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NEWSROOM for March 22, 2001: Storm

Aired March 22, 2001 - 4:30 a.m. ET


ANNOUNCER: Weather, an ever present, an ever-changing reality. From Hurricane to heat wave, we struggle to learn and live with our environment. Can we control it? How do we affect it?

Today we tackle the elements in "Storm": a CNN NEWSROOM special report, with Michael McManus.

MICHAEL MCMANUS, HOST: Hello, I'm Michael McManus. Welcome to this special edition of NEWSROOM.

Man has battled and been baffled by nature since the beginning of time. The forces of nature have an incredible impact on our lives. Weather can determine everything from the clothes we wear to the crops we grow. Over the years, weather has become much easier to forecast. So let's start at the beginning.

Man's attempts to understand and work with nature became known as meteorology: a science that deals with the atmosphere and its phenomena. While meteorology has evolved, it's still based on basic principles, namely observation and prediction. North America's oldest continuously published periodical, "The Old Farmer's Almanac", has used observations for decades to make predictions on everything from temperature to ocean tide.

It dates back to 1792, during George Washington's second presidential term. The book proved invaluable to farmers who used it to determine when and where to plant crops. Over the decades, technology has become more sophisticated, and computers and satellites have become more prevalent.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rick (ph), that middle one is coming right at us.


MCMANUS: As did the realization that, while man cannot change the weather, he has the potential to affect it. Human activities, like burning coal and oil, are believed to add carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, trapping heat energy, and potentially altering weather patterns. That's known as global warming.

While the study of meteorology has progressed, there is still much mystery and fascination behind it. Let's take a look.

High winds, driving rains, blowing snow: Elements of the weather spark an interest in just about all of us. But many say it's the atmosphere we should be most worried about. Scientists estimate the world will warm between 2 and 10 degrees in the next 100 years. Here's a look at these problems of climate control.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You got to be -- yes, I've guess you've got to purge it, then, every so often, right? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

MCMANUS: D.J. Patil is a student majoring in meteorology at the University of Maryland.

D.J. PATIL, METEOROLOGY STUDENT: I'm interested in how the whole world is connected in terms of weather.

MCMANUS: In studying forecasts, Patil and his classmates are faced with long-term problems like global warming and pollution.

As the sun strikes the Earth, heat is radiated back into the atmosphere. Most of it escapes into space. But some rays stay behind, trapped by pollutants or greenhouse gases, slowly raising the temperature of Earth.

RUSSELL DICKERSON, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND: So where did that smog come from? How do we -- can we predict it? And can we help get rid of it?

This cell has two sides to it.

MCMANUS: Professor Russ Dickerson teaches meteorology at the University of Maryland.

DICKERSON: We all share the same atmosphere. It's a global problem. So international collaboration is absolutely imperative.

MCMANUS: World cooperation was the key in a report on climate issued by scientists and meteorologists from more than 100 countries. They concluded that the world has warmed 1 degree over the last century. Many, however, disagree over why the temperature is going up.

LONNIE THOMPSON, SCIENTIST, BYRD POLAR RESEARCH CENTER: There are many different parameters that we measure.

MCMANUS: Dr. Lonnie Thompson is a scientist at the Byrd Polar Research Center in Ohio. He believes hard facts are the best evidence of temperature change.

THOMPSON: Getting the evidence sometimes is a challenge. But without the evidence, you can never demonstrate the change taking place. MCMANUS: Dr. Thompson's been traveling to the Andes Mountains, high above Peru, for 26 years. His pictures show dramatic melting of a glacier between 1978 and 2000. So what's exactly happening on Earth?

(on camera): The best way to find out what's going on around us down here is with one of these up there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, zero, six, zero. Thanks a lot guys, 500 (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's zero-one-five (UNINTELLIGIBLE) runway 15, College Park.

MCMANUS: The University of Maryland uses aircraft to aid in pollution research.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we are ready to fly.

