When a hurricane strikes, you can bet Jim Cantore will be in the thick of it, reporting for the Weather Channel. But then there are the storms he doesn't tell you about.
PANAMA CITY BEACH - He walks down the beach, holding his microphone, his Teva sandals slapping the rain-pocked sand. Wind tugs the brim of his Storm Stories ball cap. White foam skips across the waves.
The sky is bruised. Dark clouds sweep in from the south.
"Ten seconds," he hears through the wire in his left ear. Enough time to adjust the black T-shirt over his gym-built biceps. "Four seconds." He sets his jaw, turns his back to the storm. "Two." He stares into the camera. "One. And . . . "
"You can look behind me here and see the rain bands coming in," he tells a million television viewers, arcing his right arm along the shore, so they can see. "This thing is still a long way away from us. But once it makes that turn, it could start to speed up. We'll continue to track Hurricane Ivan as it heads closer. And we'll keep you posted."
He nods gravely.
"For now, I'm meteorologist Jim Cantore, reporting live from Panama City Beach, for the Weather Channel."
Cantore and his crew have been following Ivan across Florida for days. The weatherman is sick of waiting, tired of working 18-hour shifts, ready to get off the road.
He's worrying about a much bigger storm back home.
He feels as if he has been chasing hurricanes all summer. First Charley, in Fort Myers. Then Frances, in Melbourne and Palm Bay. He has endured days without air conditioning, hot food or a shower. Countless nights trying to sleep on sandy sheets, in dumpy motels. Five weekends with his family washed away.
He has never heard of a hurricane season like this one.
He has never been away from his wife and kids for so long.
He met Tamra 18 years ago, on his first day at the Weather Channel. She's petite and blond, six years older than he is. She was in management then, selling the fledgling station to cable companies across the country.
Her job was to get Jim Cantore into as many homes as possible, make him a household name.
In 1990, she became Mrs. Jim Cantore. Together, they helped build the station. He gave weather something new, a macho face. "We both traveled a lot. We got to the point where we were passing each other in the airport. After we had kids, it got real hard," Tamra says.
Daughter Christina is 11. Ben is 9. When Ben was 18 months old, the Cantore family's world began crumbling.
Ben wasn't walking. His wife's arms were shaking, but not from carrying the big boy. When Tamra went to the doctor, he focused on her first.
"I haven't let this out before. I don't know why I'm telling you now," Cantore says. He's leaning against the headboard in Room 116 of the Days Inn, trying to wind down during a break between broadcasts. "Maybe because I'm so exhausted and emotionally drained. Maybe because I'm feeling I'm so guilty I can't be there for them. Maybe it's just time." He turns his head away. Swallows.
"My wife has Parkinson's."
"I shuffle, sometimes. I get tired and have to lie down," Cantore's wife says from their home in Atlanta. "When it's real bad, it gets embarrassing - Jim has to cut my meat and feed me."
Tamra Cantore has the same type of early-onset Parkinson's as actor Michael J. Fox. There is no cure.
"My kids have never known me when I didn't shake, shuffle around and seem so stiff," she says matter-of-factly over the phone. "Somedays I'm not strong enough to open a jar of peanut butter. It's not as bad as what some people have to put up with. It's just what I've been dealt."
Tamra isn't the only one who is sick.
When she took Ben with her to her doctor's office, the doc wondered why the boy wasn't walking. At a year-and-a-half, Ben should have been running and spewing two-word sentences. But the boy could barely stand. He didn't speak.
After months of anxiety, testing tests and visits to specialists, the Cantores got the diagnosis: Both their children have a hereditary mental impairment. Their X chromosome is broken. They have Fragile X. Tamra is a silent carrier. Being a girl, Christina has a backup X, so she's better off than her brother. Her symptoms resemble social anxiety and ADHD.
Ben's condition often is mistaken for autism. "It's like having 10 kids to take care of instead of two," Tamra says. "It just gets overwhelming sometimes."
When Cantore is gone, a friend stays with Tamra to help. When Cantore is home, he drives his kids to doctors' appointments, therapy sessions and tutors. He does laundry, buys groceries and makes the meals.
On weekends, he packs his family in the SUV and drives 90 minutes north to the mountains, to the little log cabin he bought on the river. He and Tamra lash inner tubes together and float down the cool stream with the kids, drifting away from wild weather, adoring fans and debilitating diseases.
But Cantore hasn't seen the cabin for five weekends straight. He hasn't been around to cut his wife's steak or watch his daughter dance or let Ben beat him at PlayStation.
By 9:15 p.m., the rain is spraying sideways. Lightning stabs the sea. Cantore pulls on his coat.
"Four, three," the voice counts down in his left ear. He squints into the camera, wipes his eyes. "Two, one, and . . . "
"The good news is that any potential landfall won't come here until Wednesday," he tells viewers. "That means you'll have plenty of time to prepare."
When the camera cuts to a commercial, Cantore watches the radar bleeding red. He's worried about Ivan's future track. Will it end up at his doorstep in Atlanta?
He might not be there to bail the basement. He might not be there to comfort his wife, to feed her if she's having a bad day. He won't be able to calm his kids.
"Hey, Cantore! Up here! We love you, man!" a big-bellied fan shouts from the hotel's fifth floor.
Cantore looks up and waves. "Who's winning the Broncos game?" he calls.
"We don't know," big-belly yells. "We've been watching you!"
Tan and toned. Broad-shouldered. Sicilian. Passionate. Personable.
Smart enough to know his science. One-of-the-guys enough to break it down. He fills out his black T-shirts better than Sly Stallone.
