As Opal was about to jam itself into overdrive, the rest of the world was looking elsewhere. Specifically, at a champagne victory party at O.J. Simpson’s Brentwood estate.
That distraction may have proved fatal. For in an extraordinary confluence of huge news events and lousy timing, Opal got short shrift. And without the full bore of media attention on the storm as it headed for land, one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever hit the United States blindsided the very people who should have known it was coming - the people in its path.
But the O.J. Factor wasn’t the only culprit in the publicity eclipse of this savage storm. Opal’s sudden strengthening between Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning - from a Category 2 storm with 100 mph winds to a strong Category 4 with top sustained winds of 150 mph - caught everyone by surprise, from Hurricane Center Director Bob Burpee on down.
“When I went home Tuesday evening at 6:30 p.m., the storm was much less intense, with a barometric pressure of 965 millibars,” Burpee said Wednesday morning, even as Opal was steamrolling toward the Florida Panhandle. Hurricane Andrew’s pressure at landfall was 922.
“When I got up at 5:15 a.m. and turned on The Weather Channel,” he said, “the pressure had fallen to 933. And when I got to work at 6:35 a.m., it had fallen even further to 916.”
The lower the pressure, the stronger the storm. The second most powerful hurricane of the century, Camille in 1969, dipped as low as 909.
Burpee said he immediately ordered a special advisory sent out to replace an earlier one that had referred to Opal’s “strengthening” and urged emergency workers to “rush preparations.” The emergency bulletin used two new words: “dangerous and powerful” - sobering adjectives rarely uttered around the hurricane headquarters.
By midmorning Wednesday, even as emergency officials were trying to evacuate vast stretches of the Florida, Alabama and Mississippi coasts, only a handful of reporters had shown up at the center. Normally, the place is packed to the rafters with press as big storms roll in.
Robert Pankau, a reporter with the ABC Radio Network, had been in the center covering Opal since Monday, stepping out briefly Tuesday to get OJ verdict reaction from a nearby hangout for Florida International University students. He said he was shocked that other reporters hadn’t picked up on the hurricane story Tuesday, but he understood why.
“The O.J. distraction was a major factor here,” said Pankau. “All the big news organizations had such a huge investment in that yearlong story, and they were obliged to cover its culmination aggressively. People knew this storm was coming, but the attitude was, ‘We’ll cover it when it gets closer to land.’
“Had there been no O.J., there would have been a lot of local media here Tuesday, feeding the story to the national media who eventually would have reached the public,” said Pankau. “But I sat here by myself. All day Tuesday, the forecasters were asking me, ‘Where’s the media? Where’s the media?”’
Without criticizing newspapers and broadcasters directly, Burpee said the center began late Tuesday trying to let local TV stations know how serious Opal had become. Local media representatives said they had been playing the Opal story hour by hour on what was an astonishingly hectic news day in the United States. The Miami Herald, for example, cleared most of its front page Wednesday for Simpson stories, running only a small box about Opal at the bottom of the page.
“I think we’ve done a very good job predicting the path of these hurricanes,” said Burpee. “But we’re not as good at determining the physical properties of their intensity and how they change. I wish we could do it better, but this is state-of-the-art.”