Jesse Hawila, who has been part of WFAA/Channel 8’s weather team for nearly a year, says it takes a certain breed of person to become a meteorologist. That they’re born, not made.
That may not always be true. Although most TV meteorologists do have their epiphanies when they’re still children, some bounce around a bit before settling into their regular gigs. But for Hawila, it goes back as far as he can remember.
“This is the only thing I wanted to do since I was a little kid.,” says Hawila (“rhymes with tequila”). “I grew up in Houston, and we had a tornado that was not far away from our house. I remember seeing the destruction that it caused and the fear that it caused. I was always so incredibly interested in weather, since I was like 4 or 5. Kids used to make fun of it in school. Even middle school and high school, during career days. But I was like, ‘This is it.’ I’ve loved every single second of it.”
Hawila says he could name clouds when he was still a toddler. “I was 3 or 4 — cumulus!” Rather than make mischief when his parents weren’t home, the 12-year-old Hawila would get up and practice in front of The Weather Channel on TV.
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Health issues led his mother to move the family from Houston back to her hometown of Newcastle, Ind., the state where he began his weather careeer. He was in school at Ball State, in Muncie, when he was offered his first TV job at WLFI in Lafayette — two hours away from Muncie.
“I had a full semester, 17 credit hours to take at Ball State, and then I got hired full time at WLFI in December 2011,” he says. “I was taking full credit course load in Muncie, driving two hours after school, working 8 hours there, driving two hours back every single day.”
In Lafayette, he met his future wife, Elisabeth Rentschler, when he started doing weekend weather and she was the weekend anchor. And then he had to do another two-hour commute.
“After a year and a half of [my] being at WLFI, our sister station [WANE in Fort Wayne, Indiana] was interested in having me come up and do weather for them,” he says. “It’s a slightly bigger market. It wasn’t a huge jump, but it was more money, it was somewhat close, and it just made sense. So I moved two hours away from Lafayette and I’d drive back to see my girlfriend.”
Now they’re both in Dallas. She doesn’t have an on-air gig, but he’s been with Channel 8 nearly a year, mostly doing the Saturday- and Sunday-night weather shifts and doing fill-ins on other shifts during the week. He sat down with us to talk about the weather and other things.
About “Sock Sunday”: “I had all of these cool socks that I wear that nobody ever gets to see. So, I figured since I work Sunday nights, why not show them then. It seems to have been a big hit with folks. I’ve had viewers send me several awesome pairs since starting “Sock Sunday.”
Before the green screen: “I used to mow lawns, before I could have a ‘job’ job. My first job, when I was 15, was bagging groceries at a local grocery store, Marsh, in Indiana. Then I was a cashier at Marsh. Then eventually I found out that you can make a little bit more money being a waiter. So I became a waiter at a Bob Evans. It was really good food, that down-on-the-farm type of thing.”
First green-screen experience: “You never realize how bad you were or how much you’ve produced till you look back to your first two years, three years. You thought you were decent. I remember it very well. It’s awkward, robotic and planned out. We’re lucky to be in a great market, market No. 5, Dallas-Fort Worth, you see these people who are very polished and comfortable and they’re conversational.
“Small markets, like when I was in college, it’s a little difficult to follow, because it’s just very mechanical. You don’t know where you’re pointing, you turn your arms sideways, you’re not looking at the camera, your arms are in weird spots. Practice makes perfect. The growth between when you start and the next two years is just crazy.”
Predicting Dallas-Fort Worth’s unpredictable weather: “Social-media types poke fun at the weather guy: ‘You got it wrong, you got it wrong.’ There are a lot of variables that go into a weather forecast. Here in North Texas, especially. It can be — we can be talking large-scale synoptic variables. We could be talking mezzo-scale tiny variables, we could be talking micro-scale variables.
“All of these large, medium, small things go into play and make it difficult to forecast. Some days are much easier than others, but let’s talk about, like ‘the cap,’ for instance. When we refer to the cap in North Texas, it’s that layer of warm air that really prevents convection from going. You can’t measure. You can’t track every single molecule of air. If you could, you’d have a perfect forecast every time. Meteorologist are limited to the data that we’re seeing.”
Keeping calm during severe weather: “Time and practice. I remember my first severe-weather cut-in like it was yesterday. It was very panicky, very nerve-wracking. The first thing that happened when it was over — it was only a severe-thunderstorm warning — the station got an email saying, ‘Can you tell this arrogant a---hat to calm down?’ I was still in college, so of course it upset me. That stuff doesn’t upset me anymore, because that’s just how it is. To stay calm, knowing what you’re talking about is No. 1. Knowing the area is No. 2. But you have to know your stuff. You have to be confident in what you’re talking about.”
(Hawila is an experienced storm chaser and has been nominated for a Lone Star Emmy in the Weather — Program/Special/Feature/Segment category for “The Art of Storm Chasing.” Clip below.)
Most memorable weather event: “[In July 2015], there was a brief tornado touchdown in Lee’s Summit, which is a suburb of Kansas City. Our chopper had it on video when we were in the middle of severe weather, wall-to-wall coverage. There was this very tightly wound wall cloud spinning, and we had a perfect visual on it. It was moving over a very populated area. You could see the funnel, and it was a big funnel, and we kept an eye on the surface.
“We were telling people, on-air, ‘It doesn’t have to look like it’s on the ground for it to be on the ground. It may not have condensed. You need to, please, if you live here or here, you have to get into your shelter.’ Sure enough, within a minute or two, we’re still following it, all of a sudden our chopper zooms down to the surface. ... Shingles on a roof were just being ripped off. And then there’s power flash, power flash.
“I remember my body just kind of went into shock and I was tensing up and I could feel every hair on my body stand up, because I knew, first of all, this is moving over an area of 100,000 people. ... Debris being kicked up. Thankfully, somehow, for some reason, it quickly roped out and missed. It did damage, but it didn’t do what it could have done. It was my first time doing severe-weather coverage live [with] chopper footage of a tornado doing damage. It takes it to a whole new level.”
Favorite weather song: “Probably ‘Texas Flood’ by Stevie Ray Vaughan. But when we storm-chase, we play ‘Child in Time’ by Deep Purple because of the movie ‘Twister.’ Every one of my colleagues that I chase with, that I went to school with, the movie ‘Twister’ is obviously a big inspiration for a lot of us. That song was played [on a radio] by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie.”
Secret life (lives, actually) of a TV meteorologist: “Music is my second passion. I love all sorts of music. As long as it’s honest and it’s written with meaning and it’s not mass-produced nonsense. I really love indie rock, folk, blues. This is where it kind of gets people thrown for a loop: I really love death metal, progressive metal and grindcore. But I’m a drummer, and I’ve always loved it.
“[And] I’m very into what they call Kaisa Mario. It’s a subculture of a subculture. We play these incredibly expert, difficult levels of ‘Mario’ on different engines, whether it’s ‘Mario’s World,’ ‘Super Mario 3,’ it doesn’t matter. You have to do all sorts of tricks and frame things to make it a perfect level. It’s not quite like any other platform. I like to make these levels, play these levels, watch people play these levels.