Was It Sleet or Chicken Little That Fell From the Sky?

According to the Austin Police Department, the brief bout of winter weather that gripped the city in the first few days of February produced more than 600 automobile collisions. Almost 400 of these fender-benders occurred between around 4am and noon on Thursday, February 1, when a thin coating of ice on area roadways threw Austin drivers for a very literal loop. And those 600 were only the ones that were properly reported to the authorities. Insurance officials estimate these weather-related collisions add up to about a million dollars in property losses. Quite a bill for a two-day holiday.

But if you think Central Texas drivers got freaked out by the sudden cold spell, they didn't overreact half as badly as our friends in the news rooms of the local television stations. The sheer amount of hour-to-hour coverage made this storm 1996's top story, a dubious title it may well hold throughout the next 11 months. And why not? Foul weather reporting pretty much epitomizes local news in the Nineties -- it doesn't take a whole lot of in-depth research and it doesn't cost too much to produce. Just step outside, shoot some video, and narrate the obvious. Really, what could be easier?

When things started getting bad on Thursday morning, one of the first to follow this formula for success was Channel 7, quickly interrupting normal programming for extended weather-related coverage. While the KTBC news team succumbed to the tired stalled-traffic-on-I-35 live shot, it livened things up by interviewing drivers stuck in their cars in a rush-hour commute that had devolved to a multi-hour ordeal. Reporter Mike Rosen chided a man who had spent nearly three hours getting from Braker Lane to downtown, informing him that his news crew had made the same trek in a third of the time by sticking to the access road. "Gee, I wish I'd thought of that," the commuter replied sourly.

Such good-natured shenanigans continued a little later in the day when Channel 7 broadcasted a network report on the best way to build a snow cave or what to do in case you found yourself buried by an avalanche. Well, yes, the weather was pretty nasty that day. But even in the hills of Westlake, it is doubtful the precipitation was ever more than an inch in thickness. Barring a quick delivery from Ready Ice, you would probably need to save the snow-cave survival strategy for another occasion.

Speaking of deliveries, KXAN was one of the first to realize the cold spell's economic implications, finding a pizza shop that was still making house calls. Shortly thereafter, they talked with a representative of Lamme's Candies, who explained that the ice had halted production of the company's vaunted chocolate-covered strawberries, thus threatening their lucrative Valentine's Day business. Other merchants were less pessimistic. TV's barrage of storm-related coverage helped create a huge run on food and home supplies at local grocery stores, as people stocked their cabinets for the long days of isolation they were warned would follow. Whatever.

Other portions of KXAN's extended coverage focused on the increased activity that the rash of traffic accidents had caused at local emergency rooms. According to several live reports from Jeannette Hayes, Brackenridge was nearing capacity as more and more people injured in these collisions began seeking medical attention. Let us now point out that despite the very obvious temptation, the Channel 36 news team never once succumbed to the rather obvious promotional tie-in between this busy hospital and Thursday night's feature NBC drama ER. Bad weather brings out the best in TV people, too.

Also give Channel 36 credit for quickly crafting an imposing red graphic reading "Ice Storm of 1996" just in case viewers forgot the overall historical significance of what they were watching. Not to be outdone, KVUE came up with its own nifty artwork to tag ongoing video footage of the chilly conditions, a blue thermometer bearing the more generically worded label "Cold Blast." But Channel 24's creativity wasn't limited to this one item. Additionally, the station produced some wonderfully computer-enhanced animation illustrating what tragedies might occur if ice crystals formed in your gas tank.

Why the concern about freezing gas tanks? Mainly because KVUE was the most adventurous in its forecast of how cold temperatures would become over the next few days. During the station's extended February 1 coverage of the storm, Curtis Nichols said temperatures would bottom out at 12 degrees fahrenheit on Monday, against a high of 38 for the day. The actual readings were a much more livable 21 and 53. We don't fault Nichols and his ilk for trying to give us the long-range picture. But, why not be a little more honest and admit that the five-day outlook is a total crapshoot, at best?

Of course, the worse offender of this crime is Channel 42, with its pie-in-the-sky seven-day predictions. Do they use a crystal ball for that one, or what? K-EYE did have the most even-handed weather-related broadcasting, interrupting their normal broadcasting schedule only as frequently as was warranted by the thin glaze of ice, but that doesn't mean the station didn't have its moments. At one point, reporter Rosinda Rijos gave viewers the tip that for best traction they should "walk in the grass and wear tennis shoes." The people who put together this kind of stuff really have a pretty low estimation of our intelligence, don't they?

Maybe we shouldn't be so critical. All four network affiliates provided engaging footage of the human drama brought on by the freezing temperatures. Even for viewers skeptical of the severity of this so-called winter onslaught, television's crisis-mode climate coverage was 10 times more engaging than the most dysfunctional mother-seduces-daughter's-boyfriend talk show guest whose appearance the bad weather had preempted. This all-day storm analysis was amazingly entertaining. And, these days, local TV news rarely aspires to much loftier standards.

Less than an inch of ice? A scant 20 minutes worth of sleet and snow? While the early February media blizzard far surpassed Mother Nature's version of the same, hundreds of local drivers might argue that Austin's electronic media was wholly inadequate in warning them of the quickly deteriorating road conditions. With the ridiculously slow response time of the state highway department in dealing with this kind of situation, the total number of automobile collisions might have doubled had conditions been any worse. Or tripled. Or even quadrupled.

And yet, it might be hard to believe given the complete onslaught of wall-to-wall media attention generated by early February's isolated snow flurries, but the weather could have been a heck of a lot worse. Consider Oregon right now.

Oh, to be in Portland... such is the stuff of dreams for a T.V. weather seer. In our fair city, television news rooms will have to wait a long time for another shining day in the muck. n

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