Happily, power did fail at the home of one Happytown™ correspondent, allowing said scribe to spend some quality time reading Jack London's The Cruise of the Snark, but also forcing him to rely on the most pointless media outlet of all in a storm: the Orlando Sentinel. Daily newspapers are dying not only because they suck, but also because in an age where you can find out what happened five minutes ago in the Middle East, what happened yesterday in the world has less and less value.
In the absence of having anything to say there's always the option of screaming really loud, which is what the Sentinel does with their ridiculously large headlines. They must have tripled their ink costs, judging by the number of whoppers they've run in the wake of Frances and Charley. They like big headlines because it makes stale news seem more urgent. We like them because they are silly, and yet profoundly beautiful in a way. As proof, we offer this short found poem from Sentinel headlines written between Sept. 1 and Sept. 6:
Central Florida's woes may grow worse
Looters pounce, beware the eye
Moving debris may be risky
Calling for help, roaring ashore
From cattle to crops, it's going to be bad
Ivan makes fast trek to Barbados
Several stay put in Tavares
Has a certain Yeatsian ring to it, don't you think?
We'd never suggest that there's a dearth of hurricane information on greater Orlando's FM dial: Many of our broadcast TV stations provide simulcast coverage, ensuring that the gift of mutually contradictory doomsaying extends even to households without AC power. But in terms of original content, listeners again learned during Hurricane Frances that the best they can hope for is a folksy call-in format that replaces legitimate news with populist gossip-gathering.
For the time being at least, the disaster-management crown belongs to the on-air personalities at WTKS-FM (104.1). During both Charley and Frances, the casts of shows like Monsters in the Mornings and The Philips Phile have worked overtime (literally) to fill the airwaves with community concern not commonly associated with their boss, Clear Channel Communications. While the Monsters' Russ Rollins can't be beat for boyish optimism, we reserve special commendation for Real Radio übermouth Drew Garabo (also an Orlando Weekly columnist, uh huh, conflict of interest, we know, pipe down). The advent of Frances cemented Garabo's status as the most comforting presence on radio since Mayor LaGuardia read the comics aloud.
The fun began on Friday night, with Garabo patiently explaining to an 18-year-old caller that combating the hurricane with nuclear weapons was not a viable option. As the 'cane drew nearer, our host kept a cathartic running tally of official usages of the dreaded phrase "hunker down"; there were also nods to the West Nile virus and audio plucked from the soundtrack of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (a taunting cry of "Fran-CIS!").
But the best thing about Garabo's emergency programming was his refusal to make nice when the situation didn't warrant it. Callers who sought approval for wading into storm-chopped waters weren't lauded as daredevils; they got called "idiots," with a vehement finality that was sweet relief to us sensible/cowardly types hunkered down at home. Even as the elements themselves showed every sign of going mad, Garabo's candor was reassurance that sanity would out. Take that, Fran-CIS ... you idiot. Like an old woman with her walker, Hurricane Frances dragged her callused heels on Florida's east coast for nearly three days, giving reporters plenty of time to botch their live reports. It was also the perfect opportunity for third-string television reporters to get their 15 minutes of fame. But broadcasting live for 72 hours has its pitfalls.
Dusting off their thesauruses, reporters for WFTV Channel 9, WKMG-TV Channel 6, WESH-TV Channel 2, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and The Weather Channel mouthed words like "hammering," "blasting," "pounding," "slamming," "pelleting," "crashing," "smashing," "ravaging," "crawling" and "rocking" an astonishing 63 times Saturday between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. We know; we counted.
From 2:15 p.m. to 6:40 p.m. on Sunday, eight stations subjected viewers to approximately 23 technical difficulties, over two straight hours of meaningless anchor-to-anchor banter, 16 reports on the impending storm surge, 42 reports on dangerous post-Charley "missile-like" debris, 16 "get your ass to a shelter" reports and nearly 27 "Frances is the size of Texas" reports.
Even more damaging than hurricane-force winds was the endless use of corny metaphors, annoying clichés and off-the-cuff attempts at humor. Eleven different reporters on six TV stations closed their reports with this shopworn homily: "Residents are preparing for the worst ... (voice rise) but hoping ... (voice drop) for the best."
