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07 May 2011

WBTV's Ohnesorge Treads Path of Disaster

Mark Washburn, The Charlotte Observer

He's probably the most widely traveled reporter in town - he's been to places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti. He's WBTV's master of disaster. Steve Ohnesorge, a 35-year veteran of Channel 3's newsroom, estimates he's covered about 20 hurricanes and tropical storms, including a few with marquee names: Katrina, Andrew and Hugo. So when tornadoes ripped across Alabama and WBTV's owner, Raycom Media, put out a call for assistance for its Alabama stations, Ohnesorge was in line for the team sent from Charlotte.

"I'd say this was at the top as far as the ultimate damage I've seen," Ohnesorge said this week from Birmingham. "This is the worst. I remember being in Homestead after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida. I was the tallest thing left standing in a trailer park that had about 800 mobile homes."

"But here, I was standing in a development of stick-built, cinder-block homes and I was still the tallest thing left standing."

Ohnesorge can't recall how many tornadoes he's reported, but the twisters in Alabama are nothing like the ones he covers out of WBTV's foothills bureau in Morganton, where he's been based since 1985. In the Carolinas, twisters touch down and maybe go a mile before retracting. Ohnesorge has followed the path of an EF-5, the most powerful cyclone, which went more than 100 miles, vacuuming the surface with a mouth a mile wide.

"People who haven't seen what an EF-5 can do probably say, 'Wow, 300 people died in those storms.' After seeing what I've seen, it should be, 'Wow, only 300 people died in those storms.'"

Last Saturday, Ohnesorge got on a country road looking for a shortcut into the area hit by the storm. He said that in the middle of nowhere, he encountered a family that had huddled in its basement as the tornado hit their home, dead center.

"An 8-year-old kid said he looked up into the tornado and it was white. It went right over their heads. They looked into a tornado, and lived to tell about it."

Some people, Ohnesorge said, were sucked out of their basement shelters. One woman told him about her neighbor, who didn't survive. Her body was found 15 miles from where the tornado picked her up.

Ohnesorge said he visited a hard-hit town called Phil Campbell, Ala., population about 1,000.

"Some guy named Phil Campbell built the railroad depot there in the 1880s and they named the town for him. Two percent of the population was killed. Can you imagine what that would mean in Charlotte if 2 percent of the people were dead?"

Raycom has deep roots in Alabama: Its headquarters is in Montgomery and it operates stations in Birmingham, Huntsville and Montgomery. WBTV sent its satellite truck, Newstar 3, and photographers Brad Stafford and Kevin Sharp went down to operate it. Also sent were engineer William Morrison, photographer Kevin Marlow, executive producer Jennifer Torsiello and web producer Chris Dyches.

"Ohnesorge just knows how to operate in these environments," said Dennis Milligan, Channel 3's news director. "He's been to every major hurricane, big fires, flooding. Our news director in Birmingham called to say how much they love Steve down there.