Through most of Friday afternoon, studio talking heads and a barrage of computer images dominated television coverage of Hurricane Charley. Meteorologists yo-yo'd the storm's track enough to tattoo it on viewers' brains. We heard about the 145 mph winds and the kind of devastation Charley could wreak. Our sense of relief over the Bay area being spared gave way to morbid curiosity.
We wanted to see the beast.
That's when WFTS-Ch. 28 reporter Don Germaise showed up on screen with footage from ground zero in Punta Gorda. A hotel roof blew off, its pieces flying like sweat casually flicked from a brow. Debris skittered across parking lots. Palm trees listed in the violent gusts. Germaise, part of the station's designated "Stormchaser" team, covered it all with wide-eyed energy, adrenaline practically dripping from his pores.
Ch. 28 was the first Bay area TV news outlet to report live from the scene; even CNN heavyweight Anderson Cooper, stuck in Tampa, was left high and dry. Germaise's scoop gave a nice boost to the station, a 10-year news operation that has remained fourth among local network affiliates in the ratings. And chances are it enhanced the career of a man already known as a feisty reporter. "Even though TV people are supposed to have giant egos, I found it a very humbling experience," Germaise said Monday morning by cell phone while heading back to Charlotte County to cover Charley's aftermath. "I got 56 e-mails from viewers, and you just don't get that kind of response from one story. But I don't consider what I did heroic. I did what any reporter would do in that situation. And I don't mind saying it: When it comes to hurricanes, I'm a sissy. When it came time, we hunkered down. We did not go out of our way to be cowboys. When it got dangerous, we got inside."
Germaise and company had been assigned to cover Charley coming up the coast. They had been in Charlotte County for a few days doing stories on storm preparations. The crew found a spot "8 or 10 feet" above Charlotte Harbor and hoped to show Bay area viewers the effects of the storm surge. "After that, we planned to break down and go north to Tampa Bay," Germaise explained. "It was just luck that it happened to come right at us."
The Ch. 28 group, including cameraman Tim Jones, parked their truck next to a building for protection. "The winds are picking up," Germaise recounted, "they're 50, 75 mph, and you think, 'Wow, this isn't too bad.' Then they get over a hundred and you think, 'Wow, this is bad. But you can still walk if you lean into the wind. Then when it gets up to 130, 140, that's when it gets scary. You absolutely have to be indoors by then.
"At one point, we were using a retaining wall at the hotel. We [later] saw huge boards blown into the area. If we'd stayed there a few minutes longer, we would've been killed. We saw stuff blowing by our heads — wood, aluminum awnings, you name it — and we knew it was time to go inside."
The Ch. 28 crew rode out the rest of the storm in a first-floor hallway of the hotel. Jones continued to shoot from a window. Unlike other news crews — Germaise remembers seeing a truck from a West Palm Beach station so damaged it was unable to broadcast — Ch. 28's equipment held and was able to beam pictures to homes in Tampa Bay.
During the 6 p.m. Sunday newscast, the station was playing the promo game, its weekend anchors gushing that no one covers a story like Don Germaise.
On Monday morning, Germaise seemed to have his scoop in perspective. "Winning the big story is important," he said. "I've been at the station for 10 years, been through the struggles of becoming a station for the first time. Every time you win a big story you win more viewers. But I don't really care about beating the big guys. I don't compare myself to them. I only compare myself to what I can do, and I know that down there I did as good a job as I can possibly do."