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Forecasting death and destruction takes emotional toll on AccuWeather meteorologists in State College

Aaron Aupperlee
| Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, 7:33 p.m.

Catastrophic and life-threatening.

Bernie Rayno has used those words sparingly during his 27 years as a meteorologist for AccuWeather.

Maybe five or six times, he said.

Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was the first and then during the blizzard of 1993, the Storm of the Century.

Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Hurricane Sandy four years later.

Then Hurricane Harvey. Rayno said had to stop looking at photos of the destruction in Texas and Louisiana.

"It was so depressing to me," he said.

And now Hurricane Irma.

"This is a powerful hurricane," Rayno, the chief meteorologist for the AccuWeather Network, said. He paused, his face more serious than when he recalled all the major storms of his career.

"Catastrophic and life-threatening."

'You can't be perfect with this stuff'

During hurricanes like Harvey and Irma, meteorologists aren't only predicting where winds will be high or rain will be heavy. They are predicting where homes will be flattened or flooded and where people may die.

It's a burden Rayno and the more than 100 meteorologists working at AccuWeather carry. An emotional toll, and one that Rayno said he has to hide when he steps in front of a camera to warn people about the dangers of the approaching storm.

"It will show," Rayno said. "Your message will not be effective."

And that could mean the difference between life and death.

Techs work in the studio control room Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 at Accuweather headquarters in State College as broadcast meteorologists prepare to record weather forecasts for the regions of Florida as Hurricane Irma makes its way northward. | Photo by Shane Dunlap

AccuWeather allowed the Tribune-Review access on Friday to its Global Headquarters near State College, Pennsylvania, as its team of meteorologists tracked and forecast Hurricane Irma. On Friday, Irma had weakened to a Category 4 hurricane. It still had winds topping 150 mph and was hundreds of miles wide. It looked as though the storm would hit the southern tip of Florida and work its way up the peninsula.

By Friday night and into Saturday morning, Irma was again a Category 5 storm as it hit Cuba. It changed course slightly and was expected to track up Florida's west coast.

But all that could change at a moment's notice. Meteorologists have up-to-the-minute maps, satellite images and data and decades of experience. But even then, it's just a prediction.

"You can't be perfect with this stuff," said Dan Kottlowski, a meteorologist for more than 40 years and the go-to guy at AccuWeather during hurricane season.

A map from AccuWeather on Saturday, Sept. 9, predicts the damage Hurricane Irma could cause.

'It's all hands on deck'

The operations floor inside AccuWeather's headquarters buzzed Friday as meteorologists tracked Hurricane Irma and took turns going on television, the radio or online to talk to viewers. It wasn't chaotic, but there was a sense of urgency in the air.

Brittany Boyer, a television broadcast meteorologist, stood in front of a map on a screen inside one of AccuWeather's studios. Hurricane Irma could make landfall Sunday morning near Key Largo as a Category 4 hurricane, she said into the camera.

"And then we have it coming right up the Florida peninsula," Boyer said Friday.

After her report, Boyer took a few minutes to regroup and then get ready for segments with a Chinese television network and a Canadian one. Some days, Boyer records more than 50 video segments. Throughout the day Friday, she stressed the shear number, the millions of people, living in Irma's suspected path.

There are no windows on the operations floor to look out and check the weather. A passing rain shower Friday afternoon went by without notice. From these headquarters, AccuWeather's meteorologists forecast weather all around the world. But Friday, their focus was on Hurricane Irma.

"The story is Irma. The focus is 100 percent Irma," said Joel N. Myers, who founded AccuWeather in 1962 and remains the company's president and chairman of the board. "Irma is going to cause death and destruction, unfortunately."

Myers started AccuWeather as a second-year grad student at Penn State. His goal was to use weather forecasting to help businesses — like ski resorts or electric companies — run more efficiently. The result is the most accurate source of weather forecasts in the United States, according to a recent study by ForecastWatch, and thousands of lives and millions of dollars saved because of it.

