Podcast & Show Notes - Meteorologist Wade Hampton

Show Notes

Thu, 7/7 10:36AM • 19:25

SUMMARY KEYWORDS storm, weather, meteorologist, hurricane, Storm Prediction Center, Lake Charles, cone, communication, people, Gustavo, dealt, outlook, television, meteorology, folks, event, enhanced, climate, understand, admit

[00:00:04] Drew Hawkins: This podcast is a production of a research project at Louisiana State University funded by the Louisiana Sea Grant called Communicating Climate Tools to Coastal Stakeholders, or CCTCS. Researchers from the Department of Communication Studies the Manship School of Mass Communication, and the Department of Geography and Anthropology examined communication challenges during extreme weather events.

[00:00:34] Drew Hawkins: While much of the news media often focuses on extreme weather events that affect Southeast Louisiana, places like New Orleans and along the coast, the western part of the state has seen its fair share of natural disasters too. This is especially true in the Lake Charles region. To get a better idea of how folks in the area get their weather and climate information. We spoke to Wade Hampton, chief meteorologist at KPLC in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Hampton talked about the tools he uses the importance of gut instinct when it comes to discerning weather patterns and his concerns about the influence of social media on extreme weather and climate communication. Let’s listen in.

[00:01:23] Drew Hawkins: All right, thank you for joining us today. Wade, how are you?

[00:01:26] Wade Hampton: I’m doing well. How about you?

[00:01:28] Drew Hawkins: I’m doing great. Can we just start off real basic and simple? Why don’t you give us your name, your title, and a little bit of your work history and experience?

[00:01:36] Wade Hampton: Sure. I’m Wade Hampton. I am the chief meteorologist at KPLC Television that is in Lake Charles, Louisiana, of course. I’ve been here 17 years come August 1stat Lake Charles and I’ve dealt with many storms. Rita was the first storm that I dealt with, and technically Katrina, although we were on the edge of any impact from Katrina. But six weeks later had Rita, then dealt with Hurricane Ike, Gustav back in 2008. And then, of course, in 2020, dealing with Laura and Delta. Laura being the most significant storm that this area has seen in a lifetime. And that was quite the experience, I'll tell you.

[00:02:18] Drew Hawkins: So, you mentioned a few specific storms like Rita,Ike, and Gustav, which I know were really impactful for the region. Can you maybe tell us which events that you would you say were the most severe? And what kind of lessons that you take away from these events?

[00:02:33] Wade Hampton: Well, yeah, you know, Rita, I guess I'll start there, because that was the first one that I had dealt with. And honestly, it was the first hurricane making landfall that I had ever witnessed. I grew up in Florida, and you might think, “Well, man, there are hurricanes all the time,” but back in the ’90s, when I was there and the early 2000s, there weren't a lot of storms. Andrew had happened in ’92, but that was well south of where I was at. So, Rita was really the first hurricane that I got to witness firsthand, personally, and that was quite the experience. Our station evacuated for that storm even. But luckily, we were able to stay here in Lake Charles and just evacuated to a local hospital and were able to continue broadcasting. So that's one of those memories that kind of sticks in my mind and everything that came with that.

[00:03:21] And then Gustav, surprisingly, I went on vacation and Gustav had happened and was back home in Florida and had to come back. And of course, it was a massive evacuation for hurricane Gustav and trying to get back here was a logistical nightmare to put it bluntly. But I was able to get back,and the thing that sticks in my mind with Gustav was just the number of tornado warnings that we get after it had made landfall. It was well inland at this point, but we kept getting tornado warnings on the back side, the left rear quadrant of the hurricane, which is not normally where you expect the massive amounts of tornadoes in a land-falling system. But it was, and we had to deal with that. And then, about 10 days later, we had Ike that caused significant flooding here. But by far the storm of record and the one that will probably stick in my mind forever is Laura.

[00:04:18] Drew Hawkins: So, from your perspective, what do you believe is the public's understanding of weather and climate information in general?

[00:04:24] Wade Hampton: Yeah, you know, I think they have a pretty good understanding of weather itself, you know. Obviously climate,that's a hot button issue, to be very honest. Everyone knows that tends to get political as well and beliefs on what's causing it and what we should do about it. And I will admit that I usually stay away from that at least as far as television is concerned, because obviously my primary job is the day-to-day weather and what's going to be driving that for folks. So, I would definitely say their understanding of weather is probably very good.

[00:04:59] There are certain things they probably don't understand that I, as a meteorologist, get that they may not. As a good example, I am not afraid to show dewpoints on television, but I always explain it every time I show them. What it means, just so that way anyone watching knows what I'm showing, and, and why. But, you know, there's certain other things in meteorology that I would never show, you know. I would never show morticity or something like that on an upper-level weather chart that meteorologists would understand perfectly, but you wouldn't show that. So, they have an understanding. But yeah, the climate side? Obviously, they probably don't have as much of an understanding what's going on just because you start talking that and you trigger the political sides of that argument.

[00:05:48] Drew Hawkins: What would you say are some of the more frequent communication challenges that you do encounter with your audience? And what are some ways you go about addressing or trying to mitigate those challenges?