And you could hear thousands of Florida residents slapping their foreheads and cringing when Local 6 anchor Bob Frier and meteorologist/weather psychiatrist Tom Sorrells compared the public's anxiety to that of a woman preparing to give birth. "`Waiting for the storm` is kind of like what my pregnant wife is going through right now. We've spent so much time getting everything ready, the nursery is all finished, yet now we're forced to sort of hurry up and wait," said Sorrells.
"Unfortunately, there is no way we can induce this storm, right Tom?" asked Frier with a grin.
Reporters dazzled audiences as they stood on windy beaches and stated the obvious. "It's about 10 degrees cooler outside right now," said one Fox 35 news reporter. "But that's probably just because of the wind and rain."
And meteorologists struggled to conceal their hurricanic hard-ons when tracking the mighty Frances.
"Wow, this is one awesome storm," said WFTV meteorologist Tom Terry, who stopped short to correct himself by saying, "Well ... it's not awesome in the positive sense."
"After about six hours of nonstop, repetitive news reporting, I began looking out my window and praying that the storm would hurry up and take our power," said Orlando resident Brandon Cashen. "That way, I wouldn't have to watch this crap anymore." Tip for Cashen: Next time blow off the hurricane porn on commercial channels and tune into WMFE, TV or radio. All through Frances they told us what we needed to know when we needed to know it, then shut the hell up and went back to regular programming. God, what a concept.
When Charley blew through, the storm took WMFE-FM (90.7) off-air for 36 hours, due to a problem with the back-up generator. The coverage was missed, as WMFE actually has a news staff to gather credible information. Driving around the morning after Charley, there was no local reporting to be found; only sports, garden shows and canned music.
During Frances, WMFE-FM remained on the air. As of Sept. 2, WMFE-TV had already announced that it would broadcast the PBS KidsChannel all day Saturday and Sunday, and it did. So much for the rugrats.
WMFE-FM officially is Orange County government's radio partner, with Central Florida News 13 as the county's TV counterpart. The coverage on the radio station was a mix of regular programming NPR feeds in the morning and evening; classical music the rest of the time. But WMFE didn't hesitate to interrupt to bring critical updates, especially when Gov. Jeb Bush and his crew were at the microphone. The news updates and regular programming ebbed and flowed, just like Frances. There was never a sense of airtime wasted with nonsense.
Our favorite part was hearing music director Dave Glerum take his turn at emergency broadcasting. Glerum's an institution at the station, a charming guy with a recognizable voice and a sophisticated vocabulary. At one point, he suggested that it was time to share some "salient" information with the listeners. We couldn't help but wonder how many people thought he was talking about saltwater. The day after Hurricane Charley, with power down all around us, and the only source of information being our trusty battery-powered radio, we tuned into WDBO-AM (580), the news-talk station that boasts about having the best news team in Central Florida. But instead of the news, we got "Olsen on Law" and "Magic Mechanic."
If we were the cynical sort, we'd point out that WDBO's weekend fare is paid advertising, bought by the hosts, and that perhaps program manager Kipper McGee simply didn't want to lose the revenue. But we are silver-lining types, so we asked for an explanation.
According to McGee, after Charley people wanted to know what the legal implications were if a neighbor's tree fell on their property, or if their car was damaged in the storm. McGee promised this time would be different. "Charley was a dry run" for Frances, the bigger, badder storm, he told us.
Well, Frances was bigger, if not badder, and McGee kept to his word. The weekend shows were pre-empted by long shifts from morning host Jim Turner and former mayoral candidate-turned-talker Tico Perez. Turner, especially, gets props for being realistic in the face of dire warnings from local officials. Perez, meanwhile, spent far too much time warning people who'd been cooped up in their houses for three straight days to stay indoors. A funny note was his glowing praise of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer during an interview; Tico didn't have nearly as many nice things to say to hizzoner when campaigning against him last year.
