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Navigating Through The Storm

November 12, 2012

Chris Walters, '01, isn't a meteorologist or even a weather geek, but it's a little hard to tell, when he talks about the Weather Channel's all-out response to hurricane Sandy.

"We had about 10 on-camera meteorologists in different locations, including one in the Appalachians where there was an interesting effect—generally you don't get snow from tropical storms," Walters said. "No one else had that."

Walters moved to the Weather Channel from Bloomberg LP six months ago to become the company's chief operating officer. He arrived just in time to witness one of the warmest winters on record and the biggest storm since hurricane Katrina. As COO, Walters oversees about half of the company's functions, including research, finance, human resources, information technology, legal, and project management.

For those at the Weather Channel, Sandy was no surprise. "We were talking about it on the air a week in advance," said the 38-year-old Walters. "Weather is inherently uncertain, but when you have great forecasting capability, you can have early warnings."

That allowed Weather Channel meteorologists and camera crews to arrive at places along the East Coast from Florida to Rhode Island well before the storm in late October.

As the storm hit, Weather Channel reporters seemed to be everywhere—standing in storm surges and struggling to stay upright in the wind. And millions were watching them on the Weather Channel's cable channel, its web site, and on mobile devices, which proved to be a crucial link with many viewers in areas when electricity went out. Weather Channel meteorologists also made frequent appearances on network TV, especially on NBC stations because the network owns a piece of the Weather Channel.

On Monday, October 29, the Weather Channel had the highest viewership of any cable network, with 46 million viewers. It also had its highest level of digital traffic. "We had 450 million page views on mobile devices, almost double our previous peak daily page views," Walters said. The network also produced 50 million streams on its weather.com web site and 14 million live streams on YouTube and weather.com. "People want the absolute most timely information," Walters added.

Back in Atlanta headquarters, Walters was working long hours. "My role is making sure our teams have everything they need to be successful so when problems arise, we're deploying resources as fast as possible." And there were problems—video feeds went down a few times, so reporters had to phone in their updates. Camera equipment went on the fritz and had to be replaced or repaired.

Capturing a storm's drama is important, but keeping employees safe is even more important, Walters said. "Our reporters and cameramen will move to different locations if the situation gets too severe. In Rhode Island as the storm surge was coming in, one of our on-camera meteorologists was telling people, 'If I’m not that close to the water, you shouldn't be.'"

The Sandy team has returned home, and Walters is tired but galvanized. "It's wonderful to have a business that touches so many people and has a higher purpose of keeping people out of harm's way." — Susan Chandler