MCMANUS: We took off in search of nearby smoke stacks releasing exhaust into the air.

(on camera): We're flying 1,500 feet above the ground between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland, fast becoming one of the most polluted areas of the country. Up here, students and scientists can collect their samples to help in their research.

(voice-over): Back on the ground, the samples are taken to the lab, where Professor Bruce Doddridge can compare them with others.

BRUCE DODDRIDGE, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND: I don't think there's any doubt that since the -- especially the industrial age of the, say, 1930s, that the pollutants that we've been putting into the atmosphere have really affected the climate.

MCMANUS: Anthony Chen (ph) is one of Professor Doddridge's students studying the samples collected.

ANTHONY CHEN, STUDENT: It could be toxic or -- so it is directly influence the human health. Or it could be impact climate. So I think what I'm doing is very valuable.

MCMANUS: Automobiles and factories emit carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, which traps warm air within the atmosphere. Study after study shows man playing an active role in the warming of Earth. But Mother Nature cannot be ignored. Volcano byproducts have the opposite effect of man-made chemicals. Ash and sulfur, once airborne, block the sunlight from entering the Earth's atmosphere, cooling the air.

DICKERSON: Tambora erupted in 1815. And then there was a year in which there was no summer. Now, of course, there were no satellite data then. But it's suspected that all that ash and sulfuric acid in the stratosphere kept the planet so cool that the corn crops failed, for example.

MCMANUS: Dr. Thompson believes climatic events, caused both by man and nature, have an impact on weather around the world.

THOMPSON: If energy in the system, the heat on the Earth's climate system, increases, then you're going to have more water vapor. More water vapor feeds more storms -- I mean, larger hurricanes, but maybe larger snowstorms too.

MCMANUS: Even with all the technology available, it's still a challenging job.

THOMPSON: These processes, which affect the climate locally, are really globally driven. So you need to know what's going on in the Tropical Pacific, if you're going to understand the weather in Ohio or Washington, D.C. or in Florida.

MCMANUS: For students and professors looking at climate problems, they welcome the challenge.

PATIL: It is directly applicable to everyone's lives, not just you or myself, but the entire world.

DODDRIDGE: The issues are becoming more complicated. But I think the tools we have to work with are becoming more sophisticated.

MCMANUS: Scientists agree to disagree on why the Earth's temperature may be rising and why weather patterns are more erratic. But they acknowledge it's happening and see continued study as the best way to figure out why.


MCMANUS: Forecasting: part science, part physics and a lot of luck. As technology improves our ability to predict, it also improves our ability to prepare. So what happens when the technology is new? Such was the case 23 years ago when forecasters braced for the blizzard of '78.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the National Weather Service of Boston. Heavy snow warnings for Massachusetts this afternoon and tonight.

MCMANUS: It was an event so rare that many in New England call it the "storm of the century."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But this is giant whirlpool, and it's going to last for a while. That means we've got winds lasting for a long time. It means we have heavier snow lasting for a long time. And take the combination of the two and you have the ingredients for, perhaps, the worst winter storm we've ever had here in New England.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MCMANUS: To understand the blizzard of '78, we first have to comprehend where the storm was headed, the prediction capabilities at the time, and, finally, the circumstances present that allowed it to develop.

BRUCE SCHWOEGLER, CHIEF METEOROLOGIST, WBZ-TV: Any time you're in a northern latitude, near mountains and a warm water current, you've got troubles.

HARVEY LEONARD, CHIEF METEOROLOGIST, WHDH-TV: We're talking back in 1978. We did have computer models, not as sophisticated as what we have today, not as numerous as what we have today.

MCMANUS: The computer models were calling for a week's snowstorm in Pennsylvania to combine with a mass of cold air headed toward New England from the Great Lakes. Predictions then called for this storm to energize from an existing system, forming off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

SCHWOEGLER: And the question back then was: Do I believe this or not?

