As Hurricane Wilma grew closer to the United States in October 2005, Greg Bowman hurried to the airport and jumped on a flight. But rather than head to a safe destination hundreds or thousands of miles away, Bowman was headed right into the storm's projected path.
Bowman, AccuWeather's senior video producer, was working for CNN at the time as an editor and was hurrying to catch up with the field production unit already in place in Florida. His previous storm coverage had consisted of interviewing folks evacuating or preparing to evacuate prior to a storm. It would be the first time he was ever positioned amid a landfalling storm. And Wilma wasn't just any old storm.
Perhaps the first sign of what he was about to get into was the ample seating in the Delta flight he took from Atlanta to Naples, Florida.
"My biggest recollection was that the plane to Naples was completely empty except for me and the flight crew," Bowman said.
Wilma roared ashore in South Florida on Oct. 24, 2005, making landfall in Cape Romano, Florida. It was a Category 3 storm at the time it reached the Florida coast, the last major hurricane to strike the U.S. until Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.
Fifteen years later, the storm still holds the record for the lowest central pressure for an Atlantic hurricane. The storm's central pressure peaked at 882 millibars (26.04 inches of mercury), a record that has yet to be broken.
Even though Wilma was weaker when it struck Florida compared to its earlier period in the Caribbean as a Category 5 behemoth, it was still extremely dangerous.
Bowman distinctly recalled the night that Wilma made landfall. He was a part of the production crew that was filing live reports during the height of the storm, which was happening overnight leading into daybreak. The team was stationed at a beachfront hotel in Marco Island, roughly five stories up.
"My job was to protect the photojournalists and their gear from the elements. I remember having to walk down the outdoor stairwells (can't use elevators during a hurricane) to replace mics, batteries, etc., and feeling the force of the wind pushing against me," Bowman said.
Working conditions amid a hurricane bearing down aren't easy to put it mildly. Bowman, who was 32 at the time, said the hardest thing from his perspective was making sure all the reporters and photojournalists were safe and the equipment was dry.
"The challenging part is knowing the safest place to position the satellite truck and crew, so they can remain unharmed and on the air during the storm," he said. "I learned a lot from the seasoned producers on site as to how preparing before the storm can help prevent problems down the road."
Getting some sleep while a hurricane is knocking on your door can be challenging, too.
"I remember trying to sleep as the storm's winds began to whistle through the glass windows and doors, but it was nearly impossible," Bowman said.
When the eye of Wilma moved over land, Bowman said he recalled a scene that seemed straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
"It was still dark, so we had lights shining down onto our live location from the hotel balcony. During the calm of the eye, I remember hundreds of birds flying around, and many of them directly into our lights.
Long before the AccuWeather TV Network was launched in 2015, AccuWeather produced field reports for its website. Back in 2005, AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Joe Lundberg traveled to Fort Myers, Florida, to cover Wilma, which would end up being the first and only hurricane he would ever cover from the field during his on-camera career.
Lundberg, who has worked at AccuWeather for 30 years, was able to distinctly remember the change in atmospheric conditions before and after Wilma walloped Florida.
"I recall how tropical it felt the day before, as the south to southeastern breezes must have pushed dew points into the mid-, if not upper, 70s," Lundberg said, adding that he also remembered how "chilly" the rain felt as Wilma pulled away from Florida, leaving a trail of wreckage in its wake.
The aftermath was "devastating" the morning after Wilma, the 12th hurricane of the 2005 season, hit, Lundberg said. He and AccuWeather Videographer Vern Horst had planned to venture south but couldn't get very far due to roads being blocked.
"We were prevented from getting into Naples, as that area [farther] south was hit hard by wind and flooding as Wilma buzz-sawed through the southern part of the state at night," Lundberg said. "Where we were in Fort Myers, there was some damage -- trees down, power outages, and minor flooding, but areas around Naples into the everglades really got hit hard as I recall."
"As we drove to the Tampa airport to leave later, driving over one of the elevated bridges was nerve-wracking in the strong winds, despite the hurricane basically exiting the southeastern part of the state by then," he said.
For Horst, Wilma was just the third storm chase of his career. The first? Hurricane Katrina, just two months earlier, followed by Rita that September. By the time Wilma was approaching, he already had covered two of the most powerful hurricanes in history.
Horst used his photography background to properly capture Wilma's arrival as Lundberg reported amid the driving wind and rain. However, the way Horst positioned the camera (with the wind at his back) wasn't so much for a dramatic shot as it was an effort to protect his camera.
"Having trees and other plants whipping in the wind shows how strong the storm is," he said.
Horst said they filed hourly reports, and the way they sent the footage back to AccuWeather headquarters in State College, Pennsylvania, was a lot different than how news crews operate in 2020.
"I would record to tape and hard drive then transfer to the computer, edit and then send video clip back to HQ via cell cards or hot spots plugged into the computer," he said. "The camera was always covered in protective, waterproof gear. I used a lot of towels from the hotel to dry the camera before connecting cables. I think the hotel lost power so we used the SUV as a power source. Joe and I would jump out and do another report and hop right back in."
Lundberg, who does radio broadcasting in addition to regular forecasting work for AccuWeather, called reporting on Wilma one of the "highlights" of his on-camera career but noted it was quite a challenge broadcasting amid the driving rain and howling wind.
"There was a point at which we felt it was unsafe to report further from outside," Lundberg said. "Fortunately, that was late enough at night that it was time to get some sleep. We then resumed reporting early the next morning as the storm pulled away, but the first report was in a stinging rain. That may have been the worst."
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