As a Weather Channel field producer, I have been in all kinds of weather over the years, with nearly every Weather Channel meteorologist. I am a severe weather junkie, so witnessing the power of a storm first hand is always thrilling. Ask anyone- when I am in the middle of a big storm, I am like a 5-year-old on Christmas morning.
When our field teams head into a storm we pretty much know what to expect. But what we never know for sure is the impact it will leave behind. One of the most memorable times for me this season was our first day in Dickinson, TX during Hurricane Harvey.
Last August when Hurricane Harvey was looming in the Gulf, about a dozen Weather Channel field teams were deployed to Texas. I was teamed with Meteorologist Mike Bettes and Multimedia Journalist Matt Saffer for what we thought would be about four days of hurricane coverage.
Team Bettes began coverage in Surfside, TX then moved to Galveston for the duration. We experienced wind and rain with Harvey’s arrival, but Galveston was spared the brunt of the landfall.
But then Harvey stalled out and continued to dump rain on the entire Houston area for days putting much of the city under water. Bettes was the live field anchor each night, so in the mornings we would meet and plan our shots for the day, and then go out and shoot our stories. Two days after Harvey’s landfall we decided to head north towards Dickinson, a small town of about 20,000 that’s between Galveston and Houston. It was August 27, it was also my birthday.
As soon as we reached the outer edge of Dickinson, we started seeing the flooding on the roads. Our vehicles could not safely drive in because water was well above our tires, so we decided to leave our satellite truck and vehicles parked outside of town, and pack what we could carry. I put microphones and batteries in my waterproof backpack, Matt carried the camera on his shoulder and the three of us headed in on foot.
Within minutes water was above and into our boots and we were soaked to the bone. Trudging through flood waters with full boots forced us to move in slow motion.
At the base of the bridge was the Bayou Campground, and the water was up to the doors on the RV’s and trailers. We went in and saw residents helping each other as best they could. Matt started shooting video and Mike started helping. Our job is to tell the story, but as you’ve seen on TV it’s very hard for us to just stand by and not help out in a disaster situation.
When we left the campground and got to the top of the bridge we saw Dickinson’s main street. The roads were rivers. First responders had not made it there yet, but people had come from all around the area, launched their boats and started searching for and rescuing the stranded.
We were scheduled to go live that evening, but as soon as we saw the flooding, Mike wanted to be live immediately. And since we were working with a backpack transmitter called LiveU, we could be live anywhere we could get a cell signal. So within minutes we were broadcasting from the main intersection in town.
We took the viewers through the streets, showing the flood waters and the nonstop rain that was only making things worse. We talked to person after person as they were trying to save themselves, their pets or their stuff.
At one point Mike and Matt were offered a ride on the back of a flatbed truck so I walked to City Hall to see if I could find more information about the condition of the town and its residents. I sat down on the front steps and watched as drenched families and their pets climbed out of pickup trucks and dump trucks. Many escaped the flood waters with only a few minutes of notice, wearing just the clothes on their back or what they could carry.
Barb, an older woman, got off the dump truck and sat down next to me. She was holding a small bag. I was taking pictures of everything (as I always do), and when she saw my phone she asked me if I would do her a favor.
“Would you mind calling someone for me?”
Of course I would. I asked her who she wanted me to call.
“Can you call my granddaughter? I forgot to get my phone and she doesn’t know where I am. I just want her to know I’m safe.”
I dialed the number and told the woman who answered that I was sitting with her grandmother at City Hall and that she was ok. The woman began to cry. I could hear the relief in her voice, so I handed my phone to Barb and they spoke. I teared up as I heard Barb’s broken voice saying she was OK as she was telling her granddaughter what had happened to her home.
So many people had just lost everything and now had to start over. And find the strength to do so.
I kept imagining what I would do if I was in their shoes at that moment, and thinking how easily any of us could find ourselves in a similar situation.
When I met back up with Mike and Matt I told them about Barb and Matt says “We helped rescue a family!” That flatbed truck they were on ended up picking up a family, and Mike held a crying child as they climbed aboard. I started to tear up again (no surprise to those who know me). I had only been in town a couple of hours and already I was overwhelmed by what I was seeing. I wondered how many more stories like that we would hear before day’s end.
As we moved through town, two men offered to give us a ride on their boat so we could see some of the more flooded neighborhoods. In some areas, the water was up to the roofs, up to the stop signs and over tops of cars. It was surreal to be on a boat going through a neighborhood, eye level with the roof of a house.
There were good samaritans going from house to house making sure no one was left stranded. Many hadn’t eaten or slept in a couple days but they did not want to stop searching in case someone needed their help.
While we were live on the boat we came across two dogs that had been left chained to a porch, and were standing on a nearby car hood to stay above the flood waters, barking and growling out of fear as people tried to help them. They were eventually rescued by animal control, but we kept asking ourselves what kind of person leaves their animal chained to a porch as they evacuate? So many viewers kept asking Mike about those dogs after they were live on TV that day. We did go back a few days later to make sure they were OK, and rest assured, they were.
We went all around town for seven nonstop hours. We moved through neighborhoods and businesses seeing the damage. One restaurant in town stayed open, making anything they could to feed those who needed it. We hadn’t really thought about the fact that we hadn’t had any food or water or had gone to the bathroom the entire time.
When our batteries finally gave out we headed back to our vehicles to charge, and finally remove our soggy boots and socks. We ate cold Spaghetti O’s out of the can, and for the first time Matt set down the camera that had been on his shoulder all day.
After about an hour, we walked back into town for live shots until dark, and called it a day. We got a hot meal about 11pm that night in Galveston, and despite our exhaustion, Mike and Matt, being the incredible team members that they are, made sure I got a piece of birthday cake before midnight!
It would be ten days before we would be able to come home. By the time we left, much of the flood waters had receded, but the cleanup had just begun. It will be months, even years before the Houston area returns to normal, but what an honor to be there for a short time to tell their stories. Thank you to the victims who let us enter their flooded homes and were willing to let us spend time with them, and to those who let us tag along as they were rescuing the stranded, providing food and shelter, and helping victims begin the recovery process.
The Weather Channel field crews will tell you that during disasters like Harvey there are so many experiences that never get shared on TV. The lack of sleep, sore muscles, granola bars for dinner, cars that smell like wet dog and old tuna, and just the sheer exhaustion from days of coverage make it hard. But the strangers that become friends, witnessing the kindness of strangers, hugs, even a few thank yous for keeping viewers safe and informed really do make it worth it.
So many times our coverage starts out as stories about weather, and especially in this case, become stories of the heart. And honestly, I can’t think of a better way to spend a birthday.