As we all keep our eyes on Hurricane Ian, there is probably one local meteorologist we’re turning to for the latest updates – you know, “the Rule #7 guy with the suspenders”.
ABC Action News meteorologist, Denis Phillips, has been forecasting the weather for over 30 years and has been through numerous hurricanes and tropical storms.
He recently talked to us about what to expect for this year, how you can prepare and ease your kids’ minds, and why “Rule #7,” has become a household catchphrase.
*Be sure to watch Denis on ABC Action News and follow him on Facebook for continuous updates and live videos.
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Interview originally published in June 2022 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine. Intro updated September 25, 2022.
What would you say to someone who’s new to the area and this is their very first hurricane season?
Denis Phillips: It’s all about preparation. You don’t want to be the person that, two days out, is heading to Home Depot or Lowe’s and trying to get plywood or supplies.
I think anybody who’s lived here for a long time knows that once we get a couple of days out, it’s almost impossible to get supplies. Hurricane season starts in early June, and that’s really when you should start putting together a plan. Whether it’s a gallon of water per person, per day, whether it’s LED lights, or whether it’s an extra charger for your phone.
I mean all those things kind of come together, and if you have them in advance, they might come in handy if we lose power during a thunderstorm. But clearly, for a prolonged power outage, you want to have the supplies in advance, because again, trying to get it done last minute, it’s almost impossible around here.
I get it – lot of folks procrastinate and a lot of folks are going to wait, but again, it’s just one less thing on your mind, because when you see a storm coming in, the panic factor increases by tenfold and you’re trying to keep your head on straight.
Knowing what you’ll need and what you won’t – it’s just a lot easier to have it done in advance. There’s plenty of hurricane kit checklists and whatnot out there so you can pretty much have a good idea of what you need for your family.
Is there anything we should wait on doing until we know for sure a storm is heading our way?
Denis Phillips: Honestly, the only thing that you might want to wait on is obviously trying to get hotel reservations prior to when a storm makes landfall.
Anybody who went through Irma who tried to get a hotel if they waited two or three days out had to drive to Atlanta because those are some of the closest hotels. I mean, it’s pretty much impossible if you wait that far out.
But honestly, the kits and the preps should pretty much be done by June 1st.
What do you personally do to prepare your family for hurricane season?
Denis Phillips: We have a kit in advance. We also have a generator. I know some folks can afford generators, some can’t. The most important thing to remember EVER if you’re going to have a generator is after a storm, if you’re out of power, you never ever want to use that generator in your garage or anywhere in your house.
It’s got to be outside because unfortunately, every single time there’s a hurricane, we hear about people who lose their lives from carbon monoxide poisoning. It just happens, and it’s tragic. It doesn’t have to happen.
For my family personally, we get everything done in advance. We have our LED lights, we have our first aid kits, we have our water.
We pretty much have it all ready because once there’s a storm coming near us, I certainly will be the person who will be at work for days on end and I won’t be able to be with my family.
So, if they’re not evacuating, if they’re just staying put because the situation warrants, I want to make sure that they’re safe as well.
What advice do you have for people who want to evacuate?
Denis Phillips: It really varies on the storm. It depends on if it’s coming in from the west or if it’s coming in from the east. Each one of them are very different and there’s not even a ballpark idea because it all depends on the intensity, the track, and what the expectations are in terms of damage, power outages and whatnot.
The old adage is that you hide from the wind, and you run from the water. So, living in an area in which we do where traffic is really challenging to get around on any given day, throw in the fact that everybody is evacuating and trying to get out of this area, there will be gas stations that’ll be closed, there will be breakdowns, and there will be accidents. It’s borderline impossible sometimes to evacuate if you’re waiting any less than 36 hours.
A lot of times emergency operation folks are saying, ‘You know what? We’d rather you stay put in your house then be stuck out on the road.’