MCMANUS: The models proved correct. Once hitting the coast, it joined with moisture from the existing storm over the Mid-Atlantic. The powder keg had its spark.

LEONARD: You have bitterly cold air over land. You have warm ocean waters to the east. And you have this tremendous chunk of energy approaching the East Coast, this huge, deep, cold pocket high up in the atmosphere. We have ignition. We have liftoff. We have the beginning of the blizzard of '78.

The winter hurricane makes landfall early in the afternoon. It won't let up for the next 30 hours.

SCHWOEGLER: We had high tides -- very high high tides at that time.

MCMANUS: There was a full moon. And because of the gravitational pull between the Earth and the moon, the seas were at their highest.

SCHWOEGLER: Oh, we had major flooding along the coast, major inundation, loss of life. People evacuated.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was in water up to my waist from my house to the fire station. And the current was just pushing us up there, me and my son.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With all the cold air that's over us now, unquestionably, the bulk of this storm has to be in the form of snow. We think it's going to be a big one, one of the biggest of the winter.


LEONARD: The landscape is being rearranged and sculptured. It's an incredible sight. That's just the snow. Route 128 gets backed up for miles. Early in the storm, two tractor-trailers jackknifed, backing it up for nine miles. Those cars were there until days after the storm.

MCMANUS: The damage was devastating.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bought a lot of things, had nice things, had nice antiques, had -- everything is under salt water.


LEONARD: It paralyzed Boston for a solid four days: quarantines on driving, marshal law kind of a institution.

MCMANUS: When it was over, there was between 2 and 6 feet of snow on the ground in the Northeast. Schools and businesses were closed for a week. The National Guard was called to help in rescues and snow removal. New England was declared a disaster area.


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Ladies and gentlemen, the weather situation that now exists in the Commonwealth is one of the worst in our history. And for that reason, I've ordered a state of emergency.


MARK ROSENTHAL, METEOROLOGIST, WCBV-TV: The blizzard of 1978, I think, has to be the Mecca of all storms.

SCHWOEGLER: It's become the benchmark of all winter storms.

ROSENTHAL: When you see the snow blowing and there's zero visibility, and then you have footage of waves crashing over the sea wall and flooding the coast line, I mean, you've got at least two or three things going on at once, which just makes it unbelievable.

MCMANUS: Thirty deaths were attributed to the blizzard. The destruction was fierce, but it was over.

LEONARD: The system worked. The warnings got out. People listened to them. And injury and death was kept to a bare minimum.

MCMANUS: The blizzard of 1978 was an event that only comes along once every 100 years. But the lessons learned in both preparation for and the prediction of snowstorms continue to be practiced in New England today.


MCMANUS: Everyone knows you can't have a blizzard without snow, but how does the white stuff get its original shape? Snow forms when both moisture and cold air are present. Moisture starts crystallizing on microscopic particles called ice nuclei when air in the atmosphere reaches a temperature at or below freezing.

Eventually, six legs develop and a star-like piece of ice begins to take shape. A six-sided snowflake eventually forms and falls to Earth.


KAREN MAGINNIS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: When I remember Hurricane Hugo, I think of two very distinct sounds and events. What I remember distinctly from that night was my sister calling me, asking me, "Should I move? Should I go inland someplace?"

Well, she was about 30 miles inland. I said, "No, I think you're fine."

But really it was not the hurricane that it became until it got right in that Gulf Stream, right close to the shore of South Carolina. So when I came into work, all of that was evolving. And it hit the Gulf Stream and exploded.

It became this Category 4 hurricane. It was unbelievable. And I called my sister up, and I though, "Oh my goodness, I should have told you to leave." She couldn't leave at that point. And I was terrified.

I -- my sister and I talked on the phone to each other live on the air while Hurricane Hugo was just about ready to make landfall in Charleston. She was telling me where my niece was. They had mattresses over their heads. And you could really tell she was terrified. And so was I.