During major storms like Harvey or Irma, employees volunteer to come in early and stay late, Myers said. They work 18 hour days and run on four hours of sleep. Some employees said they will come to work at 4 a.m. Sunday morning not knowing when they'll go home.

"It's all hands on deck," said Meghan Mussoline, AccuWeather's news director. "We're helping to save lives and to save property."

Director of news and content optimization, Meghan Mussoline, works at the Accuweather headquarters in State College Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 with meteorologist Brian Thompson. | Photo by Shane Dunlap

'Weather war'

Most of the work stations on AccuWeather's operations floor have three screens. Jesse Ferrell, the company's social media manager, used one to track where people were chatting about Hurricane on Twitter and what they were saying.

"The praying emoji is the most used," Ferrell said.

Kottlowski, a senior meteorologist and AccuWeather's lead hurricane forecaster, used one screen to show maps of the Caribbean. He loaded satellite images on another and lines for raw data filled the third.

"Weather war," Kottlowski said. "We're doing battle with a massive storm."

Kottlowski was worried. Relatives live in the Florida panhandle and friends are elsewhere in the state. Kottlowski has been emailing and texting them the latest information and checking on their evacuation plans.

He started watching Hurricane Irma more than two weeks ago when it was a glob of thunderstorms off the coast of Africa. About a week ago, he told people Irma was going to be bad.

On Friday, he wondered how bad. He tried to compare it to past storms. It won't be as powerful as Hurricane Andrew, but it will be bigger, he said.

"It's going to cover most of the state of Florida," Kottlowski said. "I figure this is going to be like Charley, but twice as big."

Hurricane Charley blasted southwestern Florida in 2004 as a Category 4 storm. It killed 10 and caused $15.4 billion in damages.

"This hurricane is a phenomenal hurricane," Kottlowski said of Irma. "For it to go right up the spine of Florida is just unbelievable."

'Right … or wrong'

Kottlowski doesn't want to think about what will happen. At work, he keeps himself too busy, too glued to the data, to think about the havoc these storms wreak. In his downtime, during the four hours of sleep he gets during hurricane season, he tries hard to shut it out. He doesn't watch the nightly news. He doesn't go looking for pictures of the destruction on the internet.

"I know it's happening," he said. "But I don't want to look at it."

Kottlowski has been a meteorologist for more than 40 years. He's been right, and he's been wrong. Rayno has been in the business for 27 years. He's been right, and he's been wrong.

And that's a struggle. What happens when being right means the death and destruction you predicted happens?

As Hurricane Sandy spun toward the East Coast in 2012, Rayno was on "Good Morning America." His forecast was bleak. He said Sandy would alter the American coastline forever.

After the interview, Rayno felt dizzy and like he was going to faint. It hit him. Do I want to be right or wrong, he asked himself. If he was wrong, his reputation would be ruined, and that's all a meteorologist has, his or her reputation, Rayno said.

"But if I'm right, there's going to be a likelihood of fatalities," Rayno said. "Do you want to be right or do you want to be wrong?"

Rayno still thinks about that interview and still asks himself that question. It will no doubt be in his mind as he checks the latest maps, images and data from Hurricane Irma in the hours to come.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

Director of news and content optimization Meghan Mussoline works at the AccuWeather headquarters in State College Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, with meteorologist Brian Thompson.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Director of news and content optimization Meghan Mussoline works at the AccuWeather headquarters in State College Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, with meteorologist Brian Thompson.
Techs work in the studio control room Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 at AccuWeather headquarters in State College, as broadcast meteorologists prepare to record weather forecasts for the regions of Florida as Hurricane Irma makes its way northward.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Techs work in the studio control room Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 at AccuWeather headquarters in State College, as broadcast meteorologists prepare to record weather forecasts for the regions of Florida as Hurricane Irma makes its way northward.
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