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In Katrina’s Wake
A new IMAX® film charts a killer storm’s
lasting effect on New Orleans.

Timing, they say, is everything. And nowhere is that more evident than in the IMAX film Hurricane on the Bayou, which makes its Pittsburgh debut on December 26 at Carnegie Science Center’s Rangos Omnimax Theater.

When director Greg MacGillivray (Everest) and his team set out for New Orleans to film a documentary on the impact of Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands, their timing couldn’t have been better—or worse.

The movie was initially conceived as a cautionary tale. MacGillivray wanted to paint a picture of how the Bayou’s eroding wetlands—they are in fact slipping away at the rate of one acre every 30 minutes—leave the region more and more vulnerable to hurricane damage.

Wrapping up his location shooting in May 2005, MacGillivray began to turn his focus on another aspect of the film. Part of his vision included a simulated sequence detailing the effects of a category 5 storm. Using all the tricks of his trade—wind machines, rain generators, water pumps and special effects—he created a world that left New Orleans flooded and people stranded on rooftops.

On August 29, 2005, the day Katrina made landfall, reality started to tragically imitate art. Katrina would go in the record books as the sixth-strongest Atlantic hurricane and the third-strongest to hit the United States. New Orleans would become the scene of the most costly disaster in American history, and the city would ultimately suffer more than 1,500 deaths.As news of Katrina’s devastation continued to unfold, MacGillivray stopped everything and gathered a crew together to return to New Orleans. Overcoming logistical challenges, the group captured images that when seen on an IMAX screen take on a heightened sense of immediacy and poignancy.

Narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep, Hurricane on the Bayou tells the story of the wetlands and Katrina through the eyes—and music—of real New Orleans residents Amanda Shaw, a teenage fiddling prodigy; Tab Benoit, a singer, guitarist, and wetlands activist; and composer Allen Toussaint, a true “Big Easy” legend.

Throughout the film, they talk about how they weathered the storm. Shaw shares her panic at being unable to reach her grandparents. Benoit reveals how his favorite cabin retreat was destroyed by high winds. And Toussaint explains how he chose to stay in his flooded house, only to be forced to evacuate due to a lack of food and water.

According to John Radzilowicz, the Science Center’s director of visitor experience, the entire environment—the people, the animals, and the wetlands—are still reeling from Katrina.

The film, he says, offers a “very powerful, very emotional” look at a city, its natural resources and culture; as well as a catastrophic event and its aftermath.







Eyes on the Skies

Carnegie Science Center and the WTAE-TV meteorological staff team up to deliver a winning forecast on the one subject that still brings all Pittsburghers together—the weather.

In a nation divided into red and blue states, the weather could be the last frontier of polite dinner conversation. Even with the gathering storm of global warming and the social and economic wake left behind by Hurricane Katrina, weather is still the one thing we have in common.

“ We’re immersed in it,” says Carnegie Science Center’s Director of Visitor Experience John Radzilowicz. “And it’s constantly changing.”

Ever-changing also describes the Science Center’s weather-related exhibits, programs, classes, and camps. They’re in a constant state of transformation as scientists, meteorologists, and astronomers learn more about the causes and effects of weather. The most visible example of the Science Center’s commitment to keeping pace with the weather sits nearly 90 feet atop the museum’s Rangos Omnimax Theater. There, the giant cone dubbed E-Motion shines a light on the forecast for all within a 10-mile radius to see—depending on the weather, of course. A red light means warmer temperatures ahead. Blue is a sign of colder air on the way. Green indicates no change. And yellow equals severe weather. If the light is flashing, that’s the signal precipitation is on the way.

E-Motion is plugged in, so to speak, to WTAE-TV. From the Channel 4 studio in Wilkinsburg, the Weather Watch 4 team relays the evening’s forecast to a Science Center computer, and within moments the news is reflected in the cone’s beacon.
But the big E is just one component of a long-standing partnership between the Science Center and the television station. This multi-front relationship also involves bringing the weather to the people —specifically the area’s school kids.

Lightning Strikes Local Schools
Introduced more than three decades ago by Pittsburgh’s legendary weatherman Joe DeNardo, the WTAE school visits are now the domain of Weather Watch meteorologist Stephen Cropper and Science Center staff educator Mindy Gawlas.

Nearly every Wednesday during the school year, the duo takes their weather report on the road to elementary and middle school auditoriums and gymnasiums throughout the Channel 4 viewing area. Each visit attracts hundreds of students who stay tuned as Cropper talks the talk and Gawlas brings the shock.

