As we all keep our eyes on Idalia, there is probably one local meteorologist we’re turning to for the latest updates – you know, “the Rule #7 guy with the suspenders”.
He recently talked to us about what to expect for this year, how you can prepare and ease your kids’ minds, and why “Rule #7,” has become a household catchphrase.
Be sure to watch Denis on ABC Action News and follow him on Facebook for continuous updates and live videos.
- Hurricane related school closures in Tampa Bay
- How to create a hurricane kit and find out if you live in an evacuation zone
*Portions of this interview were pulled from the June 2023 issue and June 2022 issues of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.
People can get overwhelmed by the cone and overall visual area of the storm. What exactly should we be focusing on?
Denis Phillps: People are going to look in the middle. You realize that the areas to the right or the left of the center are lower. Odds are they are. We know that the middle is where the center is, so that’s probably where it’s going to go.
I do think the important message is … when you have a storm coming in from the East Coast, it’s not going to give us a water issue. Usually, it’s just going to be more of a wind issue, and by the time it goes across the state, it’s going to be a lot. So, an east coast storm is never really a storm that we’re going to be nearly as concerned about as we would be with one coming in from the south or the west.
The problem with the track coming in from the south is it requires a pretty sharp turn for it to come into our area. But the problem is—just a little subtle change in track when it’s down around Cuba ends up being a 300- or 400-mile difference by the time it gets into the north.
So, in looking at these forecast tracks, you truly need to look at the entire cone when you’re talking about a storm in the Gulf of Mexico coming in from the South. When you’re looking at a storm coming in from the Gulf, you really, truly have to prepare just as much.
All three of those storms we’ve talked about … every single one of them had a Category 4 hurricane going directly into Tampa Bay or within the Bay Area, and all three were at least two hours south of us. Because it takes so long for them to make that change, by the time they make that turn, it’s too late to do anything, and that’s what happened with Fort Myers folks. They were expecting this storm to be more to Tampa.
There are so many different models to look at when tracking a hurricane and the “spaghetti model” images can get confusing. What’s the best one to follow?
Denis Phillips: The problem with models is they’re just mathematical formulas. That’s all they are. Sometimes the models get on runs like you do at the craps tables in Vegas and you just keep winning over and over again because, for whatever reason, it’s really seeing the atmosphere very clearly. At that point, it’s like when you’re playing baseball and you’re on a hot streak.
The ball looks like a beach ball. That you just can’t miss it. There are other times when you’re in a slump and no matter what you do, you’re not going to get it right. And the problem nowadays is there’s so much information out there on social media that for the average person, it’s going to be confusing because there’s just too much.
I rarely tell people to look at models and try to determine where a storm’s going to go because the models do drastically change so quickly.
The majority of the time, when the Hurricane Center is putting a forecast together … what they’ll do is use what they call a blend of those two models, and that pretty much just means they average the two out and wherever the middle is, is what they go with. As it gets closer, at that point, you’re using more accurate information; you’re using more science-driven data.
How can we help ease the minds of newcomers to Florida or friends and family who are out of state?
Denis Phillips: We know that during hurricane season, The Weather Channel and other national media sources say, ‘You better run’ and friends and family up north are calling and asking why you haven’t evacuated. At the end of the day, the local channels and the local meteorologists know the geography.
They know the sub-climates; they know the little things that happen in their local area.
And The Weather Channel just can’t know that because they don’t know the little subtleties of those areas. So, you have got to tell your family and your friends up north to follow whoever it is that you follow on a local scale, and that honestly is the way to keep your sanity.
What would you say to someone who’s new to the area and this is their very first hurricane season?
Denis Phillips: It’s all about preparation. You don’t want to be the person that, two days out, is heading to Home Depot or Lowe’s and trying to get plywood or supplies.
I think anybody who’s lived here for a long time knows that once we get a couple of days out, it’s almost impossible to get supplies. Hurricane season starts in early June, and that’s really when you should start putting together a plan. Whether it’s a gallon of water per person, per day, whether it’s LED lights, or whether it’s an extra charger for your phone.
I mean all those things kind of come together, and if you have them in advance, they might come in handy if we lose power during a thunderstorm. But clearly, for a prolonged power outage, you want to have the supplies in advance, because again, trying to get it done last minute, it’s almost impossible around here.
I get it – lot of folks procrastinate and a lot of folks are going to wait, but again, it’s just one less thing on your mind, because when you see a storm coming in, the panic factor increases by tenfold and you’re trying to keep your head on straight.
