Before They Were Meteorologists

Watching the Hurricane Ida coverage remined me that long before they were called “meteorologists,” the people who forecast the weather on TV were known simply as “weathermen.” In New Orleans the first and best known of the climate watchers was Nash Roberts who started with WDSU TV, Ch. 6, in 1951, back when it was the only station in town. He had a long career that eventually took him to channels Four and Eight, as well. Roberts’ name became such a brand for weather reporting that eventually his brother, Ep, and son, Nash Jr. were on TV too, as though the Roberts family controlled the clouds.

On most days the weather is usually routine. (Mark this down: Here is my personal prediction of tomorrow’s weather: partly cloudy and mild with the possibility of scattered afternoon thundershowers.) But then there are those worrisome moments when nothing is more important than the weather news. Will it rain on Mardi Gras? What’s Christmas going to be like? How about that system forming in the Gulf?

Roberts did not have the sophisticated technology that the weather folks have today; there was no Doppler radar, no satellite imagery, and when a hurricane was approaching, little was known about wind shear or the effect that the mountains in Puerto Rico might have.

Weathermen of his day relied largely on information from nearby weather stations reporting on various disturbances and their direction. It was up to them to interpret the data. Roberts proved to be very good at that and wowed the TV audiences with his near-exact predictions of the track of two of the major nemesis storms – Betsy (1965) and Camille (1969.) He did so without the benefit of computerized graphics, but simply a board pad and a grease pen upon which he would draw the various tracks and countervailing systems.

Known for his accuracy, one of his greatest moments was in 1998. Most of the local forecasters predicted that Hurricane Georges would barrel down and head directly for New Orleans. Roberts, on the other hand, accurately saw the possibility of a small pressure ridge intervening and (like a cue ball knocking an eight ball) turning Georges to the east. Great news for New Orleans, not so good for Biloxi.

By 2005 as Katrina roared, Roberts, who had retired in 2001, made only a brief TV appearance. He represented the pioneering days of TV meteorology, but enhanced oceanography, graphics and the new technology would be telling the story from now on.

Among the chroniclers of the New Orleans Carnival, one story in particular should survive. In addition to his TV title, Roberts was also the Rex organization’s “Royal Meteorologist.” One year that title was called into action. The weather for Mardi Gras looked awful, with rain throughout the day. Asked what to do by Rex’s captain, Roberts consulted his charts, did his figuring and then pin-pointed a certain moment. He told the Captain that there might be a break in the weather and if the parade could leave exactly at that time and move at regular speed, they might make it. Whistles began to blow, the riders loaded the floats and at the appointed time the doors of the Rex den opened to the world. Through them came Rex and his masked constituency. At that moment the rain stopped. The parade continued its circuitous route onto St. Charles and then Canal street with appropriate toasting along the way. Finally, the parade reached the unloading zone. And, as the story is told, right as the last float reached its destination the downpour started again.

Thanks to Nash Roberts, Rex had had a rainless reign. And wind shear was never a factor.

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