[00:06:00] Wade Hampton: The number one is social media. It's a double-edged sword, you know, it's great, it gets information out, but it's also a huge negative in my opinion. Because one, you know, if you post something on Facebook, unless you intently look to see when it was posted, you might find a post that even I posted last year might get resurrected. If somebody comments on it, it may end up showing up in someone’s feed and make it look like it was now. Or even a worse part of social media, in my opinion, is the number of people that, you know, just start a Facebook page, and will post the latest GFS computer model showing a hurricane happening in two weeks. And that’s a fire that I’m left to try to put out, of people been asking me “Well, there's a hurricane coming in two weeks!” “No, there's not!” And this just happened recently, back in the middle of May.

[00:06:55] It's been nearly a month ago now, but back in the middle of May, the GFS went on its normal tirade of showing a hurricane 10 days out. And even one of the local radio stations posted an article about it, and then that left me to try to put out that fire. The way I handle that is on TV, you know, I tell people the models always show storms that far out in time, and most of the time, they never happen. And we can't worry about a storm, that the models are showing 10 days out, when there's nothing there yet. You know, it's easier to track a storm 10 days out, if it's across the Atlantic, and there's already a storm to watch.

[00:06:35] But when the models are showing a storm forming out of nothing, and then showing where it's going, but I understand it's easy for folks to want to share that kind of information. Obviously everyone here is kind of gun shy after Laura two years ago. But that is the most significant challenge. And I don't know what the answer to it is, you know, I tell people all the time, and I preach it on TV, even if you don't see me posting about it, it's because I don't feel it's a threat here. I always tell people, if I see there's a threat here, I'm going to let you know about it as soon as possible. But I'm also not going to post every model run that shows a hurricane happening because every meteorologist knows that most of the time those never actually develop. But it's the worst part of this job, to be very honest, is battling that.

[00:08:27] Drew Hawkins: Yeah, I imagine that along similar lines, you know, communicating risk from meteorological standpoint, it's got to be a fine line between conveying that risk and risking delving into hyperbole. So how do you balance that? How do you convey, you know, the seriousness of something without, you know, causing a panic? Right?

[00:08:49] Wade Hampton: Yeah, that's a difficult job. Like I said, I preached it, and I guess it helps that I've been here 17 years. Another member of my team has been here over 10 years. So, we try to rely on our expertise, if you will, to tell people that “Look, if we're not worried about this, there's no need for you to be worried about,” that “you” as the audience, you know, on television, or social media, either one. But, you know, I can’t stop people from finding those posts on Facebook, especially where people post those models, and you know, some people just go looking for that. So,there’s nothing I can really do to stop that, you know, and as far as actually on TV, the TV product, it’s what I said that I tell people, you know, if we see a threat, we’re going to tell you, if not, don’t worry about it. If we’re not telling you, it’s not because we’re trying to hide something. I certainly don’t want to do that, you know because I’m a homeowner here too. So, if there’s a hurricane that I feel is coming, I’m going to tell you because everyone would need to know that sort of information and it’s not just hurricanes, you know, flooding events or severe weather. Those are other drivers of weather that...

[00:10:04] And to be honest, we had a big flood event back in May of 2021 here in Lake Charles. There was 16, 18 inches of rain that fell in about 6 hours. So, folks are kind of gun shy to the whole flooding possibility. And that’s a whole another animal that’s hard to convey, the risk of flooding events. And I’ll admit that one’s tougher, you know. Hurricane is, somewhat “easy”as I use air quotes there, because, you know, we know those are coming for days, but a flooding event like that May of 2021 event. Yeah, we knew it was going to rain. We knew there was probably going to be a lot of rain, yes. But if you’d asked me the day before, would we have seen 20 inches of rain? Yes, it was a possibility, but it was not a high risk event to see that, in my opinion at that time.

[00:10:58] Drew Hawkins: Switching gears just a little bit to kind of talk about some of the weather and the tools that you use, based on a survey that was conducted by the Department of Communication Studies here at LSU. Some of the most common tools that we found that were used were the Convective Outlook, Cone of Uncertainty, and the Drought Monitor. Can you talk about how you use these tools, how effective you think they are, and if there’s anything you would do to improve the communication of these tools to folks like the public, people that need that information?

[00:11:28] Wade Hampton: Sure. I'll start with the Drought Monitor first. And if I don't remember all of them, just to throw it back at me. But yeah, the Drought Monitor first, and we're kind of dealing with that right now, at least in my neck of the woods here with a pretty significant lack of rain. You know, I will admit, I think people don't understand exactly what it means, and I do try to push that it's not one specific thing. And to be honest, there's a couple of different ways you can look at droughts, too. There's a couple of different indices that you can look at. But the Drought Monitor itself, you know, and that's the one I would usually use on TV, I tie that to more lack of rainfall, and most folks get it, I think, but, you know, there are times where I'm sure a few of them sit at home and “Well, it's rained at my house, but yet I'm still in the exceptional drought.” Okay, but you know, we can't measure precise points like that. That's more of a generalized thing. But yeah, I think they have a decent understanding of the drought one.

