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Who Do We Call When There’s a Big Hurricane?


One of the most vivid memories I have of Hurricane Katrina harks back to the morning of August 28, 2005–exactly three years ago today. Turning on the television in my bedroom, I saw the news that a Category Five hurricane was barreling directly toward New Orleans.

In almost the same instant I reached for the phone to call our contributing editor Willie Drye. “I was just calling you,” he said when he picked up on the other end.

That launched what remains the most viewed disaster coverage in the eight years since we started National Geographic News.

Photo of Willie Drye with Beaucat courtesy Willie Drye, 2002

Drye’s first story went live early the next day, minutes after Katrina’s Louisiana landfall. In the following weeks National Geographic News published something like three dozen news features about the storm and its aftermath, including five video news features that were nominated for the first ever Emmy Award for original news and documentary programming created specifically for the Web.

I remember all this today as Hurricane Gustav gathers strength over the Caribbean Sea.

Half a dozen colleagues gathered in my office this morning to make contingency plans for reporting Gustav should it head toward New Orleans. We teleconferenced in Willie Drye from his home office in North Carolina to get the latest updates. We’re preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best.

Willie Drye is the author of “Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935,” published by National Geographic Books. Our books division suggested we invite him to write about hurricanes for our news service. He has produced dozens of stories for us — and not only about hurricanes.

Drye has been fascinated by hurricanes since he saw what Hurricane Hazle did to his aunt’s and uncle’s home at Long Beach, North Carolina in 1954. Hazle remains the most powerful hurricane to ever hit North Carolina.

Drye was only a small child at the time, but the sight of what was left of his relatives’ home — a bare concrete slab — left a lasting impression on him. “As a child, I thought the devastation of Long Beach was ‘neat,'” he told me.

But when Hurricane Andrew made its terrifying run to Florida in 1992, his reaction was much different.

Drye and his wife, Jane Morrow, were living in St. Lucie County, Florida at the time. “We had never been through a hurricane, and news reports about a rapidly strengthening Andrew possibly heading our way were, to say the least, frightening,” he recalls. “It scared us to death.”

Andrew eventually came ashore about 100 miles south of where Drye and his wife were living. It was a Category Five hurricane with winds of more than 160 miles per hour. Drye saw the hurricane’s devastating impact in southern Dade County a few days after it made landfall.

“It was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” he recalls. “Total destruction from horizon to horizon. I decided then and there that the only way I could keep my sanity living in an area where these things might form was to learn everything I possibly could about hurricanes.”

“Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935,” Drye’s first book, was an outgrowth of his crash-course in hurricane history and meteorology. The book tells the story of the most powerful hurricane to make landfall in the United States. It came ashore in the Florida Keys on September 2, 1935 with winds gusting to as much as 200 miles per hour. More than 400 people were killed, including about 260 World War I veterans who were working on a New Deal construction project in the Keys.

Officials in charge of the veterans were harshly criticized for not evacuating the men before the storm struck, and the deaths of the veterans created a firestorm of public controversy that prompted several investigations.

The book was critically acclaimed, and Drye appeared as the lead commentator in a documentary based on his book that was produced by the History Channel.

In 2007, Drye won a prestigious Charlie Award for Public Service from the Florida Magazine Association for a package of stories he wrote for Key West Magazine about that city’s vulnerabilities to hurricanes and how the city probably would respond if a powerful hurricane made landfall there.

He also has written about hurricanes for the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Washington Post, the Tampa Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel.

Drye is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can visit his blog, “Drye Goods,” where he writes about “History. Hurricanes. Life on the Roanoke River.”

And of course, you can read Drye’s work on National Geographic News, including coverage of Gustav.

Selection of National Geographic News stories by Willie Drye: