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In the Eye of the Storm

As the Weather Channel's chief hurricane tracker, Jim Cantore is usually at the center of the action—just the way he likes it.
Gaspar González
From the Print Edition:
Jim Belushi, November/December 2010

(continued from page 1)

It's not the way you normally picture Dr. Doom. Dressed in a shirt and tie, sitting at a desk, staring into a computer monitor. The face is familiar, as is the shaved head and the chiseled profile that wouldn't look out of place on an ancient Roman coin. But there's something missing: the rain jacket and cap combo that makes him a dead ringer for Bruce Willis in Unbreakable, not to mention the wind gusts, pelting rain and the sight of the ocean rearing up behind him, getting ready to gallop onto shore. That's how most people are used to seeing Jim Cantore, the Weather Channel's most recognizable on-air personality. For almost 20 years, he's been at the scene of almost every major hurricane to hit the United States. Andrew. Ivan. Katrina. Hence the Dr. Doom tag.

But it's August and the tropics are only now beginning to heat up, so Cantore is in the studio, preparing his computer graphics for the nightly show he co-anchors with Alexandra Steele. To a casual observer, the screen looks like what you'd normally see on your nightly network weathercast, but to Cantore it contains all the action and drama of a great, never-ending novel. Told that Hurricane Danielle, still somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic, has been downgraded to a tropical storm, Cantore's head jerks up. "A tropical storm? How can that be? It was over a hundred miles [per hour] yesterday!" Then his gaze shifts back to the screen. He studies it some more. He's convinced Danielle will re-intensify and track to the north-northwest. "It looks like I might be in Bermuda in a few days," he says. (The storm eventually passed east of the island as a Category 2 hurricane, but because it never threatened land, Cantore didn't cover it.)

In an age of TV personalities playacting at being serious journalists, Cantore comes off as the real thing, intensely passionate about what he does, committed to knowing the science of weather, with surprisingly little patience for the entertainment side of the business. "It's the weather, bro," he says, using one of his favorite forms of address. "Global warming, blizzards, hurricanes. You don't have to hype it."

Cantore was raised in White River Junction, Vermont, and learned at a young age that Mark Twain was right. If you don't like the weather in New England, all you have to do is wait a few minutes. Fall foliage, snowstorms, northeasters: Cantore's love of the outdoors-and sports-kept him in the middle of it all. "I played baseball, football and hockey," says the 46-year-old, who still has the compact, muscled build of a fullback.

He got the only career advice he'd ever need from his father. "Senior year of high school, I'm sitting at the kitchen table, and my Dad says, ‘What are you going to do with your life?' " remembers Cantore, who didn't really have an answer for his old man. "So he says, ‘Why don't you study weather?' You're a freak for snow, waiting for the first snowfall of the season, running out to shovel the walk for your Mom.' " Cantore smiles. "That's one of those great moments with your Dad."

Cantore, the oldest of four adopted children, went to Lyndon State College, only 70 miles away, because it was "close to Mom's home cooking." After graduating in 1986, he headed to Atlanta and his first job with a four-year-old start-up cable channel that was trying to do for weather what Ted Turner and CNN had done for news: turn it into a 24-hour television event. "I call the Weather Channel ‘The Little Engine That Could,' " says Cantore, recalling the bare-bones programming of those early days. "I used to show maps and talk for 25 minutes out of every hour, four hours a night. That's 100 minutes of talking in front of a map every day." After a few years of that, Cantore was ready to "go out and play."

The only problem was that he was still learning his job. "When I got to the Weather Channel, I didn't know shit about the tropics," he confesses. But he applied himself. "I think it comes from being a competitive athlete as a kid," says Cantore. "I just want to get better all the time and, with weather, that might help save a life." So he watched and listened and learned.

By the time Hurricane Andrew was churning over the Atlantic in 1992, the young meteorologist felt confident enough in his forecasting skills to predict the storm's future track. When he got off the air, a colleague called him over and told him he had Bob Sheets, at the time the director of the National Hurricane Center, on the phone. "I was, like, 'Get out of here,'" says Cantore. "But when I get on the phone, it really was him. He says, ‘Did you just extend the forecast out 72 hours and say that Andrew was going to make landfall somewhere between Miami and the Carolinas?' " Cantore told him he had. ‘Don't ever do that again,' " he recalls Sheets yelling at him. " ‘I've had every emergency manager from the Carolinas down calling me!' " Noting that he's telling that story on the 18th anniversary of Andrew devastating much of South Miami-Dade County-it was one of the most powerful storms ever to make landfall in the U.S.- Cantore concludes, "I knew that day that people were listening, and that my tropical updates didn't suck."

