brown called radio “the wonder of the age that the human voice can be sent broadcast [sic] throughout the country.” The speakers included E. D. Lambright, postmaster and past president of the Tampa Rotary Club, who talked about the “Spirit of Rotary,” music teacher Homer Moore, children’s librarian Marian Pierce, and tenor Adam Weidenaur.
WDAE made more history the next week by being the first radio station in the United States to broadcast a complete church service. “The service from the historic First Methodist Church of Tampa was broadcast June 4, 1922,” wrote Dunn. “The Rev. William Frederick Dunkle, pastor of the church at the time, conducted the service, speaking on the subject, ‘Who Then Can Be Saved?’ The choir sang several hymns. Reports came in from listeners all over the country.”
Florida’s primary industry was agriculture, and WDAE, “As the official representative of the government in Florida . . . will send out all weather reports. This will acquaint the growers and truck raisers with any possible danger from freeze and cold cold [sic] spells, and inform them of dry spells, rains and all other weather features. Shippers also will be benefited as the territory covered by WDAE extends out into the gulf and ocean and storm warnings will be given to all mariners within a range of 1,000 miles when the static conditions permit.”
All the excitement, encouraged by promotion from WDAE’s newspaper owner, created strong demand for radio receivers. The Times sent a reporter to local radio stores to check on inventory. “‘Supplying them!’ said one dealer. ‘Man I am only trying to supply them, and not getting very far at that. I could sell 200 sets today if I had them. There were 16 people in here in the last two hours, all of whom would have spent a couple of hundred dollars to get almost any kind of an outfit. We are getting in a few sets and they are all spoken for weeks in advance.’”
The Times spoke eloquently about the societal effects of the new medium. “As the good roads and the automobile supplanted the old horse and carriage and made towns and villages suburbs of cities a hundred miles away, like the phonograph which placed the singer and the actor in the household for the evening’s entertainment, so does the radio-telephone place all sections of the country in the position of next door neighbors.”