BOB GARFIELD: Hurricane season is only half over, and already two giant storms, Charley and Frances, have taken dozens of lives in the southern United States. Now Florida's Gulf Coast anxiously awaits Ivan, boiling through the Caribbean, straight in its direction. Needless to say, this is terrible news for everything and everyone in its path, except of course, the media. Author and journalist Carl Hiaasen lives in the Florida Keys. This week his excerpts from the non-existent Handbook for Roving Hurricane Correspondents appeared in the Miami Herald. Among the tips offered to local TV reporters: When the storm finally comes ashore, always stand dangerously near the rough water and position yourself so that the spray hits you directly in the face. If it's not raining yet, take off your hood and let the wind mess up your hair. Remember: a wet, tired and weather-beaten appearance is crucial to your credibility as a hurricane journalist. Among the required footage, says Hiaasen:
CARL HIAASEN: Palm trees. That's the iconic Florida storm shot, is bending palm trees. Now the secret that nobody who lives in Florida tells everybody else is that a palm tree will bend double in the tiniest rain squall. They bend and they bend, and they actually very seldom fall down. But the palm fronds curled over and the trunk of the tree bending is very dramatic so, unless you want to lose your job in television, you better come back on that satellite truck with some seriously bending palm trees. You know, those are requisite shots -- you have to follow the panic-stricken, the plywood going up is a standard shot, the standing in long lines in, in gas lines are standard shots. And then after the storm hits, obviously the falling trees are the main thing you have to get.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, you've even listed the ideal shots in your column in order of priority. First being big tree on strip mall, then big tree on house, big tree on car, small tree on car, assorted shrubbery on car.
CARL HIAASEN: Well, during Frances, I swear, there was one broadcaster -- the storm hadn't hit yet - we'd been waiting and waiting, and she breathlessly rushed outside, and there was a little bit of rain, and a little bit of wind, just like any old summer squall, but she pointed to a car where a palm tree no more than three feet high has fallen against the car, and it was, it was comical -- this was the hurricane -- this little, tiny palm tree. A gust of, you know, [LAUGHTER] you could have blown it over yourself. But that's the desperation that sets in when you don't have the right kind of footage and the right kind of visuals.
BOB GARFIELD: You've identified a few catch phrases that you constantly hear in the coverage. What are some of them?
CARL HIAASEN: The most popular one during Frances was: Conditions are deteriorating. Because over four days, they were, and that was a good standby. The other one that came up always was: Everybody should just hunker down and stay out of the weather. You know, well --you could tell that to a small Pomeranian, [LAUGHTER] and he would have already figured it out on his own. You talk about how awesome it is and how you've never seen anything like it, even though if you've ever covered a hurricane, you've seen something exactly like it. [LAUGHTER] Doesn't really matter. But, you know, there's only so much that you can say about this when you're standing there waiting and waiting and waiting for the weather that doesn't become cliché and doesn't start to sound kind of silly after a while.
BOB GARFIELD: Undergirding what is a very funny column on the subject is at least the implication that TV broadcasters really trivialize the seriousness of these gigantic storms and the devastation that they do, in fact, wreak by going to all these gimmicks for making the genuinely dramatic seem even more dramatic. Do you think there's actually something ethically wrong about behaving this way?
CARL HIAASEN: No. You know, what -- I don't think they have a choice. The competition is so intense during these, they're all running around like gerbils with their feet on fire during these storms. I feel bad for 'em, because I know their producers want them to get this kind of footage, even if they said hey, look -wouldn't it be smarter if I just stood behind this building and then, then the viewers could actually hear what I'm saying. They'd say no, because it's not as dramatic. And so they put 'em out there, and a female reporter this last storm got hit with a, a piece of concrete material and broke her rib. You know, that of course - that was worth many, many minutes of air time, in addition to the thousands of people who were left homeless. [LAUGHTER] We have this reporter with a broken rib. But it's sad, because these things are horrific. They are devastating. They are everything you've ever heard they would be. What they're not is surprising.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that raises the question about the very definition of news. South Florida, in the late summer and early autumn, hurricane comes through -- is that news?
CARL HIAASEN: Well, it's news if you're talking about the displacing of millions and millions of people, which is what happened. Now, all the chaos that that brings with it is newsworthy. At any rate, what happens if you live in Florida and you go through enough of these over the years is you hopefully develop a little bit of a, you know, a threshold of skepticism and also patience, because even with Ivan, which is bearing down on us, they're evacuating the Keys even as I'm sitting here, most of the locals aren't going anywhere until we know more about where the storm is going, cause what happened during Andrew, for example, is a lot of people bailed out of the Keys and went up to Homestead, Florida which got flattened by the storm. They would have been better off staying in the Keys, which didn't hardly have any damage at all. So the valuable information is coming off the radar and out of the weather center. The fact that it's pouring rain in Stewart, Florida when you're in the eye wall of a hurricane hardly qualifies as a big news bulletin to the folks in Stewart, Florida or anywhere else.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so, Carl, journalistically speaking, in three words or less, how would you describe the state of hurricane reporting in 2004?
CARL HIAASEN: [AHEMS] In three words or less? Oh, my gosh.
BOB GARFIELD: Oh, for God's sakes, Carl -- say conditions are deteriorating.
CARL HIAASEN: Oh, [LAUGHS] there you go. Oh, yeah, I got you - oh, I got-- Conditions are deteriorating. [LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Carl. Well, thank you very much. And listen here: Ivan's coming. Hunker down.
CARL HIAASEN: I got you. Thanks a lot, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Journalist and novelist Carl Hiaasen's latest book is Skinny Dip. He spoke to us from his home in the Florida Keys, as Ivan closed in.