Dan Rather Showed the First Radar Image of a Hurricane on TV

... And he may have saved thousands of lives in the process.

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Hurricane Carla in September 1961, its eye visible on the Galveston WSR 57 radar. This was the first hurricane on radar to be broadcast on television. (via Dan Satterfield)

It was early September of 1961, and Hurricane Carla was making its way toward the Texas coast. Television stations, back then, didn't have the radar systems for storm forecasting so familiar to us today, which meant that the public at large didn't have a strong sense of a storm's path or strength until they were actually in it. So when Carla came raging toward Galveston Island, Texas, people were staying put -- despite evacuation orders from the U.S. Weather Bureau.

A young reporter, native to Texas but new to TV, had a hunch that the storm would be big. But he wasn't sure how to prove it. So the reporter turned to technology: He took a camera crew to the U.S. Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) office in downtown Galveston, which featured a cutting-edge WSR-57 radar console. Seeing the size of the coming storm, he convinced the bureau staff to let him broadcast, live, from the office. And he asked a Weather Bureau meteorologist to draw him a rough outline of the Gulf of Mexico on a transparent sheet of plastic; during the broadcast, he held that drawing over the computer's black-and-white radar display to give his audience a sense both of Carla's size and of the location of the storm's eye. As CBS plugged into the broadcast, that audience suddenly became a national one. 

With that, Dan Rather "literally changed the way the world sees hurricanes," a fellow Texas TV reporter put it earlier this year

And that is not overstating the case. When Rather aired his broadcast, radar existed; maps existed; but radar superimposed on maps did not. Rather hacked himself a new way of reporting, right in front of people's eyes. His MacGyvered broadcast was the first ever display of a meteorological surveillance radar on television. And the on-the-ground reporting he would go on to do -- sloshing among the waves of the Galveston Seawall ("up to his ass," Walter Cronkite would notice, "in water moccasins") -- would go on to become the model for the swashbuckling storm reporting so familiar to us today.

More importantly, though, that broadcast would also lead to many, many saved lives. The spectral images of the hurricane Rather broadcast that day helped convince an estimated 350,000 people to evacuate their homes -- a move that at the time was considered the biggest weather-related evacuation in American history. And while Carla was more intense than the 1900 storm that killed an estimated 6,000 people in Galveston -- still the deadliest natural disaster on record in the U.S. -- only 46 people died at its hands. That is largely because of a reporter's hunch, a forecaster's expertise, a new technology, and a doodled-on piece of plastic. 

Here's Rather recalling his coverage of Carla -- and the career advancement that would come with it:

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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