Originally created 06/05/06

Weather Channel's Steve Lyons prepares for hurricane season



NEW YORK - During pre-Katrina visits to New Orleans, Steve Lyons set aside a few hours for an errand that would probably only occur to the Weather Channel's hurricane expert.

He'd wander through the city and ask residents whether or not they would evacuate if a hurricane was on its way. Last spring, he walked into a fast food restaurant and put the question to the young woman serving his soda.

She stared at him blankly. "What's a hurricane?" she replied.

"I still to this day wonder what happened to that girl," Lyons said.

With the memories of Katrina fresh and the Gulf Coast still rebuilding, Lyons is preparing for the new hurricane season that started Thursday. The Weather Channel marks that event this week with several days of hurricane programming.

Clearly, Katrina's devastation made most television networks more attuned to these storms' power, reflected in the stories already aired about hurricane preparation and preseason forecasts. The Weather Channel boosted staff and invested in new technology because of lessons learned last summer.

Lyons, 52, is the network's point person.

For a man who has devoted his life to some of nature's most severe storms, Lyons grew up and attended college in two of the most peaceful weather environments imaginable: San Diego and Hawaii. A surfer, he grew curious about hurricanes primarily because of the effect they had on waves.

Lyons - who actually left a teaching job at the University of Hawaii voluntarily - came to the Weather Channel after doing media work at the National Hurricane Center.

He studies maps and computer simulations and is a near-constant on-air presence when the tropics are active. During a two-week period late last summer, he averaged about three hours of sleep a day.

Lyons likes to concentrate as specifically as he can on the physical effects of a hurricane: how high the storm surge will be in a certain area, what type of damage the wind will do.

"I always tell people at the Weather Channel, 'you pay me, but I work for the public,'" he said.

Hurricane expert William Gray at Colorado State University has called for an active season of 17 named storms in the Atlantic basin. While Lyons respects Gray and has seen the predictions, he doesn't seem to consider them worth much. For the past 11 years, there's been an average of 15 named storms each season.

There were 15 storms in 2001, for example, but not one of them hit the United States. There were only six storms in 1992, but they included the damaging Hurricane Andrew that hit south of Miami.

"I don't like to over-alarm the public," he said. "What I like to do is tell people you should be prepared in any year, whether there are 15 or 20 called for or five. You could be one of the unlucky cities that gets hit and you need to prepare if you're in a hurricane-prone area."

People should secure their houses as much as possible, make copies of all their important papers to keep somewhere else and review escape routes, he said.

And when it's apparent that a storm will hit, skip town.

He feels he can't hammer home those points enough. His informal survey in New Orleans last spring, like it had in past years, found about 40 percent of those he talked saying they wouldn't, or couldn't, leave even if they knew a storm was coming.

"For people to say everyone in New Orleans knew the risks and knew what a hurricane was is not true," he said. "They'll never convince me. At least one person didn't know."

Lyons' expertise isn't just valuable to viewers. Terry Connelly, the Weather Channel's general manager, said Lyons will come into his office to warn when it's necessary to move reporters out of harm's way. At Lyons' direction during Katrina, reporter Jeff Morrow was ordered to change hotels in New Orleans, keeping him safe when the old hotel flooded and saving the network's equipment from being swamped.

The Weather Channel is increasing its on- and off-air staff by 20 percent over the last hurricane season, Connelly said.

Each reporting team that goes out in the field this year will have audio and video satellite phones in case conventional equipment goes out. When Katrina knocked out cell phone towers, the network lost contact for several hours with reporter Jim Cantore on the Mississippi coast, and worried whether he was safe, Connelly said.

Among the programs being aired this week is the "lost episode" of the Weather Channel's series "It Could Happen Tomorrow," which speculates on the effects of potential natural disasters. Producers had prepared an episode about a powerful hurricane striking New Orleans, then shelved it after the doomsday scenario came true with Katrina.

New Orleans also topped the list when Lyons was asked several years ago to work on a story about the five most vulnerable cities in the United States.

So Katrina, in an historical sense, was hardly a surprise. It was still a lesson in how it's possible, even in an age of media hype, for hurricanes to kill a lot of people, Lyons said.

The hurricane expert has personally experienced only one hurricane, when he was living in Houston. He was more annoyed than fearful, watching as water poured down the walls of his condo and calculating how much the roof repairs would cost.

He also once volunteered to enter a wind tunnel for a story on what it's like to experience the 160 mph winds of a Category 5 hurricane. Strapped into a harness, he couldn't move - and suffered a broken rib, two black eyes and blood blisters on his hands.

"It was just horrible," he said. "It was one of the worst things I've done in my life."