WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — 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."
Here in West Palm, where he's staying at the lone hotel in town that managed to stay open, it's clear that his job involves showbiz as well as science. He twice mentions his pal, NBC Today show weatherman Al Roker, who's also here to cover Frances, and CBS heavyweight Dan Rather, an acquaintance who's "staying on my floor." And he's a master of their game.
On Friday night, the words of producers - in Atlanta, in Fort Lauderdale, in his own satellite truck down the block - run constantly through his earpiece, and he ducks in and out of conversation with those around him.
As the gusting winds rise, he spots a 20-foot palm frond that has ripped to the ground. He hauls it over to his post and harnesses it with his feet. During his 9:30 shot, he holds it up for the camera. "Just doing a little early clean-up for Frances," he quips, as the wind almost blows it out of his hand.
Afterwards, he's jazzed. "That really worked great," he says. "Nothing like a good prop."
Next morning, Seidel is at the beachfront by 5 a.m. Police are stationed there now, though, and won't let him get closer. As Frances nears, it's churning up enormous "storm surge." Waves top 12 feet, creating spray so intense it looks like a snowstorm. The rain is stinging, horizontal. Tops of palm trees are flapping like flags.
The crew retreats a few blocks, and Seidel sets up leeward of a five-story building that offers shelter. He does a Weather Channel feed each half-hour, and as he steps out to record his shots in the street, the wind, 50 miles per hour at times, swells his jacket like a parachute and forces him to lean at a 45-degree angle.
"I bend over to reduce my wind resistance," he explains, as if his own 6-foot, 175-pound body were a meteorological lab on which he's performing experiments.
Behind him, four-foot waves are slamming the banks of the Intracoastal, catapulting ghostlike spray 20 feet in the air. As he gestures with his mike, he sees something floundering in the water. "It's a boat. See it?" he shouts to the cameraman. "It's broken loose." It becomes his visual for reports throughout the day; "renegade boats, unmoored and without their skippers" help him illustrate the storm's growing power.
Seidel's commentary, both on-camera and off, is a powerful exposition of this "weather event." Because the storm has slowed so much - from 16 mph to a mere 4 - there will be more damage.
"It's like Dennis, which I covered [in 1999]," he confides. "That storm just stayed there, lingering, off the coast of North Carolina, for seven days. It just ate up the beaches. There's going to be a lot of beach erosion here."
Unlike Hurricane Charley, which ripped across Florida in a matter of seven hours last month, Frances will hover over the land in a slow, steady assault.
"I feel bad for those poor people," he says. "They just got over Charley, and now this."
His empathy is genuine, but it's clear Seidel lives for events like Frances.
"It's fascinating," he says, pulling his blue hood tighter around his boyish face. "I mean, I don't enjoy the loss of property, the damage, but for me, this is what it's about. I like being in weather. It's a high, you know?"
It doesn't hurt that some of his colleagues are here, too. A passing SUV screeches to a halt, and out into the churning rain leaps a laughing Roker. The two half-embrace, half-wrestle as the sweeping gusts threaten to carry them away.
"I don't know if I've ever told you this before, Al," Seidel says with a straight face, "but I love you."
After Roker departs, The Weather Channel's stormcaster learns that the cameras were rolling the whole time. It's all on tape. He smiles. "You're going to see this over and over," he says.
Such high jinks are part of the job, says Seidel, and he enjoys the showbiz aspect of his work; it helps heighten public interest in the story. But "it all starts and ends with weather," he adds. And before too long, he's back on camera, gaze fixed, mind engaged, feet set.
"We expect peak winds of 110 miles per hour by 11 o'clock tonight," he says, both excited and grim. "We'll be here for the next six, seven, eight hours, bringing you the best pictures we can. This is Mike Seidel of The Weather Channel."