Who knew a meteorologist could be so cool?
Jim Cantore turned 40 this year. He plays on his church softball team, jogs and lifts weights. He cheers the Green Bay Packers. Goes skiing in Colorado. Loves toasted almonds and Bruce Springsteen and An Officer and a Gentleman.
His eyes are hazel, his jaw square. He started shaving his head when his hairline headed north.
On-camera, before a storm, his deep voice takes on a calm, warning tone: Don't panic, folks. But be prepared. I'll show you what's happening so you can get out of harm's way.
Everywhere he goes, people ask for advice. Should we be boarding up yet, Jim? Is it better to be in the west wall of the eye or the east? Women mob him for autographs, and teenage girls giggle. Men want to buy him beers. When one family saw him on TV, broadcasting from Panama City Beach, they made a 90-minute pilgrimage to meet him. Restaurants send him free pizza.
Even as a kid, Cantore loved extreme weather. On cold nights in Vermont, he'd make his mom leave on the barn light so he could see when snow started dusting their farm. He'd wake at 2 a.m. to shovel the steps. "I'd always take off my shirt so I could feel the flakes hitting my back," he says. "The other kids would call me to see when we'd get off school."
He joined the Weather Channel in 1986, four years after the station started - a few months after he graduated from Lyndon State College in Vermont. He has been stalking storms longer than anyone else on cable television.
Early this month, while Hurricane Frances was battering Florida, the Weather Channel was the country's most-watched cable news station, earning the highest ratings in its history. Cantore was on live eight to 12 hours a day.
When he's not in the field, Cantore hosts Storm Stories, the Weather Channel's first narrative series. From 9 to 11 weeknights, he also anchors Evening Edition. He has been interviewed by Tom Brokaw, Larry King, Brian Williams. He's one of five storm chasers who dive into the worst weather. The producer tries to put Cantore where the hurricane is going to hit.
"He doesn't fake anything," says producer Simon Temperton, who has worked with Cantore for 12 years. Their first assignment together was Hurricane Andrew. "His excitement about the weather is real - and it's contagious."
With everything he's dealing with at home, Cantore's cravings for wild weather have intensified these past few years.
The only way he can escape one storm is to immerse himself in another.
Days before Ivan arrives at the Florida Panhandle, the sky above the Days Inn is still swollen. But sunlight is filtering through the clouds.
"How far did you say this place was?" the producer asks from the driver's seat of the rented van.
"Just a couple miles up the beach," Cantore says. "Stop complaining. Everyone loves dolphins."
He's heading to Gulf World, an outdoor aquarium where rescued dolphin are rehabilitated. He and his crew plan a feature about trainers trying to protect the animals from the storm. While his cameraman films stingrays and sharks, Cantore interviews the keepers.
"We have a program here where children can swim with the dolphins. They have to be 5 years old and comfortable in the water," Gulf World operations director Cheryl Joyner tells Cantore. A boy about Ben's age stands on the side of the pool, throwing fish to the dolphins.
Cantore would love to do something like that with his own boy. There are so many things he would like to do with Ben.
"I'd always dreamed of taking my boy to watch the Yankees," says Cantore, who wanted to play pro ball even more than chase storms. "But Ben freaks out in crowds."
"All right, folks. Here's the deal: This thing is coming. It's going to be making big waves in the gulf here soon. This is a tremendously dangerous hurricane, people. If it stays a 5, we'll be under water even on the second story of this motel."
He nods gravely.
"For now, I'm meteorologist Jim Cantore, reporting live from Panama City Beach, for the Weather Channel."
He's on the balcony of the Days Inn, outside Room 116. He opens the door. Cords and computers and cameras are piled on the tables, in case the floor floods. Almond Joy wrappers and empty Red Bull cans litter the dresser. The air smells like sweaty bodies and salt spray. The Weather Channel blares on TV.
"Mind if I turn this down?" Cantore asks his producer, who is slumped in a chair, scribbling notes. "I've got to call my wife."
He wants to catch his kids before they go to sleep.
"Salmon? You had salmon alfredo for dinner? That sounds yummy," he tells his daughter from the cluttered motel room. "No, I haven't had dinner yet." He eyes cold pizza on the dresser. "Did you see me on TV? Or are cartoons on?"
Ben seldom talks on the phone. If he does, it's just, "Hi, Dad. Okay, bye.' " But tonight, Ben tells his mom he has to talk to Daddy.
When he hears his boy's voice, Cantore smiles. He asks about school and PlayStation and the Yankees. Then Ben has a question. Cantore's face falls. For a few seconds, he's silent. Then he swallows and tries to steady his voice.
"When will I be home? Well . . . I'm still waiting for this storm. I'm going to be home . . . well, I hope on Friday, Buddy." There's a pause. Cantore slams his eyes closed. "Yep, Friday," he says again. "That's four more days."
Later that night - actually, early the next morning - after the overnight reports have been taped and the autographs have been signed and the cords rolled away, Cantore clicks on ESPN to check the Packers score. He pops open a can of Miller Lite.
The TV flickers blue shadows across his tired face. The sports scores slide across the screen.
"For years, I kept wanting to do something to fix things for Tammy and the kids," he says. "But I couldn't. So I didn't want to talk about it."
He clicks to the Weather Channel. There he is, smiling with the dolphins. There he is, windblown on the balcony.
"I guess, after a while, you have to admit you can't control it," Cantore says, watching the radar. "I guess you have to just do the best you can to accept it and live with it."
Kind of like the weather.