The Rita Incident

In my previous interview with the outspoken and sometimes controversial hurricane forecaster Dr. Nicholas Obermeyer (a character in EYEWALL), I asked if I could return, after Christmas, to speak with him about the infamous “Rita Incident.” He agreed to sit down with me today in the studios of the Natural Environment TV Network in Atlanta.

Me: I trust you had a Merry Christmas, Obie.

O: I did. And wasn’t it great to see an accumulating snowfall here in Atlanta for the first time in–how long?

Me: 128 years if I did my math right.

O: Wow. Well, this winter’s come out of the blocks quickly here in the Southeast.

Me. It has. But, as I warned you, I’ve come to talk about a different season in a different year–

O: “From out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!” [laughs]

Me: [laughs in response] Well, you are part of meteorological folklore now. But let me set the stage for those who might not be familiar with what happened. It’s late September 2005. It’s been less than a month since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. And now here comes Hurricane Rita, a category five in the Gulf of Mexico, barreling toward the Texas coast. Houston appears to be the bulls-eye. Evacuation of the city is urged.

O: And people, like terrified lemmings, streamed out of the metropolitan area by the tens of thousands. Stupid, stupid, stupid. The freeways turned into parking lots. What’s worse, and this is what I said on the air [Obermeyer was working for a Houston TV station at the time], Rita was going to weaken and bypass the city to the east. And it did. There was no need to turn Houston into Dunkirk [a reference to the desperate 1940 WWII evacuation of the Allies from France].

Me: But you went against official recommendations. What if you’d been wrong?

O: Look, I’d rather be right than official. [jabs his index finger onto his desktop for emphasis] In this case, I knew I was going to be right. I can’t always say that, but the meteorological trends at the time were obvious to me.

Me: Yet you almost got fired for your candor.

O: You mean my big mouth? Yeah, federal and local government officials wanted my head on a platter. And the station news director tried to give me the bum’s rush.

Me: I heard you two almost came to blows.

O: A guy bigger than both of us stepped in between us and became a human DMZ.

Me: So what saved your job in the end?

O: You mean, beyond being right?

Me: [nods]

O: Well, the fact that my actions had popular support and I ended up with my photo on the cover of Newsweek and the front page of USA Today. I became kind of a folk hero, I guess.

Me: A Lone Ranger?

O: Yep. Appropriate for Texas, huh?

Me: So, it’s ironic you ended up here, in Atlanta, at a network where the executive vice president of production is the news director you clashed with in Houston. Do you two get along with each other any better now?

O: [grins sardonically] We didn’t trade Christmas greetings.

Me: Might there be future clashes then?

O: [leans forward, whispers to me] I keep my résumé up-to-date.

Photo: Evacuation of Houston, Texas
The approach of Hurricane Rita toward Houston, Texas, in September 2005 led to the largest evacuation in U.S. history… and massive highway gridlock.

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