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The perfect storm

By Anderson Cooper

Editor's note: Anderson Cooper anchors CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360°," which airs weeknights at 10 p.m. ET. He also is a regular contributor for Details Magazine. This article was published in the November 2004 issue.

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Anderson Cooper

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Anderson Cooper
Storm
Weather

I've never understood people's fascination with the weather.

"Why do you care what temperature it is in Tempe, Arizona?" I ask a friend of mine who watches The Weather Channel with a devotion bordering on the religious.

The truth is, I've never owned an umbrella, galoshes, or, until recently, a raincoat.

I don't believe in five-day forecasts, and I resent the suggestion that I should adjust my life according to wind chill -- whatever that is.

One of the great joys of living in New York is that I am able to ignore what little bit of sky I ever see.

Isn't that what progress is all about -- man's triumph over nature?

I do, however, like a challenge, and when three major hurricanes hit the Southeast in one month, I volunteered to cover them for CNN.

It turns out that hunting a hurricane is like covering a war: You're running toward what everyone else is running from.

You rent an SUV and load it up with water and beef jerky and whatever else you can lay your hands on. Gas cans, coolers, ice and beer are always the hardest things to find.

In a war you head to the front. In a hurricane you head to water.

Hurricane Charley was supposed to strike Tampa, Florida, on a Friday night. I got there that morning and found a bay-front hotel that was already evacuated.

The manager, a large woman with a small parrot on her head, agreed to let me stay if I signed a waiver absolving the hotel of any responsibility for my safety. As I signed the paper, the parrot defecated on her shoulder.

"She's just a little excited about the S-T-O-R-M," she said, spelling it out. That made two of us.

Everyone always makes fun of reporters for standing in a hurricane, but the truth is, people love to watch it. Viewership doubles in big storms.

You know how during the Olympics everyone suddenly becomes a gymnastics judge? ("No way was that a 9.5. She didn't stick the landing.") It's the same with hurricanes. ("That was definitely a Category 4.")

Everyone becomes a meteorologist, talking in knowing tones about storm surges, wind gusts, and eye walls.

Why do we watch?

No doubt, some have genuine concern for those in the storm's path, but compassion and empathy can't account for all of the ratings spike.

One guy I know admits he watches storms on TV because it makes him feel better about his own life.

"Sure, I feel bad for the people there," he says, not entirely believably, "but then I feel happy because I'm not one of them."

I imagine a lot of viewers simply tune in to see reporters get bitch-slapped by Mother Nature, and frankly, who can blame them?

For much of the day before a hurricane hits, it's hard to believe a storm is on the way. The sun shines, birds chirp, and if it weren't for the deserted streets and boarded-up stores, you wouldn't know all hell was about to break loose.

At first the winds just pick up gently. Then it starts to rain.

My fancy new Gore-Tex raincoat kept me dry for about half an hour, then water started to seep in.

By the second hour, my feet were sloshing around in my boots and my hands were wrinkled and white.

If you've ever wondered what your skin will look like when you're dead, try standing in a hurricane for a few hours.

It wasn't until the third hour of storm coverage that I learned the fundamental truth about hurricanes: There's not that much to talk about.

Once you've discussed evacuations and preparations, the storm's path and the projected forecast, what's left? Hurricanes are really just wind and water and how much can you say about that?

By the fourth hour, the hurricane wasn't even close but the winds were already pushing me around.

I found myself using phrases I swore I never would: "This storm really packs a punch. ... It's hit this town and hit it hard. ... The rain feels like pinpricks on my face."

Avoiding storm debris is tough, but avoiding storm clichés may be even tougher.

By the fifth hour, I had to rack my waterlogged brain for new adjectives to describe rain. I would have paid a thousand dollars for a waterproof thesaurus.

When darkness fell, conditions deteriorated rapidly.

What seemed like high winds two hours ago now seemed calm by comparison. The electricity went out and transformers exploded, lighting up the night sky with greenish-blue flares.

I could no longer see debris flying through the air. I'd hear metal ripping but couldn't tell what it was or where it was headed.

Between live shots, I lumbered inside to drip in steamy darkness, but as the storm intensified, the network started coming back to me more and more.

It was a bit like talking to an amnesiac: Interesting at first, but after repeating myself over and over, the novelty wore off. "It's really blowing now . . . and the rain, it's torrential."

The height of the storm was an awesome sight. The wind, whipping at more than a hundred miles an hour, seemed visible, a solid mass, a wet wall of white.

My producer worried that the winds were too strong and that it was getting too dangerous, but it was hard to resist the challenge of standing up in the storm. So he tied a rope around my ankle: If I got knocked over, he could at least try to pull me back.

Finally, after about 12 hours on the air and in the wind, it became impossible to stand, and we called it a night.

You see weird stuff in a storm: Coke machines floating past, boats washed up on roads.

During Frances, two guys in a brand-new Humvee with "Hurricane Research Team" printed on the side pulled into the marina where we were working. They looked like scientists in their matching yellow raincoats, but it turned out they were just two dudes with a storm fetish.

I last saw them around 1 a.m., in 110-mph gusts, hooting and hollering and videotaping each other.

It's easy to get caught up in all the excitement, easy to forget that while you are talking on TV, someone is cowering somewhere with their kids, or drowning or getting the roof ripped off their home.

A few hours after Charley passed, I drove into a small town called Punta Gorda.

Block after block of mobile homes were crushed, the flotsam and jetsam of people's lives strewn about: An old plastic Christmas tree, a family album and a sofa lay in the street.

Everywhere I looked, aluminum siding was wrapped like tinfoil around trees and lampposts.

A woman stood surveying the damage, the bits and pieces of her home scattered about her feet like kindling. Her eyes were raw from crying; she was unable to speak.

There is, at times like these, a ghoulish aspect to reporting.

A relief official mistakenly said that there were a dozen or more bodies at one trailer park, and all morning reporters in news vans crisscrossed the damaged town, searching for the dead.

They'd slow down and ask local residents if they knew of a nearby trailer park where "anything bad had happened."

In the end, the real power of a hurricane isn't found in its wind speed. It's in what it leaves behind: the lives lost, the lives changed, the memories obliterated in a gust of wind.

As it turns out, standing in the aftermath of a storm is a lot harder than standing in the storm itself, no matter how hard the wind blows.

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