Following is Part I of “The Surfer Dude and Stormmaster G,” an excerpt from INSIDE THE WEATHER CHANNEL. Next week, Part II.
THE SURFER DUDE AND STORMMASTER G
Two of the Best Reasons to Watch The Weather Channel–Part I
Early morning, July 10, 2005. Extremely dangerous Hurricane Dennis, centered about 245 miles southeast of Biloxi, Mississippi, and packing sustained winds of 145 mph, is charging toward the eastern Gulf Coast. Hurricane warnings blanket the shorelines of Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. With Dennis on a steady north-northwest track, Mobile, Alabama, appears to be ground zero for the violent storm’s landfall.
By mid-morning, the Category 4 hurricane wobbles to the right, taking a more northerly course, but shortly thereafter resumes its sweep toward the north-northwest.
THE WEATHER CHANNEL IS TOAST
In The Weather Channel operations area, Dennis’s wobble has Dr. Steve Lyons, the channel’s tropical weather expert, and Stu Ostro, Senior Director of Weather Communications, in an animated discussion. Stu is the team leader of the network’s experts, so has a vested interest in what goes on the air. Steve, as always, just wants to get it right. “I work for the public,” he says, “even though The Weather Channel pays me.”
Both Steve and Stu have been up for hours. Stu is bleary eyed and scruffy, having slept only an hour and a half–on the floor of his office–the last two days. Dennis’s little jiggle has both men concerned. Mobile may no longer be in the storm’s crosshairs. With the eye of the hurricane so close to the coast, its target could now be as far right (east) as Destin, Florida.
At issue is how much to adjust Dennis’s projected swath, the cone that’s displayed on the air. It’s a matter that has not only public safety ramifications, but political ones, as well. While not bound by National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecasts, The Weather Channel remains sensitive to not over-emphasizing differences. Steve and Stu are apprehensive about making a radical change to the hurricane’s forecast path at this late hour, but realize some adjustment is mandatory.
The biggest worry is whether to remove Mobile from the forecast swath. The thinking is that it would be almost impossible now for the eye of Dennis, only miles from the coast, to hook left far enough to strike the city before making landfall.
Still, Stu is circumspect about taking Mobile out of the zone of greatest danger. “If we do and the hurricane swings back to the left and hits the Alabama coast,” he says, “The Weather Channel is toast. There’d be an investigation that goes all the way to the governor.” He gives a thin, sardonic smile. “Hell, governor?” he mutters, “All the way to the White House.”
Well, maybe not. But the comment shows how seriously the channel takes the business of getting things right, especially in life or death situations.
In the end, for political (cover-your-ass) reasons, Steve and Stu agree to leave Mobile in the cone of uncertainty on the extreme left or western side of the swath. The right flank is shifted eastward to Ft. Walton Beach. On-camera meteorologists are able to verbalize immediately, even before the cone can be updated for broadcast purposes, that the bull’s-eye for Dennis’s landfall appears to have shifted into the western part of the Florida Panhandle. NHC comes out with its altered swath, essentially mirroring what Steve and Stu came up with, an hour or two later.
The eyewall of Dennis thunders ashore at mid-afternoon near Navarre Beach, Florida, about halfway between Pensacola and Ft. Walton Beach. The storm has “weakened” to a Category 3, but wind gusts still peak at 121 mph. Mobile is spared a direct hit. Winds there remain below 50 mph, although the Battleship Alabama in Mobile Bay records an unofficial gust of 77 mph.
THE SURFER DUDE
I suppose no one at The Weather Channel is indispensable, but the person who comes the closest is Steve Lyons. Ratings soar when hurricanes prowl the U.S. coastline, and at the center of the action you’ll always find Steve. He’s devoted his professional life to the study of weather and waves. Growing up in San Diego, he was an avid surfer and grew curious about what caused large breakers. Eventually, his study of waves led him to research in a phenomenon that produces some of the biggest waves on earth, hurricanes. He earned his Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctor’s Degrees in Meteorology at the University of Hawaii. He’s a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society and has published more than 60 scientific papers and technical reports.
Steve was awarded a track and field scholarship by the University of Hawaii and was a world-class runner in 400- to 800-meter events, although he competed in races as long and as grueling as marathons. His friar’s fringe of hair is about the only clue he’s tiptoed into AARP territory–that’s age 50 or over for you youngsters. He remains trim and fit, bicycling, running, snow skiing, golfing and yes, even surfing when he gets the chance.
Golfing? Steve says his short game is abysmal, but in 2007 at the annual Weather Channel (Hackers) Golf Tournament, he blew all the young bucks out of the water by winning the long drive award.
Despite his love of sports, Steve still finds plenty of time–but not enough, he says–to spend with his family, including his three dogs, a whippet and two Italian greyhounds. Hmmm. Whippet. Greyhounds. Former track star. Also drives a Porsche. Are you beginning to see a pattern here? A need for speed? That’s probably what got him into a University of Washington’s wind tunnel to experience 160-mph (Category 5) winds. The event was “just horrible” he recalls. “It was one of the worst things I’ve done in my life.” He suffered a broken rib and two black eyes even though he wore a protective helmet and a restraining harness.
Steve is a bit too mature to be referred to as “dude” these days, but his love of surfing is still there. And there’s probably no one better at being able to predict surf action and the related phenomena of wave heights and storm surges. It’s not only in his blood, it’s in the comprehensive models he’s developed. Steve can crank out a spot-on surf forecast for anyplace in the world faster than you can say, “Wax ‘em up.”
Steve is outgoing, intense and confident. He’s always ready with a smile and a “good morning” when he bounces into work. (He’s probably been listening to Jackson Browne on his car stereo.) When he’s on-task, whether at work or play, his concentration is fierce. There were times when I went to his desk to ask a question. Not wanting to disturb whatever he was focused on, I would stand silently by for several minutes waiting for him to realize I was there.
Even when he’s having fun, he can get tunnel vision. A number of years ago, Steve and his wife were vacationing in Cancun. Steve decided to take advantage of some four- to five-foot waves and do some body surfing. It was a beautiful day, he said, with blue-green swells rolling in off the Gulf of Mexico and puffy white cumulus dotting an azure sky. Except for another surfer maybe a hundred yards away, of whom he took only casual notice, he had the water to himself. Time and time again he rode the curl of Gulf breakers into the beach.He’d finally had enough. He climbed out of the surf and walked back to where his wife awaited on the sand.
“There was another person out there,” she said.
“Yeah,” Steve responded, “I had the place pretty much to myself. Great surf.”
“You didn’t notice?”
“The other person.”
“Not really,” Steve said. He turned to look, but whoever had been in the water with him was gone.
“She was naked,” his wife said.
I wouldn’t have believed that story from anyone but Steve.
While he has a wonderful sense of self-deprecating humor, don’t let that fool you. Just below the surface he’s supremely confident. That’s because, to put it simply, he’s the best at what he does. He doesn’t boast. He just knows it.
Photo: Hurricane Dennis 2005
Hurricane Dennis making landfall near Navarre Beach, Florida, July 10, 2005. (NASA imagery)