Foul Weather Friend

Neither rain nor wind nor common sense will keep Maryland-born weather freak Mike Seidel from being the 'I' of any storm he can cover.

September 06, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - As he stands in the abandoned street, his feet about shoulders' width apart for reinforcement, the man in the bright blue golf shirt seems not to notice his straw-colored hair spiraling from his forehead in the rising tropical gusts. It's Friday night, the monstrosity known as Hurricane Frances is gathering force above the Atlantic Ocean 80 miles east of here, and Mike Seidel, on-camera meteorologist, is bracing himself.

"If you can't stay focused for an event like this," he says through the swirling winds, "you're really in the wrong business."

As millions of American weather buffs know, Seidel's business is meteorology. The 48-year-old Salisbury, Md., native, one of the most recognizable faces on cable television's The Weather Channel, has been braving "events" like blizzards and tropical depressions on the air for nearly 13 years now, establishing along the way an indelible reputation as the guy in Gore-Tex who can expound on hurricane "eyewalls" and tropical-storm rain bands even as those conditions are pounding him as if he were a one-man sea wall.

"I've been lucky; I haven't been in truly dangerous conditions too often," says the man who was once, famously, blown right out of the arms of NBC anchorman Brian Williams during Hurricane Isabel. "We won't jeopardize our equipment, our crews, our satellite feed. But we do get as close to the action as we can."

Tonight, that's pretty close. Just behind him, across empty Flagler Avenue in West Palm, whitecaps are forming in the Intracoastal Waterway, the normally placid canal system that runs the length of the East Coast. Out in the darkness churns Frances, a mass of swirling wind and rain the size of Texas that will assault this state for the next several days.

Right now, though, no one quite knows when it will roar ashore, but the town has been evacuated and boarded up for two full days. Seidel, his small crew and a rented satellite truck have it almost to themselves. A TV spotlight, lashed to a lamppost, rattles in swirling wind as he sets up for his next shot. It will be one of dozens he'll record tonight before his 18-hour day is over.

"Thank God for adrenaline," he says, almost giddily.

Then suddenly, his polished broadcaster's voice knifes through the darkness. "It's breezy but dry here during the calm before the storm," he proclaims into the camera. "The streets are deserted in West Palm, where a curfew is in effect. ... Like millions across the Sunshine State, we're hunkered down here, anticipating the arrival of Hurricane Frances.

"All there is to do for now is watch and wait."

A weathercaster is several people in one - scientist, salesman, actor - and for most, it takes time for favorable career conditions to develop. Seidel's coalesced over the past 40 years, slowly and surely, like the ingredients of Hurricane Frances.

He can't say what exactly grabbed him about the weather - "just one of those innate interests," he says with a shrug - but it grabbed him early. He remembers gazing out the window at snowfalls at the age of 6, making up storm charts by 7 and reading all the weather books he could get his hands on in school. At Salisbury State, he majored in math and geography, then went on to a master's at the Harvard of meteorology, Penn State University.

A string of part-time radio and TV gigs, including stints as a Top 40 deejay, helped him develop his on-the-air chops and sharpen a deep voice that sounds made for broadcasting.

"I made my first TV appearance at 16," he says proudly. "It was like a minute long. It was a weather forecast."

Seidel's Salisbury roots run deep. His brother Hank, sister Jenny and wife, Christine, all got degrees from Salisbury State, and his parents endowed the college's school of education. "I'll always be an Eastern Shore boy," he says.

But his Weather Channel work has made the adopted Atlantan a perpetual American traveler. Last year it took him away from Christine and their two children - first-grader Sam and Zoe, 2 - to cover snow activity in Maryland, New York and Colorado and a variety of summer storms across the South and the Southeast. He was on the road for 25 days in January alone.

He says he travels more than anyone else on the network's staff, which includes veteran meteorologists Jim Cantore and Stephanie Abrams and anchor Paul Goodloe. "I love studio work, too, but when something happens," he says, "I'm the first one out the door."

Travelers often recognize him - "I think it's the [Weather Channel] poncho," he says - and enjoy basking in his idiosyncratic celebrity, but they also hate to see him coming.

"They'll say, `Hey, you're not on your way to my town, are you?" he says, laughing. "I mean, I like these weather events, but it's not like I bring them myself."

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