I had a home there. And I went and it had sustained some pretty good damage -- fairly moderate damage. Seeing those gorgeous forests there that surround Charleston and coastal South Carolina, just as if some unbelievable force -- it's hard to imagine a hurricane would do this, but it just snapped off huge billboards, twisted around, wrapped around each other. It was unbelievable to look at.

The sound of the chainsaws day and night constantly, as people passing the chainsaws back and forth to help everybody out -- it was very personal. And I think of the hardships that people went through, and going there myself, and looking at what people had to sustain for a long time.





MCMANUS: Many called the blizzard of '78 a winter hurricane because it contained most of the elements found in one. Hurricanes move slowly, making it easier to plot their movements and post warnings. Tornadoes, on the other hand, are fast and unpredictable. They form within minutes and can cut a quick, destructive path.

To learn more, we take a closer look at these two amazing forces of nature.


(voice-over): These teenagers are survivors.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The water started coming through the house. Windows were breaking. The roof started cracking.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My parents were against the window with a mattress. I have three little sisters. They were in the closet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They weathered through a $26 billion disaster named Hurricane Andrew.

PETER SWART, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI: It was a truly colossal and frightening prospect to have this hurricane. We were, you know, basically pushing the piano against the front door at one stage during the night.

MCMANUS: The hurricane hit with sustained winds of 145 miles per hour. It ravaged Florida.

ROSENTHAL: A hurricane actually needs to -- needs warm tropical waters.

SCHWOEGLER: It's essentially a heat engine, a giant chimney that feeds off the heat and humidity that's coming off the air-sea interface.

MCMANUS: Andrew and most other hurricanes that threaten the U.S. form off the coast of Africa between June and November. Hurricanes also form in the Pacific Ocean. Usually called typhoons, they menace parts of Asia. Along with warm water, ingredients needed include consistent vertical wind speed, rain showers or thunderstorms and something called the Coriolis force.

LEONARD: The way the Earth rotates on its axis, we have what we call a deflecting force to the right. It's a Coriolis force. And that creates a little bit of spin in the atmosphere.

MCMANUS: With all of these elements combining, it doesn't mean the disturbance becomes a hurricane. It has to grow into one first.

ROSENTHAL: First you get a tropical depression. Then you get a tropical storm. And then you get a hurricane.

LEONARD: You have a tropical storm if the winds are over 40 miles an hour, 39 to 40 or greater. Over 74 miles per hour, now you have a hurricane.

MCMANUS: A hurricane's intensity is determined by the speed of its winds. The Saffir-Simpson scale breaks the storms into five categories.

A Category 1 hurricane contains winds between 74 and 95 miles an hour. This kind of storm brings minor damage and flooding. The destruction mounts, with each number, ending with a Category 5, which is complete destruction and major flooding.

Traveling across the ocean, many of these cyclonic storms gain strength and set sights on wherever the upper airflow or jet stream takes it. Many times, this means a slow and methodical trip until landfall. And this is where preparation can be a lifesaver.

MAX MAYFIELD, DIRECTOR, NATL. HURRICANE CENTER: You don't want people to evacuate hundreds of miles. You want them to go tens of miles.

MCMANUS: Dr. Max Mayfield is the director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida and believes evacuation should be a short trip away from the coast.

MAYFIELD: One of my greatest fears is that we'll have people stuck in their cars in a gridlock, trying to evacuate during a hurricane threat.

MCMANUS: While property owners are driving away from the impending storm, the hurricane hunters are moving toward it. These soldiers of science actually travel through approaching hurricanes with specially outfitted aircraft to measure, among other things, wind speed and direction. So, when the behemoth comes ashore, communities are ready.

Upon arrival, the combination of wind and water is both amazing and dangerous.

LEONARD: If the storm surge occurs at the time of high tide, you're going to have big problems.

MCMANUS: It's not always water, but high winds that do great damage. Hurricane Andrew blew the town of Homestead, Florida apart -- the destruction: unbelievable.