Interestingly, WDBO's sister Cox stations chose to simulcast WFTV's hurricane coverage instead of WDBO's, which was a shame simply because of the ridiculous, fire-and-brimstone predictions of meteorologist Tom Terry (say it with us, "THE WORST IS YET TO COME!"). On the plus side, listeners to, say, Cox's WPYO-FM (95.3) were spared that annoying Chingy song that plays every seven minutes.
We also tuned into WDBO's rival, WFLA-AM (540), which was OK in terms of dispensing information, but let's face it former TV anchor Bud Hedinger is dreadfully boring. Hurricanes make us think too much. This time we couldn't get nomenclature out of our heads. Why are hurricane names so gay? (Gaston?) We also started to drink too much, because that's what you do when the barometric pressure closes in on your sinuses.
Combining the two 'inkings, then, we drifted off into a Frances-themed stupor, drawing unnecessary comparisons between dark Franceses past and present. Here's what we came up with:
Frances McDormand: Eminently likable, but not terribly appealing to the eye, McDormand isn't too much like a hurricane.
Dinah Shore: Perky and blown-out, Shore seemed like a beacon of truth and grace to most eyes. Hell, Burt Reynolds may have even slept with her. But hidden inside this morsel of cultural goodness was a dark secret. You guessed it: She's a Frances. Frances Rose Shore, to be exact. Shame.
Judy Garland: Those swirling images of Technicolor tornado-dom were no coincidence. This bawdy booze-head and gay trading card was no Judy at all. Instead, she was a toothy Frances Gumm. That, AND she slept with gay people. Scandalous!
Frances Farmer: Deemed crazy in her '30s Paramount heyday, Farmer went on to tour loony bins throughout the '40s, eventually landing under the lobotomist's knife for some stylish surgery. Plus, she has the honor of being the namesake of a certain grunge spawn with potential heroin leanings named ...
Frances Bean Cobain: Dead dad, junkie mom, questionable future. Very Frances. Rollins College nabs the coveted Hurricane Opportunist of the Week award this week for squeezing victims of Hurricanes Charley and Frances.
Dozens of Winter Park residents parked their cars in the newly built Rollins College parking garage on the corner of Knowles Avenue and Lyman Avenue near Park Avenue to avoid damage. By Sept. 3, the garage was full.
But what residents didn't know is that they were still going to pay the maximum price for parking there during the storm.
Winter Park resident and Rollins graduate Anne Morgan was charged $40 dollars to park in the garage during Frances. Morgan evacuated Winter Park on Thursday and drove in a different car to Atlanta with her family.
"When I asked them why they were charging us, the girl collecting the money just said, '$8 a day, storm or no storm,'" says Morgan.
After receiving three reports that the garage was charging $8 a day, Happytown™ contacted Rollins College property manager Beverly J. McNeil, who initially denied that anyone was being charged anything.
"Everyone is being let out of our garage for free, no one is being charged a penny," said McNeil. When Happytown™ informed McNeil that we personally had been charged, she clammed up and gave us a "no comment." Did anyone else notice the absolute kid-at-Christmas glee with which Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary announced that looting was officially a no-bond offense, and that curfew violators would be arrested? Is martial law the man's fondest dream? And was that really a bulletproof vest he was wearing at the news conferences? Happytown™ notes that of the three Orlando mayors to die in office since 1900, two Mayor James Parramore (1896-1902) and Mayor Bob Carr Sr. (1956-1967) had two hurricanes hit town on their watch. With Frances becoming Buddy Dyer's second natural disaster in his first 18 months in office, a visit to the doctor may be in order.
E.F. Sperry, the other mayor to croak on the job, had one storm skirt Florida the same month he passed (August 1916), but we can't tell which happened first, and that storm was a whole lot of nothing anyway. So we can't say for sure whether Dyer's a goner, but a little diet and exercise never hurt anyone. While we're on the subject of prognostication, let's put the blame for this tropical dysfunction squarely where it belongs: the Rev. Pat Robertson. Remember a few years back when Robertson was predicting death and destruction because Orlando stopped bein' mean to them homosexuals? Robertson was just about six years too early.
Or, as city records manager Don Price suggests, you could simply blame bottled water. "When we drank out of the spigots, we never had these problems."