As someone fascinated by hurricanes and living in Houston, the summer of 2005 was an odd and captivating time for me. A record was set for the number of named storms and major hurricanes in a season, and Houston was caught staring down the barrel of a gun twice, first with Hurricane Katrina and then with Hurricane Rita, which caused a panicked evacuation that turned stretches of south Texas roadways into the highways to hell.
Naturally, I watched with great interest the various weathercasters on local news. Over and over, I returned to Channel 2 and chief meteorologist Frank Billingsley. Not only was he informative, but he was calm and objective in his analysis, something far too many of his colleagues and fellow weathercasters were not. After Ike, I remember Billingsley flying over some of the flooded parts of Galveston, giving fantastic descriptions of the area and what was normally there from memory.
As a result, I consider him to be the best TV weather person in town. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions.
1. During Hurricane Rita and in the wake of Hurricane Ike, you seemed to be the voice of reason among weathercasters. In a business where, all too often, hyperbole wins out over factual reporting, how do you maintain that balance between warning people and scaring them?
Here's the thing about hurricanes...they are their own hype and certainly don't need any from me! A Rita or Ike grabs the public's attention on its own. The challenge these days is when someone posts on Facebook a computer model forecasting a hurricane 16 days out with the comment "Watch Out Houston!!" That takes on a life of its own that we then have to address and try to make real sense out of.
On the upside, social media has driven home the real dangers weather brings -- in our recent floods, people were posting pictures and warning others of high water on roads -- so I'm not knocking social media. It's all about context. So I try to be there to sort out what people really need to understand in any given weather situation...which is what I've always done. Share, don't scare. But when I say get the hell out, I mean it.
2. You pride yourself on simplifying the weather for people. How do you approach simplifying it without dumbing it down too much?
By approaching weather just like a viewer would. We all like to understand what's going on in the world without being made to feel inept...me included. I can talk about "vertical velocity with moist air advection" or just call it a building thunderstorm. Anyone can fancyspeak in their field of specialty...and it usually reflects insecurity...you know, baffle them with baloney if you can't dazzle them with brilliance. That's not my style. And let's face reality, if people don't understand the weather, then they won't care about it and won't watch me...that's never a good thing!
3. Do you think the availability of weather information on demand has created more misconceptions about the weather, or do you think it has made people more knowledgeable and how/why?
The whole Facebook scenario (which really happened) notwithstanding...I think the more information about any subject, the better. A friend told me recently that if he had cancer, he would keep it to himself. Not me; I would tell everyone and hope somebody had some great ideas about how to beat it. Then I'd take it all to my doctors and trust them. Similar situation with weather...a lot is out there, and I try to make sense of it. But I honestly think the information is mostly on the up and up. The nice thing about social media is that posting is not anonymous...people DO have to own what they pass on and spout about... so most people do a little bit of vetting before they look silly. That helps.
4. How has technology affected how you do your job in the last 20 years?
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HA, how has it NOT impacted my job. More is expected because we can do so much more so much faster. The real plus, though, is that computer models have really gotten so much more accurate. Modeling is all about the data collected and the equations you put that data through and how fast you can get the results. Technology has made all of that better. I suspect the perfect forecast is not as far away as you might think.
5. Your love of dogs is well known, especially through Radar. Tell me about your current doggie roster.
You have to know that my doggie roster began with Rock back in 1994. Then along came Hudson. So I had Rock and Hudson. Rock eventually went to doggie heaven, so along came River. Hudson and River. Then Hudson died and now I have River and Ocean. Everyone expected River and Phoenix, which is why I went with Ocean. See, baffle them with baloney.