And he would soon get his wish to go out and play. After hitting South Florida as a monster Category 5 hurricane, Andrew, still a powerful Cat 3, made a right-hand turn in the Gulf of Mexico and shot up toward the Louisiana coast. Cantore and a crew were sent to cover the second landfall. "It was 3 a.m. and the storm blew my AC unit into my room-and we were on the 15th floor," Cantore remembers. "I woke up my producer and said, ‘We're going live!'"

That broadcast proved to be Cantore's first as an on-the-spot storm tracker. It also coincided with his first smoke. No surprise to hear it was the old postmaster who introduced him to cigars and, for that matter, the pleasures of Scotch. "My Dad is a Scotch drinker and one night he offered me some," says Cantore. "He knows I'm not a big fan, so he says, ‘Here, it'll taste better with a cigar.' And it did. I think it was a Macanudo; that was my first one." He was 28, and his career was just beginning to pick up speed.

"He's the face of hurricanes," says Weather Channel producer Howard Sappington. "And hurricane season draws our biggest audience." That combination-the Atlantic pitching tightly packed haymakers at the U.S. coastline and Cantore standing out on the beach, telling the rest of us to take cover-has earned Cantore fans all over the country. Though it did take him a while to realize a meteorologist could have that effect on people. It first hit him in 1998, when he was standing on a beach in North Carolina, head down, taking notes, waiting to go on the air. "Just then," recalls Cantore, "my producer says to me, ‘We're going to have to move some of these people.' I have no idea what he's talking about, so I turn around and there are 400 people standing behind me. I felt like a rock star."

Cantore's appeal isn't lost on his coworkers. "He's got a passion for the weather and people identify with him," says Michelle Birnbaum, a producer at the channel. "Men want to be his friend, women think he's hot and kids kind of look up to him. I've seen a family wait four hours in a storm for an autograph."

Sappington has a name for the kind of adulation Cantore inspires. "I call it the X-factor," says the producer, making the symbol by crossing his arms in front of his face. "When you're with Cantore, you never know what to expect." An example? "We were covering Hurricane Dennis in Pensacola [in 2005] and we kept going into this Greek restaurant for lunch. After the storm, there was no power, but this Greek guy had a gas stove, so he invited us back and cooked filet mignon and lobster for 15 of our crew. We had a feast. That's the X-factor."

Everybody at the Weather Channel, it seems, has an X-factor story. Meteorologist Chris Warren: "We had just covered a storm in North Carolina and were driving back to the airport when we stopped at a Taco Bell. As we're leaving, the manager runs in the back and brings Cantore this cake and says, ‘Here, this is for you.' Where did he get a cake? They don't serve cake!" Producer Jim Gagne: " We're walking out of a restaurant in Barrow, Alaska—which is the northernmost city in the United States—and a guy yells, ‘Hey, Jim Cantore!' How does that happen? I don't even think they have TV there."

Cantore is quick to deflect much of the attention he receives. He shrugs off his hurricane-superman persona—"I've never been out in a 100-mile-an-hour wind; a satellite truck can't broadcast under those conditions"— and insists that, for all the focus on him, his job description remains pretty simple: get people out of harm's way.

It's a principle Cantore takes seriously. When Hurricane Katrina was rolling toward the Gulf Coast in 2005, Cantore was sent to Gulfport, Mississippi, to ride out the storm and report on it. He looked for the highest elevation he could find. He was told the Armed Forces Retirement Home was 27 feet above sea level. That estimate proved to be about seven feet too optimistic. "All of a sudden, there's three feet of water—and climbing—in the parking lot," says Cantore. "Cars are starting to look like bobbers. I thought a drain had backed up, but it was the storm surge. I couldn't believe it." The worst realization was yet to come. The surge was going to overtake the bottom floor of the retirement home. "All of a sudden, it wasn't about TV anymore," he says. "It was about getting people and beds upstairs. Ever pick up one of those wheelchairs with the battery pack and carry it up a flight of stairs? Dude..."

That was a rough season for Cantore, and not just because of the unprecedented havoc caused by Katrina. While he was on the road, his home life was falling apart. He'd been married since 1990 to Tamra, a petite blonde he'd met at the Weather Channel. They had two kids; Christina, born in 1993, and Ben, in 1995. They were, in many ways, a model family. The father, handsome and strong; mom, loving and caring. One day in 1997, Tamra complained that she couldn't keep her arms from shaking. She went to the doctor, and got hit with a Cat 5 diagnosis. She was suffering from early onset Parkinson's, the same disease that afflicts the actor Michael J. Fox. "Can you imagine a snippet of your life taken away every day, [like] losing the ability to tie your shoes?" Cantore asks.

