Jim Cantore’s passion has driven his 30 years at the Weather Channel

Weather Channel Jim Cantore then and now

Jim Cantore – then and now. CREDIT: Weather Channel screen shot

The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore once had hair. Lots of it. Video of him from the 1980s and 1990s prove it.

The joke is perhaps all those hurricane-level winds gradually blew the hair off his head.

But one thing hasn’t disappeared over the years: his deep passion for weather.

“His enthusiasm is ridiculous,” said Dale Eck, director of the Weather Channel’s Global Forecast Center, who arrived at the network just a month after Cantore in 1986 and was his supervisor for several years. “He has this X factor. He has this personality that just jumps out at you and grabs you and says, ‘You have to be as interested in this as I am!’ “

Cantore, now a morning host on “AMHQ,” recently celebrated his 30th anniversary at the network. He is effectively the face of the Weather Channel, the expert who has covered literally thousands of floods, tornados and – of course – hurricanes.

“It’s passed by real quick especially given the fact for 20 of it, I’ve travelled,” the 52-year-old New England native said. “That made it go by pretty quick. I don’t do as much of that anymore.”

Still, he was in Carrabelle, Fl. doing his thing as Hurricane Hermine hit the shores last Friday, the first hurricane to make landfall in Florida in 11 years. .

We recently visited Cantore at Weather Channel headquarters off I-75 and 285 before Hermine’s arrival. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q: How have things changed at the network over 30 years?

Cantore: The technology. You see now instead of a green wall, we’re standing in front of a big monitor, drawing on it. We can change maps in an instant, add layers.

Jim Cantore finger

Jim Cantore channeling John Madden at “AMHQ” last month. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

Q: You must feel like John Madden now.

Cantore: A little bit. It feels good doing all that. I think we have created an atmosphere to be able to show and explain weather better. We don’t always get it right but we do a much better job than when I started in 1986.

Q: What did you not have then that you have now?

Cantore: We didn’t have the high-resolution radar. We didn’t have the layers we have now to be able to see storm motion, the spin and rotation, hail size, rainfall rates. The kind of information we have now as meteorologists is really almost too much. We have so much, we don’t even have time to show it all.

Q: Is it weird to be considered the elder statesman?

Cantore: It’s good. When you’re in your fifties, you’re up there, especially in the TV world. Everyone wants newer and better and younger. Look, I got some experience. I got some know how. I have some history behind me. I feel pretty comfortable when a situation is going on.

Q: What would the 22-year-old Cantore think of the 52-year-old Cantore?

Cantore: He would be like, ‘I want to listen to that guy and pick his brain a little bit.’ When I got here, that’s what I did with people like Bill Schubert and certainly John Hope. Even as a 52-year-old, I want to talk to Dr. Greg Forbes. That’s what’s great about our scientists. We still learn off of each other. There’s no stopping a meteorological education.

Q: What do you think has kept you here for 30 years, your secret for longevity?

Cantore: Essentially when you break away the maps and pictures and people, we are a service. We are here to serve the people and prepare them and show them what happened with a particular storm. It’s very rewarding and satisfying to get up in the morning, to put your clothes on, whether it’s your field clothes, my blue jacket and rain paints or a suit and tie. It’s a wonderful feeling when you have purpose like that.

021003-LAFAYETTE, LA.-Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore (cq) broadcasts an update on hurricane Lili while bracing against the wind-driven rain Thursday morning in Lafayette, La. (BEN GRAY/STAFF)

021003-LAFAYETTE, LA.-Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore (cq) broadcasts an update on hurricane Lili while bracing against the wind-driven rain Thursday morning in Lafayette, La. (BEN GRAY/STAFF)

Q: When did you realize this was more than just being on TV telling the weather?

Cantore: It was in the 1990s. I had been doing storms for about four years out in the field. We were in North Carolina covering Dennis on Wrightsville Beach. This lady came up to me. I can just see her coming through the crowd. She had this incredible look on her face. I thought, ‘What did she want to tell me?’ She said, ‘Mr. Cantore, I know it’s going to be really bad here. I just wanted you to know I’m really thankful you are here to take us through it.’ It was like a switch. It wasn’t about being the swashbuckler anymore…It was about getting these people out of harm’s way.”

