Nash C. Roberts Jr., the meteorologist who became a local institution among generations of New Orleanians, by simply using a felt-tipped marker and weather map to skillfully predict the paths and patterns of hurricanes, died this weekend. He was 92.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
During a career that lasted more than 50 years on local television, New Orleans viewers came to trust his calm and accurate forecasts so much so that the question “What does Nash say?” was the way many gauged the potential impact of an impending weather system.
“Sometimes I wish I knew myself why I am right,” Roberts said in a 1998 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But a portion of it is just instinctive. It’s just a talent I have.”
Roberts retired from meteorology and his on-air role at WWL-TV during hurricane season in 2001. Throughout his career, he was the informed and educated voice of calm and reason, and his forecasting with felt-tip pens (which served him well, years into the high-tech age of broadcast meteorology) helped illustrate the direction of hurricanes since 1947. When he was inducted into the Greater New Orleans Broadcasters Association’s New Orleans Broadcasting Hall of Fame, the group commented that Roberts had been on the air longer than 95 percent of the stations in the country. By the time he retired, Roberts had worked at three of the city’s television stations.
For over five decades, the New Orleans native was a rock of stability during trying times: the horror of Hurricane Audrey in 1957, the devastation of Hurricanes Betsy and Camille in the 1960s, and the heart-stopping threat of Hurricane Georges in 1998. Roberts was there through it all, with his simple map, felt-tipped pen and lifetime of weather wisdom.
The Times-Picayune summed up Roberts’ impact in 1998, in a special issue commemorating 50 years of television in New Orleans: “His power is tremendous. Some of us won't go to sleep until Nash says it's OK. His strong suit is personal forecasts - a mix of hunch and 50 years of knowledge - mapped out in Magic Marker.”
With the dawn of the television era in New Orleans, Nash Roberts became the city’s first TV meteorologist. But it was a job in which he never saw himself.
His original career ambition was to become a pilot, which also required him to study meteorology. He earned his pilot’s wings along with his federal license as a meteorological instructor, and began teaching that specialized science at Loyola University New Orleans in 1940.
When World War II broke out, the U.S. Navy recruited Roberts to serve as an aeronautics instructor. In 1943, he was sent to Florida’s Banana River Naval Air Station to learn about emerging radar technology. After navigating night patrol searches for German U-boats in the Atlantic, he was transferred to the Pacific theater. In April 1945, Roberts was selected to serve as both navigator and meteorologist aboard Admiral Chester Nimitz’s aircraft carrier. Roberts would make history there, as the first meteorologist to fly into the eye of a typhoon, to chart its course.
The Navy had been looking for a way to sail a carrier fleet close enough to the Japanese main islands to execute an air attack, without first being detected.
“I don’t know who came up with the idea, but there was the thought that maybe we could sail in behind a typhoon, and that would jam the Japanese radar and ground all of their search aircraft,” Roberts recalled.
“We embarked on an experimental flight from Guam to the Philippines. I was to navigate through the eye of this typhoon for the purpose of gathering meteorological data,” he said.
In 1946, Roberts returned home to New Orleans, took his $3,500 in saved Navy pay and opened a weather consulting office downtown – the first in the south. Roberts’ clients were oil companies, barge diving, fishing companies and members of the maritime industry.
“Every day we had something big going on, where something hinged on the weather,” Roberts recalled in a 2001 interview with WWL-TV anchor Angela Hill. “It surely kept you on your toes and kept you awake at night.”
Five years later, Roberts was offered a broadcasting job, but refused at first. He said it was because of the fact that while he was well-versed in the science of meteorology, he was far from comfortable on camera. Local advertising executive Dave Cloud gave Roberts an offer he couldn’t refuse – a trip to Chicago to meet with a meteorologist making $80,000 forecasting the weather. Nash went, and a career followed.
Roberts, a graduate of Alcee Fortier High School and Loyola University, spent 22 years as an on-air meteorologist at WDSU-TV before moving to WVUE-TV. In 1978, he signed on as meteorologist at WWL-TV, where he worked as the nightly on-air forecaster for close to 10 years, before retiring from daily TV appearances to run his consulting business next door to the station.
Even after his partial retirement, Roberts’ hurricane expertise would be relied on by WWL-TV viewers during every hurricane or tropical system to threaten Louisiana’s coast. In an article analyzing news coverage of Hurricane Bret in 1999, Roberts explained: "The criteria is the same as it's always been. If it's in the Gulf of Mexico, it's time for me to come on the air." In 1998, with his accurate coverage of Hurricane Georges (predicting it would make a last-minute jog to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and spare New Orleans), Roberts earned national media attention, in The New York Times and People.
“For as long as most New Orleanians can remember, getting a bead on the storms that regularly threaten life and livelihood here comes down to one simple phrase: ‘What does Nash say?’” wrote reporter Corey Kilgannon in The New York Times.
“Locals know a storm is serious simply when Mr. Roberts appears on the screen. ’They see me in the store buying my mark-up pens and they follow me around asking when the storm’s hitting,’ said Mr. Roberts,” stated the 1998 article.
In an article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that same year, headlined “New Orleans weatherman right as rain,” Roberts explained his forecasting philosophy.
“It’s like being married. Your wife or your husband can detect a change in you before anyone else can. I have to have that kind of relationship with the hurricane.”
Roberts retired from weather forecasting to devote his life to caring for his wife Lydia, who was in failing health. The couple shared over 60 years of marriage before Mrs. Roberts died in 2007.
Shortly after his retirement in 2001, Roberts donated his collection of papers (used to forecast hurricanes since the 1940s) to Loyola University, where they are a treasured addition to the J. Edgar and Louise S. Monroe Library. He was honored with numerous awards and citations over the years, including induction into the New Orleans Broadcasting Hall of Fame and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Press Club of New Orleans. In 1984, Loyola University presented Roberts with an honorary doctorate in science.
Roberts, whose diverse list of hobbies included beekeeping, fishing, hunting and spending time on his large ranch in St. Tammany Parish, was also a founding board member and former chairman of the board of WYES-TV, New Orleans’ first public television station. Roberts also served for several years on the state Board of Education.
He is survived by three brothers; two sons, Kenneth and Nash Roberts III; and four grandchildren.