Around the same time, the couple had noticed that 18-month-old Ben wasn't developing as quickly as other children his age. He wasn't walking yet, and could barely form words. Like most parents, they told themselves it didn't necessarily mean anything, but better to get it checked out. The verdict on Ben came back equally distressing. The child had Fragile X Syndrome, a form of inherited mental impairment caused by a defect in the FMR1 gene on the X chromosome.

More tests confirmed that Ben's sister Christina also had the condition. It hadn't been detected in her previously because, with girls, who essentially have a spare X, the disease tends to manifest itself in more subtle ways: attention deficit disorder, shyness, inability to make eye contact. In boys, it usually takes a more severe form resembling autism.

Cantore became the family's primary caregiver. When he was in town, he drove the kids to doctors' appointments, did laundry, ran errands. When he wasn't home, he suffered silently. "I kept it private for many years," says Cantore, "but it was good to come out with it. It was good for me, good for them." He gave the story to a newspaper reporter in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 2004. But talking about it couldn't save the marriage. The strain just got to be too much.

"I like to be in control of everything," says Cantore, "but I found out I can't control everything." It's been a humbling lesson, and a tough one. "People ask me if I'm ever afraid out there [on assignment] and I say no, the only storm that scares me is the Fragile X storm," he confides. "Both the kids go to school. Christy is doing well. Ben will need to be supervised all of his life. That's the storm that never ends."
Cantore, who is involved in charitable work on behalf of both Parkinson's and Fragile X research, says his relationship with his ex-wife and kids is good: "I have to be there for them, help out however I can." Then he takes a long pause. "You know, if I could trade everything I've done..." It's not a sentence he needs to finish.

His busy work schedule has been a blessing, giving Cantore something else on which to concentrate. In addition to his five-night-a-week show and his remote broadcasts, he hosts two series-"Storm Stories," which premiered in 2003 and revisits intense weather events, and "Cantore Stories," which began airing in early 2010. The latter is a favorite project of his, taking him to extreme weather destinations—like Barrow, Alaska, or Key West, Florida—when there isn't some catastrophe looming. "To show up on the Gulf Coast when it's really nice out and talk to the people who live there is great," says Cantore. "It gives people a chance to see a little lighter side of him," agrees executive producer Sappington. "It's not that, ‘Oh no, what are you doing here' reaction he normally gets." (The Dr. Doom thing again; signs playfully imploring Cantore to get lost-and take his hurricane with him-are ubiquitous whenever a major storm threatens.)

As the face of the Weather Channel, Cantore can be seen in as many as 100 million homes, and has gained even greater exposure from NBC Universal's purchase of the Weather Channel in 2008. He's done weather reporting from the National Hockey League's annual outdoor Winter Classic game, worked as a correspondent during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver (where he discovered that, yes, Al Michaels is also a fan) and has even pinch-hit on occasion for "Today Show" weatherman Al Roker.

If it sounds like Cantore might be on the verge of going Hollywood, or at the very least standing in Rockefeller Plaza asking Justin Bieber what it is about him that makes all the girls scream, think again. "I'm the last of a dying breed," he says. "I just like doing the weather, bro."

What Cantore will do the rest of hurricane season depends on where the blips on the screen take him, but if the steering currents cut him some slack, chances are he'll point his steel gray Toyota Tacoma in the direction of the cabin he owns in the north Georgia woods. Probably take his kids. Definitely pack some cigars.

Cantore is partial to Arturo Fuente, Romeo y Julieta and Padrón's 1964 Anniversary Series ("Probably my favorite cigars right now"), but, as with his job, he doesn't mind leaving his comfort zone. Recently, a neighbor gave Cantore some candelas. "They didn't have labels on them," says the storm tracker, describing the green-leaf smokes, "but I know they were from Cuba. They were pretty good."

Since he never lights up on assignment—it's difficult to enjoy a cigar when you're standing on a beach, getting a sandblast facial courtesy of Mother Nature—the cabin has become his smoking retreat. It's also the place where he indulges his inner grill master. "Steak, chicken, fish—it doesn't matter. I'm a carnivore."

Cantore's two favorite ways to relax complement each other perfectly. "After a nice dinner," he muses, "a cigar is the grand finale to the evening." His standard ritual, enacted amid the Japanese maples he's planted at his weekend getaway, recalls that first smoke with his Dad. "I'll just grab some Macallan and a cigar," he says. "At that moment, I know the world is in harmony."

Gaspar González is a Miami-based writer and filmmaker.

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