MAYFIELD: If that integrity of the building is broken and the air gets inside with a broken window or door, then you can, you know, lose the roof as well.

MCMANUS: Because of the massive costs of rebuilding, there's been a recent push toward hurricane-resistant homes, complete with steel window guards and reinforced roofing materials.

According to experts, it's better to pay now than later, especially with stronger cyclonic activity predicted.

(on camera): Located on the eastern tip of Florida, Miami is known for being a popular target for hurricanes. But that changed four years ago when a tornado touched down right here in the middle of one of America's most popular cities.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now you'll start to see debris here at the base of this column that's -- it's lifting. And I guess it's also picking up a tremendous amount of water as it crosses over the Biscayne Bay area.


MCMANUS: Though it looked dangerous in pictures caught by television news crews, the tornado did little more than rattle a few nerves.

DAN MCCARTHY, NATL. SEVERE STORMS LAB: A tornado is actually a small area of energy that is rotating violently out of a storm.

MCMANUS: Dan McCarthy is a forecaster at the National Severe Storm Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma. His team is responsible for tornado warnings in twister-prone areas, like the Midwest and Central Plains of the U.S., otherwise known as Tornado Alley.

MCCARTHY: As a meteorologist, to see a tornado is really beautiful, as long as you're safely away from it and you can see the whole formation. This whole interaction started to form.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tornado on the ground.


MCMANUS: The interaction Dan is talking about involves the colliding of warm, humid air with either very cold or very hot, dry air, or the dry line. In short, the air starts spinning in a vast circular motion and follows a path straight down to the ground, pulling everything around it into the vortex of air.

LEONARD: They can develop very, very quickly. You could be looking at a very nice sunny, hot day, with almost no clouds in the sky; 20 minutes later, you could have a violent thunderstorm, which could spawn a tornado out of it within minutes.

MCMANUS: This is what happened on May 3, 1999, when a family of tornadoes touched down in Oklahoma, killing 44 people.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a large tornado on the ground. This is tornado number six.


(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Coming down right now: a major tornado.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Coming down, another tornado to the other side of 152.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just south, just south. It's one-quarter mile south of us.


MCMANUS: On this day, the highest wind speed ever recorded was clocked at 318 miles per hour. The damage was catastrophic. But word was broadcast of the impending threat. And according to McCarthy, it saved lives.

MCCARTHY: If the weather service didn't have the outlook, the watches and warnings in place, a lot more people could have lost their lives.

MCMANUS: During tornadic activity, you have mere seconds to react. The best way to avoid injury is to remember two words: low and inside.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My wife and my mother-in-law and I started down the steps. And as soon as I got to the bottom of the steps, I closed the bathroom door and the glass and everything started busting.


MCMANUS: If you're at home or have access to a basement, that's the best place to go. In a school, an interior hallway on the lowest form is your best bet. In an office building, the inner-most stairwell should provide adequate protection. And if you are outside, cover your head and crouch down in the lowest area within reach.

If you still don't think tornadoes are dangerous, check this out. That's the power of a simple piece of wood in a tornado's fierce winds. And then there's this woman, who had her financial records mailed back to her after a twister from two states away. And, finally, according to, an F-4 twister roaring through Tennessee destroyed six steel high-tension towers like these. Three of the towers were supposedly never found.

Meteorologists say the easiest way to keep safe is to stay informed. After all, isn't knowledge power, too?


MCMANUS: With all this unpredictable energy, it takes someone with plenty of knowledge and skills to make sense of it all. That's where Doug Hill comes in. He's a professional prognosticator. That's forecaster to us laymen. Hill's official title is chief meteorologist at WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C.

Bitten by the weather bug at age 6, a hobby turned into a career lasting more than two decades.


DOUG HILL, CHIEF METEOROLOGIST, WJLA: When I was 7 years old, my house got struck by lightening. And I passed out. And my parents had to take me to the hospital.

