As The Weather Channel’s producer for meteorologist Jim Cantore, Steve Petyerak ’93 spent nearly a week between Wednesday, Oct. 5 and Monday, Oct. 10 tracking Hurricane Matthew through Florida and North Carolina. The Category 5 storm caused upwards of $6.5 billion in damage and been linked to more than 1,000 fatalities. Here, Petyerak reflects on navigating the storm while keeping the crew safe and his role producing for one of the most prominent meteorologists on TV.
(Following Hurricane Matthew, Petyerak worked from a high water rescue boat with Cantore, shown in this video.)
With Cantore, Petyerak has covered extreme summer heat and severe weather on the Great Plains, last winter’s blizzard in Boston, sports at Daytona, and the Blue Angels in Pensacola. Petyerak joined the Weather Channel in March of 2014 after spending five years as a producer on Sports Center and previously working at Good Morning America. As a student at HWS, he majored in English with a concentration in film and television.
What’s the process for tracking a storm like Hurricane Matthew?
There’s no way of predicting the path and strength of the hurricane. Things change second by second. It’s like a football game-we call a lot of audibles in the field.
During the height of Hurricane Matthew-Thursday into Friday-we never left the air. That’s nine and a half straight hours broadcasting in a hurricane. Out in those elements, we have protection-we can walk into a hotel lobby to get dry before running back out-but the preparation is fast and furious.
We flew into Daytona on Wednesday night and drove to Melbourne Beach, then drove south to Ft. Pierce and the eye of Hurricane Matthew in time to report on NBC Nightly News. Then we drove to West Palm Beach, hopped on a flight to Atlanta, and got a flight the next morning to North Carolina, where we hit the backside of the storm, the heaviest rain and highest winds, gusts in the sixties and seventies. Winds remained consistently at those peak intervals, and there were times when I felt that the wind was lifting me up, almost lifting my heels off the ground.
We woke up on Sunday morning and drove through a debris-strewn patchwork of roadways into Lumberton, where the severe flooding had occurred. People living on the coast had been evacuated inland, and lo and behold they’d have to evacuate again because of flooding. Our satellite truck was basically stranded, but the police and fire and rescue personnel had convened right in front of us and we wound up breaking the story right there. People were getting pulled out of boats, wading out of the water, coming right up to our microphone, and talking to Jim.
By that time, people had come in from other towns with gas so we could fill up and leave. We stayed in Fayetteville on Sunday night, which made six days in six locations with little to no sleep. After that many straight days of coverage, the story becomes an aftermath story; Jim is an in-the-thick-of-it guy, so the next day, we found out through the authorities that there were some local roads to bypass flooding on I-95, and we made our way to Raleigh and flew back to Atlanta.
As a producer, how do you balance covering severe weather with the crew’s safety?
Keeping the crew safe is our top priority. Throughout the buildup to a storm, we’re on numerous conference calls and there are constant emails: if we ever feel in danger, that’s it. We go back inside, get protection, get to a safe place.
One trick to scouting a broadcast location in a hurricane is to forecast the storm surge and find the highest ground, though with the best meteorologist in the U.S., you can pretty well predict the safest place. Ideally, we’ll set up inside a hotel lobby or on a balcony, where just the camera lens can be out in the elements with Jim, because it’s a real process-keeping the lights upright, the lenses dry. But if Jim feels it’s unsafe, he comes back in. The utmost priority is safety. You can always go back on TV.
What are the other challenges you face when producing a segment?
I’m responsible for all of Jim’s on-air editorial content-deciding what to discuss in what format, cutting video, building graphics, scouting locations, clearing the satellite truck with towns, the satellite truck itself, the crew of camera and audio operators. It’s a thorough process, both editorially and from an operations standpoint, with a ton of coordination between staff in Atlanta.
When we were in the height of the storm, there were transformers exploding in the background, power going out. You really do battle the elements every second, but the challenges of the job are what make it exciting especially when they’re a success. Ultimately we try to provide a service. That’s part of the job Jim and I take real pride in. If one life is made safer by listening to our broadcast, it’s worth every second of risking our own safety. We can recoup after a few days rest, but the people who live there-you wish you could pile them into the trucks and vans and take them along. You pray they get safe. You get attached to the subjects and become passionate about the storytelling, about talking to the survivors and the people rescuing them. The people who will be living with this for years are what you remember.