Knowing what you’ll need and what you won’t – it’s just a lot easier to have it done in advance. There are plenty of hurricane kit checklists and whatnot out there so you can pretty much have a good idea of what you need for your family.
Is there anything we should wait on doing until we know for sure a storm is heading our way?
Denis Phillips: Honestly, the only thing that you might want to wait on is obviously trying to get hotel reservations prior to when a storm makes landfall.
Anybody who went through Irma who tried to get a hotel if they waited two or three days out had to drive to Atlanta because those are some of the closest hotels. I mean, it’s pretty much impossible if you wait that far out.
But honestly, the kits and the preps should pretty much be done by June 1st.
What do you personally do to prepare your family for hurricane season?
Denis Phillips: We have a kit in advance. We also have a generator. I know some folks can afford generators, and some can’t. The most important thing to remember EVER if you’re going to have a generator is after a storm, if you’re out of power, you never ever want to use that generator in your garage or anywhere in your house.
It’s got to be outside because unfortunately, every single time there’s a hurricane, we hear about people who lose their lives from carbon monoxide poisoning. It just happens, and it’s tragic. It doesn’t have to happen.
For my family personally, we get everything done in advance. We have our LED lights, we have our first aid kits, we have our water.
We pretty much have it all ready because once there’s a storm coming near us, I certainly will be the person who will be at work for days on end and I won’t be able to be with my family.
So, if they’re not evacuating, if they’re just staying put because the situation warrants, I want to make sure that they’re safe as well.
Check out Denis’s personal hurricane preparedness list here.
What advice do you have for people who want to evacuate?
Denis Phillips: It really varies on the storm. It depends on if it’s coming in from the west or if it’s coming in from the east. Each one of them is very different and there’s not even a ballpark idea because it all depends on the intensity, the track, and what the expectations are in terms of damage, power outages, and whatnot.
The old adage is that you hide from the wind, and you run from the water. So, living in an area in which we do where traffic is really challenging to get around on any given day, throw in the fact that everybody is evacuating and trying to get out of this area, there will be gas stations that’ll be closed, there will be breakdowns, and there will be accidents. It’s borderline impossible sometimes to evacuate if you’re waiting any less than 36 hours.
A lot of times emergency operation folks are saying, ‘You know what? We’d rather you stay put in your house than be stuck out on the road.’
You know the adage – if you can hunker down and manage the winds because they’re not going to be at such a level that they’re expecting structural damage to your home, then you probably want to stay put. But if you’re in a flood zone or you’re in an area where surge is going to be an issue, that’s by far the biggest concern.
I mean, you can’t get away from water. You can hide from the wind, but you cannot hide from the water. It’s important that every single person out there knows their flood zone.
It’s just one of those things that you’ve got to know, and those flood zones are changing.
It’s important to remember that maybe somebody looked at a map 10 years ago and they’re like, ‘OK, we’re not in a flood zone,’ and then they look now, and they might be. It’s important that every year you look and see, not just for insurance reasons, but for your personal safety if you’re in an area that is prone to flooding and there’s a sizable hurricane coming in.
I think a lot of folks dismiss tropical storms or even minimal hurricanes because they don’t think they’re going to do a lot of damage. Usually, they don’t.
But if you remember Eta a couple of years ago, it was a tropical storm late in the year and there were people who had water in their houses that had never had water in their house before.
So, it’s just one of those things that you must decide for each individual storm, what the best course of action is for you, and most of that depends on just how strong that storm really is.
What would be your best advice for parents to talk to their kids about the storm to make it as easy for them to get through?
Denis Phillips: The thing that I always tell people with kids is look, hurricanes are scary, but to me, tornadoes are even more scary. Because with tornadoes, you don’t have a lot of time to see them coming. We don’t get those kinds of tornadoes here in Florida.
When you’re talking about a hurricane, you see it coming days in advance. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s all about having that plan, and I always tell kids ‘Look, if your parents are told to evacuate, they’re going to evacuate.
They’re going to go to a place of safety and then after the storm hits, they come back. And if there’s anything that needs to be done to clean up, they’ll do it.’
But at the end of the day, everybody’s safe and there’s no excuse for anybody to get hurt when a hurricane’s coming, and I tell the kids ‘Trust your parents. Trust them that they’re going to do the right things. They’re going to leave if they’re told to, and everybody is going to be fine.’
Let’s talk about your famous catchphrase, ‘Rule #7.’