Q: Speaking of swashbuckling, there’s that famous video of you kneeing someone who just ran up to you during a live shoot. What went through your brain at that point?

Cantore: I’ve been heckled a lot. It was the year before that when I was heckled in Nebraska that I said that’s never going to happen again. I had my radar up. I just happened to see this guy out of the corner of my eye. It was just a stupid college kid.

Q: He probably did it on a dare.

Cantore: I mean, he said he’d do it again. If he does, then we’ll find some other body part for me to knee.

Q: You grew up in Vermont. I presume that’s where your love of weather started.

Cantore: Snow is my first love. It’s what I knew. Snow for nine months out of the year. If it wasn’t snowing, it was cold.  When I played a couple of seasons of high school baseball, we had to melt show and pick up chunks of snow just so we could play. That was in May.

Q: Moving down south for the Weather Channel job must have been tough.

Cantore: I”ll be honest. It was very hard coming down to the South. But over time, I learned to fall in love with it. The smell of honeysuckle. Playing softball all year around. Going to the mountains. It’s the same Appalachian mountain chain. It’s all connected.

Q: I’ve read about how your dad encouraged you to go into meteorology because he knew how much you loved the weather.

Cantore: I’m really a blue collar guy. I remember in high school, he said, ‘Why don’t you go study the weather? You leave the barn light on to catch the first flakes of winter. You stay up all night shoveling the driveway.’ He saw the freak in me. He said, ‘Look. You have to wake up every day for the next 50 years. You better love what you do.’ ” My dad was a great father. He was there for our family, for my mom, all along. I was adopted but they were totally my real parents. We had a great family. [His mother died in 2007. His father passed last year.]

Q: Did you apply for the Weather Channel job?

Cantore: I didn’t apply. A man named Ray Ban heard about me. I was painting a building. They wanted me to interview. I watched them every day… The Weather Channel was coming out of bankruptcy. They almost pulled the plug in 1984. They wanted some fresh blood and took a chance on a young kid. That was me.

Q: The drive down from Vermont I heard wasn’t all that fun, though, was it?

Cantore: I drove a Mercury Capris with no air conditioning. There was this tremendous heat wave. It was July, 1986. I drove through central North Carolina and I was dying. I wasn’t smart enough to drive at night. I could not drink enough Gatorade and water. Once I got down to Atlanta, I was literally sweating as soon as I got out of the shower. It took me seven years to acclimate. There were times covering a storm in Miami, with dead calm air, I almost passed out in the shade!

Q: What was it like in the early years?

Cantore: I started mornings for nine years. It was tough. I was up at 2:30 a.m. I would do 5 to 7 and 11. I rarely had weekends off. My social life was brutal. I loved softball. I played in competitive leagues.

Q: The Weather Channel became ubiquitous while you were there.

Cantore: We grew by leaps and bounds in the 1990s. Cable was huge. We were in more than 100 million homes. It was a great ride. We didn’t force you to pick a side. It’s non controversial. It’s snow or no snow. People found it comfortable.

Q: CNN was becoming a big deal too at the same time.

Cantore: It’s funny. So many people thought we were part of CNN since we were both based in Atlanta.

Q: The Weather Channel let you hit the road in 1992.

Cantore: It was Hurricane Andrew. Here’s this kid. He has lots of energy. They sent me out there. It was a Category 5 that hit Florida. There was a second landfall in Louisiana. Major disaster. My first experience with it. We did live shots at night. We broke down at 11 p.m., got a few hours of sleep, and were supposed to come back at 7 in the morning. My air conditioning unit on the 16th floor blows out and falls on the ground. Curtains are flapping. I’m seeing transformers blow. It looks like the Fourth of July. It looks like Beirut. We went live at 4 a.m. People woke up to that. They never left. We did constant coverage, bringing people in. That really launched it for me.

Q: You ended up really enjoying being in the heart of the disasters.

Cantore: I loved being in the middle of it. I went through tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Al., Moore, Okl. But I never witnessed devastation like I did with Katrina in Gulfport. That was the first time I dealt with smelling death and seeing death. You have to detox from that. Those were exhausting. We ran out of food. At one point, my dinner was Frosted Mini-Wheats and Cheese Whiz. We became so sleep deprived. My body almost adapted to four hours of sleep a night, doing coverage morning, all day, in the heat.