You know the adage – if you can hunker down and manage the winds because they’re not going to be at such a level that they’re expecting structural damage to your home, then you probably want to stay put. But if you’re in a flood zone or you’re in an area where surge is going to be an issue, that’s by far the biggest concern.
I mean, you can’t get away from water. You can hide from the wind, but you cannot hide from the water. It’s important that every single person out there knows their flood zone.
It’s just one of those things that you’ve got to know, and those flood zones are changing.
It’s important to remember that maybe somebody looked at a map 10 years ago and they’re like, ‘OK, we’re not in a flood zone,’ and then they look now, and they might be. It’s important that every year you look and see, not just for insurance reasons, but for your personal safety if you’re in an area that is prone to flooding and there’s a sizable hurricane coming in.
I think a lot of folks dismiss tropical storms or even minimal hurricanes because they don’t think they’re going to do a lot of damage. Usually, they don’t.
But if you remember Eta a couple years ago, it was a tropical storm late in the year and there were people who had water in their houses that had never had water in their house before.
So, it’s just one of those things that you must decide for each individual storm, what the best course of action is for you, and most of that depends on just how strong that storm really is.
What it would be your best advice for parents to talk to their kids about the storm to make it as easy for them to get through?
Denis Phillips: The thing that I always tell people with kids is look, hurricanes are scary, but to me, tornadoes are even more scary. Because with tornadoes, you don’t have a lot of time to see them coming. We don’t get those kinds of tornadoes here in Florida.
When you’re talking about a hurricane, you see it coming days in advance. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s all about having that plan, and I always tell kids ‘Look, if your parents are told to evacuate, they’re going to evacuate.
They’re going to go to a place of safety and then after the storm hits, they come back. And if there’s anything that needs to be done to clean up, they’ll do it.’
But at the end of the day, everybody’s safe and there’s no excuse for anybody to get hurt when a hurricane’s coming, and I tell the kids ‘Trust your parents. Trust them that they’re going to do the right things. They’re going to leave if they’re told to, and everybody is going to be fine.’
Let’s talk about your famous catchphrase, ‘Rule #7.’
Denis Phillips: It started back in 2012 when the RNC, the Republican National Convention, was in Tampa and we had a hurricane coming this way – Isaac – and I was confident that that storm was going to be a near miss, that we would have some strong, winds and some minor issues, but it wasn’t going to be a huge deal. Everybody was freaking out for obvious reasons.
We had a ton of people coming into the area and whatnot, and they didn’t know what to do and I just jotted down these rules like ‘know the margin of error, how a hurricane can be well over 300 miles off track so don’t center your attention on the middle,’ and several other things.
The last one was ‘just don’t freak out unless I’m freaking out. We’re fine.’ I was talking about that one particular storm and somehow it just kind of became a thing and now I tell people when the storm is coming, it’s ‘rule #7.’
I also think it’s important to remember, because even if we are in the track of a storm – even a significant storm – the rules are still the same. Don’t freak out. Because there’s no way in the world you’re going to be able to make the kind of decisions you need to make for your family if you’re freaking out.
So that’s why we always say it’s always best to have your plan well beforehand, because when you do that, it isn’t a matter of thinking, ‘Do I need this? Do I need that?’ It’s a matter of going through the checklist and saying ‘I’ve got this’ and then making the best decision for your family.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve watched national media sources and I hear the loud bump music and the ‘boom, boom, boom’ sounds and I’m having heart concerns after 15 seconds watching it because I get freaked out.
I think I’ve learned that people don’t want to be scared. They don’t want to be given hype and fear. Because in my mind, how do you build trust when you’re trying to scare people?
So, my goal is to try to reassure people. I mean, you got to be a straight shooter. If something is coming this way, and it’s a real threat, you’ve got to let them know.
But at the same time, I think you do need to remind people that it isn’t always the worst-case scenario that happens, and it seems like a lot of the national sources always focus on the worst case when most of the time, that’s not what happens. It’s something in between.