Denis Phillips: It started back in 2012 when the RNC, the Republican National Convention, was in Tampa and we had a hurricane coming this way – Isaac – and I was confident that that storm was going to be a near miss, that we would have some strong, winds and some minor issues, but it wasn’t going to be a huge deal. Everybody was freaking out for obvious reasons.
We had a ton of people coming into the area and whatnot, and they didn’t know what to do and I just jotted down these rules like ‘know the margin of error, how a hurricane can be well over 300 miles off track so don’t center your attention on the middle,’ and several other things.
The last one was ‘Just don’t freak out unless I’m freaking out. We’re fine.’ I was talking about that one particular storm and somehow it just kind of became a thing and now I tell people when the storm is coming, it’s ‘rule #7.’
I also think it’s important to remember because even if we are in the track of a storm – even a significant storm – the rules are still the same. Don’t freak out. Because there’s no way in the world you’re going to be able to make the kind of decisions you need to make for your family if you’re freaking out.
So that’s why we always say it’s always best to have your plan well beforehand, because when you do that, it isn’t a matter of thinking, ‘Do I need this? Do I need that?’ It’s a matter of going through the checklist and saying ‘I’ve got this’ and then making the best decision for your family.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve watched national media sources and I heard the loud bump music and the ‘boom, boom, boom’ sounds and I’m having heart concerns after 15 seconds of watching it because I get freaked out.
I think I’ve learned that people don’t want to be scared. They don’t want to be given hype and fear. Because in my mind, how do you build trust when you’re trying to scare people?
So, my goal is to try to reassure people. I mean, you got to be a straight shooter. If something is coming this way, and it’s a real threat, you’ve got to let them know.
But at the same time, I think you do need to remind people that it isn’t always the worst-case scenario that happens, and it seems like a lot of the national sources always focus on the worst case when most of the time, that’s not what happens. It’s something in between.
Honestly, I don’t think there’s anyone who knows a local region better than the local meteorologists. We might know the little subtleties in the area, like certain areas may flood more than someplace else, whereas the Hurricane Center, it’s their job is to give a more of a broader brush, larger scale forecast.
I think the local meteorologists are really the ones who break it down to the neighborhood.
So, give them some hope, hold their hand, get them through the storm, and I think you develop more of a long-term viewership that way as opposed to just selling fear.
Why do you think Tampa Bay has dodged the last few major storms heading our way? Is there a scientific reason or pure luck?
Denis Phillips: Some people think it’s the Indian burial grounds. At this point, I’m like “is it really?” Some people think it’s Saint Nicholas. The folks in Tarpon Springs pray to Saint Nicholas to keep them safe at the end of the day. I’ll say something that probably sounds a little odd, but I truly believe it. First of all, yes, we are going to get another major hurricane. There’s no way around it. We are absolutely going to get another one. It’s been 102 years since the last major hurricane to hit the Bay Area, and that’s the one that took Hog Island and cut it in half, and we now have Honeymoon Island in Caladesi. That shows you just how strong these storms actually are.
But you really can make the argument that the Bay Area directly is not necessarily in a hurricane prone area, and I’ll tell you why. Our worst case scenario is a storm that comes from the South. It misses Cuba on the left, and it misses the Yucatan on the right. It comes directly up from the South and eventually turns into the West Coast of Florida. Well, hurricanes want to go north. Hurricanes are driven forward toward the poles, so a storm that’s coming in from that exact area. Wants to go into the Panhandle, which, by the way, is why the Panhandle gets way more storms than we do.
So, what would cause the storm to make a right turn and go into the West Coast of Florida? It’s going to be a front, it’s going to be a cold front. How many cold fronts do we get in June, July, August, or September? We don’t. The last major hurricane to hit our area was October 20th, 1921. And that was when a cold front came down.
The reason that it’s so difficult is because there has to be either a tropical pressure or a front come down at the exact time that a storm that’s coming in from the South and push it in such a way that it’s going to drive it right into Central Florida. Now the fact that we’ve been that we’ve missed the last three, that is luck. We knew it was going to turn, but the question is, does it turn in the Big Bend area? Does it turn in the Tampa Bay area? Does it turn in Southwest Florida? We in the last 20 years have been fortunate in our area.
It is just pure luck. That’s all that is. I don’t know of any meteorological phenomenon that would be out ther that would make it more likely for a storm to turn that soon.
Catch Denis weekdays on WFTS-ABC Action News and follow him on Facebook for up-to-date weather info.
Featured image credit: WFTS-ABC Action News