HILL: Hello. How are you doing?


HILL: I used to keep journals of clouds. And I used to listen to radio stations and log -- especially in the winter time -- log the barometric pressure readings. I just kept having this pipe dream that somehow -- somehow, I'm going to get a job and I'm going to be on TV.

I got rejections, and pretty nasty rejections from everybody, except one guy in Richmond. He called and said his weekend weather person just split. "I'd like to give you a chance to come down and audition."


HILL: A convergence of warm and cold air spawned tornadoes. Before it was all over...



HILL: Tomorrow's weather map will show clouds and some light snow over the southern portions of the state. Sunshine up north -- that's where the cold air is. And we'll see that here by Tuesday.


HILL: ABC 7 weather.


HILL: When you're on TV, especially with the weather...

Hey, George. What's up?

... you seem to be a magnet for people that are alone: for the elderly, people that are disabled.

HILL: Do you know if there's rain up there right now?

HILL: After awhile, especially after 17 years on TV in Washington, you become a friend or a member of the family.


We're making sure the graphics are up to date. In between the shows, the numbers are going to change. So you want to make sure that the numbers are the most recent numbers, temperatures from the airports and from the area.

HILL: Let's see what we got.

The equipment's geared that nothing surprises you. And we have such varied ways now of displaying the information. We have a list now of 1,000 people on our e-mail that I e-mail a forecast to every afternoon and evening.

It's a slow today.

A New Jersey mayor wants forecasters held responsible for dire predictions, like this week's snow storm that fizzled in some areas.

There's no way on earth you can forecast amounts before the storm even forms, yet there's a tendency in TV weather people to do that. If you rely totally on the model solutions, and don't trust your eyes and don't trust your experience, you can blow the forecast big time. I've certainly done it before.

I'd like you to take the bags and wrinkles out today.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... working on myself right now.

HILL: Do you have the brown spray to put on today?

Obviously, this is just for the bright lights in the studio, is why I wear makeup.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: WTOP news time 4:08 -- traffic and weather together on the...

HILL: I was looking up at the radar right now. We've got a little band of showers moving through Hagerstown, a little bit east to just north of Frederick.

ANNOUNCER: "News at 5:00" with Kathleen Matthews.

HILL: I'll point out the clouds, moving up -- all right, show time.

ANNOUNCER: Meteorologist Doug Hill.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Moving out to camera two.


HILL: I've got an interested little story to start with tonight. I'm not going to give it away. You'll enjoy it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ten, here we come.


HILL: All right, you do the news. I do the weather, normally. We're going to turn it around a little bit.


HILL: This is


HILL: ... weather news. Check this out: A New Jersey mayor wants forecasters to be held responsible for their dire predictions.


HILL: As far as it comes to predicting weather for this area, and knowing how it affects people, and knowing how to effectively communicate that to people, and have it have meaning, and do it in a way that's friendly and warm, I'll put my stuff up against anybody.


HILL: Some of that will reach our area. But just widely scattered showers in the forecast tonight. In fact, that's what we have in our forecast for this evening. We're calling for showers possible, temperatures in the 40s -- the sunset getting later as we had towards the first day of spring.


HILL: If I can come away and people will say, "I understood exactly what you explained last night," or, "Now, I understand exactly what's happening with a storm..."


HILL: There could be -- could be just a few sprinkles at that time.


HILL: ... that's a big win for me. I've done my job the right way.

All done. Isn't that fun? Now we're done.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MCMANUS: Somewhere in the world right now, the rain is stopping, the wind is subsiding, the clouds are clearing, and calm returning. Although we live in different countries around the world, we share one sky: one massive system pushing and pulling the weather from one continent to the next.

While there are many solutions to the problems caused by climate, all scientists agree there must be a greater awareness of not only the passing storm, but of the ever-present atmosphere as well.

I'm Michael McManus. Thanks for watching.



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