Honestly, I don’t think there’s anyone that knows a local region better than the local meteorologists. We might know the little subtleties in the area, like certain areas may flood more than someplace else, whereas the Hurricane Center, it’s their job is to give a more of a broad brush, larger scale forecast.
I think the local meteorologists are really the ones who break it down to the neighborhood.
So, give them some hope, hold their hand, get them through the storm, and I think you develop more of a long-term viewership that way as opposed to just selling fear.
When there is a storm coming, you are pretty much living at the news station. What is it like at the station when that happens?
Denis Phillips: It is it’s 24/7. It’s kind of funny because a lot of people always wonder ‘When did you start wearing those ridiculous suspenders?’ And truth be told, back in 2004 before Hurricane Charley, I wore a jacket every single day.
I had done the weather for 15 years and as I was about to go on and cover Charley, I knew I was going to be on the air 30-40 straight hours. I happened to have one pair of suspenders to my name and for no reason, I just wore the pants that had the suspenders.
As you’re on the air for an extended period, I took my jacket off and I had these suspenders on again. It was just dumb luck. After the storm missed us and the station did all this research, they were asking ‘Who do you watch?’ The overwhelming responses were ‘I have no idea what the guy’s name was, but he was wearing a pair of suspenders.’ And that’s how it started and it’s kind of become my trademark, for better or worse.
When I’m doing the weather and during hurricane season, you are in for 20, 30, 40 straight hours and it’s 24/7 all hands on deck for everybody. If you stay at the station, you might get an hour or two sleep in the back. It’s everybody. Not just the news staff, it’s the sales staff, the management – everybody comes in. Sometimes we get people from other markets within our group that come in to help out.
It’s definitely a team effort and it isn’t just before the storm, it isn’t during the storm, it’s definitely also after the storm because, think about the coverage. You’re trying to get information out to people.
I mean we try to kind of combine it all, and by the time it’s all said and done, you’ve probably been on the air straight for five or six days, maybe longer.
Honestly, I don’t think there’s any area that knows a local region better than the local meteorologists.
We might know the little subtleties in the area, like certain areas may flood more than someplace else, whereas the Hurricane Center is more their job is to give a more of a broad, larger scale forecast. I think the local meteorologists are really the ones who break it down to the neighborhood.
What are the predictions for the 2022 storm season?
Denis Phillips: There are lots of different sources that predict. The general feeling is that there’s going to be an above average year yet again. Most folks are going between maybe 18 and 23 named storms, in that ballpark. Average is 14 now.
It’s interesting because even a few years ago, the average was only 10 or 11, but what happens is when you look at that average, all they do is just take the last 30 years and average those out and determine what a typical year is. So clearly in the last 30 years, we’ve been more active than in previous years.
And because of that, the average has gone from 10 to 11 and now it’s up to 14 per year. So, it’s still expected to be above average.
But it’s important to remember that even if a lot of hurricanes develop, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to strike land. They could be out in the middle of the ocean.
Do you and your family have any fun summer plans?
Denis Phillips: Yes! We’re going on a cruise. It’s been cancelled twice and finally, this time it seems like it’s going to happen. And we often go up to Ocean City MD then Delaware.
My in-laws are selling a home up there, so people ask why we would leave a Florida beach to go to Ocean City or Fenwick Island, Delaware, but it’s just a different kind of beach. It’s got a huge boardwalk and it’s kind of a family tradition. And I love road trips. I am absolutely a huge road trip guy. As my kids have gotten older, now some of them are on their own, but luckily, I’ve still got a few young ones that will satisfy my need to make a 24-hour drive and go on a road trip somewhere.
We did a roller coaster road trip one year where we stopped at 7 different amusement parks from here all the way to New Jersey and Ohio.
To me, I think the kids really remember those. They might complain about it while they’re in the car, but I really think when they look back over it, they’re like ‘Wow that was kind of fun! We enjoyed doing that!’
Catch Denis weekdays on WFTS-ABC Action News and follow him on Facebook for up-to-date weather info.
Featured image credit: WFTS-ABC Action News