[00:12:32] The Convective Outlooks, those are a little trickier, though, from Storm Prediction Center. And I will freely admit, I don't use Storm Prediction Center’s Outlooks. We, at KPLC, we make our own and I know a lot of other TV stations kind of do the same thing. Because to be honest, a few years ago, when they changed the layout or the wording of those outlooks and included the “enhanced risks,” but made “enhanced” the kind of the mid-range alert, and not the worst case, to me as a communicator was an error. Because to me, if you tell me “enhanced,” that sounds worse, but yet, an “enhanced risk” in the severe weather world from Storm Prediction Center is about a 3 out of 5 risk.

[00:13:28] So, we don't use that we use kind of a low, medium, high risk here. And I do include an extreme risk, which I can never recall actually using. So, technically, as far as what I would show on TV is a 4-tiered outlook system. It's very similar to Storm Prediction Center, obviously, but I guess the thing that I changed is the way I word, the specific Outlooks. Which I realized probably muddies the waters, if someone finds the Storm Prediction Center’s Outlook on their site and sees what they say versus me or, you know, if another TV station decides to do theirs a little different. But that's where our job no matter if it's me they're watching or another television station, that's where that person has to communicate what that risk specifically means. And that's why I chose to change those a little bit, is to make it easier for the public to try to understand it.

[00:14:26] And it's been a debate in the meteorology community that, like I said, that “enhanced” thing for the Storm Prediction Center, I think most everyone agrees was kind of maybe a mess up on their part. Maybe they didn't do enough research from a communication stand point to find out what the public would understand. I get it for meteorology, I understand what they were going with. But I tell this to people all the time. That's where you got to take off your meteorologist hat and pretend you’re the viewer at home that doesn't know meteorology, and you've got to communicate it to their level. And that's why I chose to do that. What was the other one you asked about?

[00:15:11] Drew Hawkins: The infamous Cone of Uncertainty.

[00:15:14] Wade Hampton: Oh, yeah. The Cones of Uncertainty. Oh, yeah.

[00:15:16] Wade Hampton: So, you know, obviously, I think people get those a little bit. But, you know, a few years ago, the hurricane center used to put the quote unquote, skinny line down the middle of that cone. And people got focused too much on that skinny line in the forecast track. And now that we've stopped using that line, and just the cone, you know, I think people understand that anywhere in that storm, but I don't think they understand that the right or left edge of that cone doesn't mean that that's where the impacts stop. We, as meteorologists know that that's where the center of the storm could go inside that cone. And then the weather could be, obviously a couple 100 miles, left or right of that cone side. But that's the part I don't think the public still understands, you know, especially if you look at a storm, three days out from now, let's say.

[00:16:08] If there's a storm in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, and that cone is centered on South Central Louisiana. That doesn't mean that my folks here in Lake Charles won't see impacts, we certainly could. But I don't think they get that. And, you know, that's again, where that's the job of whoever's on as the television meteorologist to try to convey that, yes, this is where the center of the storm could go, but the weather is going to be felt even farther away from that. I know the debate is whether or not the cone should focus more on weather instead of the track, and I don’t know, I’m torn on that. I understand it from the public standpoint, it probably would be helpful to maybe go to more of an impact-based setup, but also, that would be a radical change from what is used now.

[00:17:02] So that would require a lot of re-education, if you will, to people that do understand that means the center track and not the weather, you'd have to, as I said, re-educate them and make sure they understood now if we go to a weather-based cone,that this is where the weather is likely to happen, and not the actual storm, which for most hurricanes would be okay. But you know, those weird, sheared storms, where you can get weather displaced a long ways from the storm, you could also be in a situation where the center is over here. And then 200 miles away is where the real weather is happening. How do you deal with that? And again, I don't know, I can see both sides of that one. But I do freely admit, as a viewer at home of the public, there could be certainly confusion in the Cones of Uncertainty and what it means to them.

[00:18:00] Drew Hawkins: Well, I'm going to give you basically the last word here. Is there anything that we haven't talked about or as it relates to weather or climate communication that you wanted to get across? Or anything that comes to mind, as some closing thoughts?

[00:18:14] Wade Hampton: No, I think that's about it. Other than I would just reiterate, you know, to folks, to make sure you're following a trusted source, no matter where it's at, you know. I realize anyone in the world could be listening to this, so, you know, find your local TV station or National Weather Service offices in your area and follow those. If you find a Facebook page that says John Doe's weather updates, and they're not tied to any professional group or, you know, governmental agency, take whatever they say, with a grain of salt. Even if they claim to have forecasted the last event right, you know, a broken clock is always right, twice a day. So, that doesn't mean that they're correct, it just means that well, they got lucky. So just make sure you're using a trusted source for weather information. And that's what I would leave it with.

[00:19:08] Drew Hawkins: Great. Well, thanks for taking time and thanks for joining us, Wade. Really appreciate it.

[00:19:10] Wade Hampton: Absolutely.