When Hurricanes Become Machines…or Monsters

Officially, the Atlantic season is almost upon us. The season of tropical storms and hurricanes, yes, but more to the point, the season of heat-seeking machines and relentless monsters.

At least, that’s the metaphorical language of broadcast meteorologists when confronted with catastrophic threats like Hurricane Harvey in Houston in 2017. A new analysis in BAMS of the figures of speech used by KHOU-TV meteorologists to convey the dangers of this record storm shows how these risk communicators exercised great verbal skill to not only connect with viewers’ emotions, but also convey essential understanding in a time of urgent need.

For their recently released paper, Robert Prestley (Univ. of Kentucky) and co-authors selected from the CBS-affiliate’s live broadcasts during Harvey’s onslaught the more than six hours of on-air time for the station’s four meteorologists. The words the meteorologists used were coded and systematically analyzed and categorized in a partly automated, partly by-hand process. No mere “intermediaries” between weather service warnings and the public, the meteorologists—David Paul, Chita Craft, Brooks Garner, and Blake Matthews—relied on “figurative and intense language” on-air to “express their concern and disbelief” as well as explain risks.

As monster, the hurricane frequently displayed gargantuan appetite—for example, “just sitting and spinning and grabbing moisture from off the Gulf of Mexico and pulling it up,” in Paul’s words. The storm was reaching for its “food,” or moisture. The authors write, “The use of the term ‘feeder bands’…fed into this analogy.” Eventually Matthews straight out said, “We’re dealing with a monster” and Craft called the disaster a “beast.”

When the metaphor shifted to machines, Harvey was like a battery “recharging” with Gulf moisture and heat or a combustion engine tending to “blow” up or “explode.” Paul noted the lingering storm was “put in park with the engine revving.”

Other figurative language was prominent. Garner explained how atmospheric factors could “wring out that wet washcloth” and that the saturated ground was like “pudding putty, Jello.” The storm was often compared to a tall layered cake, which at one point Garner noted was tipped over like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

In conveying impact risks, the KHOU team resorted frequently to words like “incredible” and “tremendous.” To create a frame of reference, they initially referred to local experience, like “Allison 2.0”—referring to the flood disaster caused by a “mere” tropical storm in 2001 that deluged the Houston area with three feet of rain—until Harvey was clearly beyond such a frame of reference. Then they clarified the unprecedented nature of threats, that it would be a storm “you can tell your kids about.”

The authors note, “By using figurative language to help viewers make sense of the storm, the meteorologists fulfilled the “storyteller” role that broadcast meteorologists often play during hurricanes. They were able to weave these explanations together with contextual information from their community in an unscripted, ‘off-the-cuff’ live broadcast environment.” They conclude that the KHOU team’s word choices could “be added to a lexicon of rhetorical language in broadcast meteorology” and serve as a “a toolkit of language strategies” for broadcast meteorologists to use in times of extreme weather.

Of course all of this colorful language was, perhaps, not just good science communication but also personal reality. Prestley et al. note: “The KHOU meteorologists also faced personal challenges, such as sleep deprivation, anxiety about the safety of their families, and the flooding of their studio. The flood eventually forced the meteorologists to broadcast out of a makeshift studio in a second-floor conference room before evacuating their building and going off air.”

As water entered the building, Matthews told viewers, “There are certain things in life you think you’ll never see. And then here it is. It’s happening right now.”

The new BAMS article is open access, now in early online release.