The “chain of pain,” as Gawlas likes to call it, is a hands-on demonstration of lightning. The “wow” moment, she says, comes as the static electricity travels down the line of kids giving each member of the chain gang a gentle jolt. Also prompting a gasp from the crowd is the tornado cannon. Using a canister of compressed air, this device illustrates how an ordinary pencil can be turned into a dangerous projectile capable of puncturing an inch-thick piece of wood.

“ I think it’s awesome,” Cropper says. “When the kids can see, feel, hear, and touch things, it takes our school visits to the next level. It helps imprint on their brains that science is cool.”

A Cool Weather Front
And so is being a television weather person. But it’s not all bright lights and school visits. Back at Channel 4, Cropper and his colleagues are called upon to give the forecast while standing in front of a blank “blue” screen. To actually see what the viewer is watching at home, he has to check the off-screen studio monitor to make sure he’s not inadvertently standing in front of Pennsylvania.

Channel 4 meteorologist Stephen Cropper delivers more than the forecast to local schools.
PHOTO: Lisa Kyle

Meanwhile at the Science Center, visitors are invited to check out the mini-WTAE studio set up on the fourth floor to see if they have what it takes to deliver a flawless forecast. After selecting the weather of their choice—tornado, flooding, heat wave, or snow—the wannabe forecasters wait for the pre-tapped cue from Channel 4 anchors Sally Wiggin and Mike Clark and then follow the tele-prompter in an effort to do their best Stephen Cropper imitation. The general consensus? He makes it look easy.

But there’s nothing easy about predicting the weather. “Weather patterns anywhere in the world result from a combination of ocean and atmospheric currents driven by the energy of the Sun and the rotation of the Earth,” the Science Center’s Radzilowicz says.

Future Warming Trend
In other words, global changes and conditions influence whether Pittsburgh residents should carry their umbrellas on any given day (the odds are they should). To help bring this concept into sharper focus, the Science Center has a number of exhibits dealing with the “Forces of Nature.” For example, there’s the Hurricane Table, the Twister Chamber, the Aeolian Landscape, and the Wave Maker, as well as computer stations where visitors can explore the seasons in the comfort of the great indoors.

In addition, the Science Center’s Buhl Digital Dome programs are designed to shed some light on the astronomical aspects of weather, like Sun dogs and halos, and climate trends.

“ We make a distinction between weather and climate,” Radzilowicz explains. “The weather refers to day-to-day, hour-to-hour conditions, like precipitation and temperature, while climate refers to changes over decades, centuries and even millennia.”

Which brings us to the question of global warming. According to Radzilowicz, there is no question:
“ It is absolutely a real phenomenon,” he says. “There is overwhelming evidence that it is happening—and it is a big, serious issue.”

Anecdotally, there are plenty of stories to back up his assertion. “People who have lived in Pittsburgh for 40 or 50 years,” Cropper says, “tell me how much more snow we used to get.”

And for the past eight years, Radzilowicz has been making his own observations from his office window. “When I first started working here,” he says, “I would see an incredible amount of ice on the rivers each winter. Now there’s almost none. That’s a pretty dramatic shift.”

Here Comes The Sun—Maybe
The one element, however, that has remained constant about the weather is our need to know about it. How else can you explain the 24-hour Weather Channel? Yet despite all our high-tech weapons of prognostication—Doppler radar, computer simulations and satellite images—our ability to foresee the five-day forecast remains dubious at best.

“The weather is a very complicated phenomenon,” Radzilowicz says. “It’s amazing we can predict anything at all.”

Cropper agrees, and he should know.

“ Geographically,” he explains, “the Pittsburgh area lends itself to some wild weather. Science helps, but there still is an art to this craft.”

Although Pittsburghers can generally count on an annual average high temperature of 82.5 degrees Fahrenheit in July and a typical yearly low of 20.8 degrees Fahrenheit during January, the rest is simply a well-educated guess.

The Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean are just two of the contributing factors making Pittsburgh a tough town to forecast. And because of its location between the Great Lakes and the Allegheny Mountains, the region is often mired in clouds. In fact, Pittsburgh experiences about 200 overcast days a year.

That, says psychologist Alexander Levy, takes an emotional toll. “There is a direct relationship between atmospheric pressure and mood and behavior,” he explains. Low pressure systems not only portend of cloudy, rainy days; they can also be predictors of increased inappropriate behavior and even depression. And the lack of sunlight during the winter months, acknowledges the American Psychiatric Association, can lead to a specific malady known as Seasonal Affective Disorder.

What’s a Pittsburgher to do? Perhaps take comfort in the weather’s universality. As Levy says, “It’s one of the few common denominators we all share.”

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