Q: Any situations where you felt truly in danger?

Cantore: Joplin was incredibly difficult. Not only was there the horror of what happened, but we had huge flooding and thunderstorms with lightning afterwards. There was a moment where I didn’t want to broadcast. It was bad. There was lightning hitting the ground. I was genuinely afraid for me and my crew. I came to find out that two police officers had been struck and killed not far from me.

Q: Have you ever been badly hurt?

Cantore: I’ve had a few bangs and bruises but nothing ever detrimental to my health. I feel responsible for my crew. I absolutely never ever want to put another man in harm’s way. During Ike in 2008, my camera man was standing under a canopy to keep things try. But it was top heavy. I felt like if it fell on him while I was on the air, I’d never forgive myself. I told them, ‘Guys! I have to stop!’ We just cut it. We didn’t have a back-up plan. We were down for a couple of hours until we found a set up in a parking garage. As mad as [headquarters] was, I can sleep at night. My guys were okay.

Q: I bet you can sleep anywhere.

Cantore: I can! I can sleep on planes. I’m rarely awake for take off for whatever reason no matter how uncomfortable the seats are.

Q: [As of this interview] There hasn’t been a major hurricane hit landfall in the Gulf in 11 years.

Cantore: It’s almost 12 years. The last one was Wilma in October, 2005. There’s been an incredible hurricane drought in the Gulf of Mexico. Statistics will catch up with themselves.

Q: Any coverage you feel could have been better in retrospect?

Cantore: You look back and I’d say we could have communicated better with Sandy. As a meteorologist, I remember spending so much time explaining why this was going to be purely tropical when it came in. I lost sight of the three-foot blizzard in West Virginia and the storm surge on the Jersey Shore. We have to focus on the impacts. We have to find a way in the enterprise to come up with a succinct message that relays the amount of urgency we need whether a storm has a name or not.

Q: How did you handle our very own Snow Jam here in Atlanta right in your backyard [in 2014]?

Cantore: I chose to be in Charleston. I watched the whole thing develop from afar. Atlanta had very poor planning institutionally. With a city like Atlanta that is incredibly poorly engineered, you cannot have millions of people hit the road at the same time. We have no outer loops, no way to redirect… I understand. Shutting a city down can cost a lot of money. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure when making those decisions. And you could very well be wrong. But I think it’s well worth the potential risk. I think the Governor and Mayor have worked hard since then regarding snow events.

Q: How does the Weather Channel compete with its own app?

Cantore: It’s apples and oranges. My opinion is nothing beats a real person giving you the ins and outs, the play by play. How does this tornado threaten your town? You’ll see live pictures. Look. I know on a sunny day, the app is useful. It’s personalized, right there when you need it. But when the game’s on the line, I think you still got to get TV the ball.

Q: What do you think of some of the low-budget rivals to the Weather Channel?

Cantore: They charge very small fees for subscribers. Some people think weather is weather. I will still say with 100 percent confidence we do it the best. We have the best array of experts in the field right there when the game’s on the line.

Q: How about the future?

Cantore; I think it will be interesting, even challenging for us is using social media to bring people back to TV. Being part of social. Facebook Live is great. I did one in St. Louis and reached 100,000. It’s a tremendous shift. People will watch on their phones.

Q: Hate to do this but when did you decide to just shave your head?

Cantore chuckled: It’s amazing when I look back at pictures as I lost my hair. I started looking awful. In 2005, I was covering Katrina and I knew I wouldn’t be anywhere to get my hair trimmed. So I just shaved what I had left down. To hell with it! Fortunately, I think I look okay with a bald head. It happens to be more cool!

Jim Cantore with the beard in August, 2016. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

Jim Cantore with the beard in August, 2016. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

Q: And now you’ve started to grow a little beard.

Cantore: When I shave my chin, it gets very irritated. I have dry skin. I probably don’t drink enough water. It’s nicer to just leave it. I like it. I like having a place I can grow hair again. I’ve earned it!

Q: How much longer would you like to do this?

Cantore: It’s been a great ride. It’d be great to get another 10 years out of this thing.

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Friday, September 2, 2016

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2 comments
Heath Harvey
Heath Harvey

Last night covering Hermine, Cantore was WIRED! He sounded like he'd had a triple espresso.