“Heatwave” Hits Laredo

Richard Berler graduated from Staples in 1972. For the last 41 years — with the nickname “Heatwave” — he’s been chief meteorologist for KGNS-TV, the NBC affiliate in Laredo, Texas.

An entry level outpost for most, he remains there because Laredo is — literally — the hottest TV market in America. 

Richard first gained fame at Staples. He provided daily weather reports as part of the morning announcements. He was so trusted that when he predicted a snow day, no students did homework. 

He received the NOAA National Weather Service’s Jefferson Award for meritorious service. Since 2003 he has been a featured speaker at the American Meteorological Society’s annual conference on Broadcast Meteorology.

Berler’s brother Ron graduated from Staples 5 years earlier. A writer and editor. his work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Wired, Outside and other publications. He is the author of “Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000* Failing Public Schools.”

In 2007, while a columnist with ESPN.com, Ron wrote this piece about his brother. The other day, he posted an updated version on Medium. Ron writes:

When my brother, Richard “Heatwave” Berler, met me at the Laredo airport in January some years ago, he was keyed up, distracted, as if spiking from a sugar high. He hustled me out of the terminal and into a desert swelter that left me gasping for air.

“I don’t want to get too excited,” the city’s number one-rated TV meteorologist said, trying to keep a lid on his emotions, “but this could be the first day of the year we reach 90 degrees.”

Richard “Heatwave” Berler

We climbed into his Toyota and sped toward KGNS-TV, the local NBC affiliate where he works, windows open, the immense heat washing over our faces. At the first red light, he pulled what looked to be a meat thermometer from his breast pocket and took a fresh reading. 88 degrees. A grin began to play on his face.

Staring at the bleak countryside — a tired stew of mesquite, scrub brush, tract houses and 7-Elevens — I struggled to share my brother’s enthusiasm. Though it was midday, the city looked abandoned.

Small wonder. In a typical year, the temperature will top 90 degrees 180 times, and 100 degrees 71 times. Other than my brother, nobody walks the streets of Laredo. At least, not since the advent of air conditioning.

How shall I describe Heatwave? My brother is like a hothouse plant. He once drove through Death Valley with the air conditioning off, to immerse himself in the stupefying swelter.

“I’ve seen him riding his bike in 110-degree weather,” marveled Richard Noriega, the station’s one-time news anchor. “He seems to draw energy from the heat.” Once in 1998 it shot up to 114 degrees, burning the leaves of the city’s banana trees like cigarette paper — a day my brother describes as one of the greatest of his life.

Ron Berler: “Heatwave”‘s proud older brother.

He chose Laredo because it is, quite literally, the hottest TV market in the country. He grew up in Connecticut and worked his first TV weather job in Duluth, Minn. The winters there just about killed him. He’d curl up in bed with a good meteorology book and dream about Senegal, the Amazon jungle…Laredo.

The day he left Duluth, 19 degrees was the high. His first week at KGNS, in February 1980, the temperature hit 99. On air he reported this with such passion, the rest of the news team stared at him in disbelief. “From now on,” he instructed the anchorman, “I want you to introduce me as ‘Heatwave.’” He’s been at the station 41 years, yet almost no one in the city knows his given name.

Back then, KGNS had the feel of a frontier outpost. Bats, tarantulas and scorpions called the newsroom home. There was a hole in the building’s foundation; one night a rattlesnake slithered around the studio while my brother and the rest of the Pro8News team delivered their reports.

Yet here in ranch country, where people treat weather seriously, the community has come to depend on him. During Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 he stayed on the job 3 straight days, tracking the storm and issuing weather advisories, grabbing rest when he could in a sleeping bag he’d brought to the station.

Now his fame is such that once, while riding his bicycle, the pilot of a low-flying border-patrol plane spotted him and called through his loudspeaker, “Hi, Heatwave!” Viewers complain to the station when he goes on vacation.

When former Laredo mayor Betty Flores heard I was doing a story on my brother, she insisted on speaking with me. “He is loved here,” she said. “He has changed the way we feel about our city. If he left town, people would take it personally.”

Its always hottest in Laredo.

He has in fact instilled in the city’s citizens a weird sort of community pride. Much as Detroit is Motor City, Laredo is now Heat City. Folks chart hot spells like old-time baseball fans followed Joe DiMaggio’s famous hit streak. In 2011, they will tell you, the temperature reached 100 degrees 35 straight days, 60 days out of 61, a grand total of 122 times. Heat has become their identity.

There was a time when my brother would tune to the number one San Antonio TV station and grow envious of all the technology available to its weather team. He’d wonder if he’d made the right choice, marrying himself to small-budget Laredo.

Then in 2005, as a kind of 25th anniversary gift, the station purchased his wish list of high-tech gadgetry. My brother called me to celebrate. “I couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to be,” he said. He hasn’t looked back since.

It’s 21 degrees in Connecticut as I write this. I’m thinking back to that January visit, when I looked on as Richard waded through a jungle of wind, temperature and barometric charts piled on his desk. “It’s going to get hotter,” he insisted that day. At 4:02 p.m., the temperature officially hit 90. He slapped me five and dashed outside to bask in the heat.

 

16 responses to ““Heatwave” Hits Laredo

  1. What a great story that highlights how rich life is when you do what you love and use your gifts and talents!

  2. The folks in Laredo are lucky, indeed. Compare that weatherman creativity to the amateurish, wannabe types we get on channel 12; for weather AND news.

  3. Joyce Barnhart

    It’s great to hear such enthusiasm for a job. Another weatherman, Paul Piorek, retired from Channel 12, used to say “If you love your job, you never work a day in your life.” Heatwave is a lucky man.

  4. Back in 1976, I was in college in southern Minnesota, and drove 180 miles north to Duluth to visit Richard, who’d recently begun his broadcasting career there.

    Approaching the city, I stopped at a phone booth to give him an updated ETA, but got no answer at his home number.

    Just to be sure I had the right number, I dialed “411” and asked the directory assistance operator for Richard Berler in Duluth.

    The young woman’s voice responded: “Do you mean HEATWAVE?”

    She confirmed I had the right home number, but told me he was probably at the tv station, and gave me the number there.

    I love to tell this story to my kids, who only know about stopping at phone booths and dialing the “operator” from watching old movies.

    For users of modern communications, Richard’s Twitter handle is @HeatwaveKGNS. He posts frequently, and responds to direct messages from old Westport friends and neighbors.

    It was via Twitter, in fact, that Richard recently reminded me my visit to Duluth was in 1976, not 1978 as I’d thought. He pinpointed the exact day: “Duluth’s hottest September day on record (95F on September 5, 1976).”

    I do remember my car’s temperature warning light flashed on during the way up.

    • Hi Peter. Great anecdote! My own favorite is this:

      Once when I visited Richard in Duluth, we decided to drive north to Hibbing, Minn., Bob Dylan’s hometown and part of Duluth’s TV market. I posed my brother outside Dylan’s house — a neat, modest, shingled home with an evergreen on either side of the front walk, opposite the town library.

      As I was about to snap the shutter, a man approached.

      “Is that Heatwave?” he asked.

      “Yes,” I replied.

      He stared at my brother, mouth agape, and blurted, “He’s bigger than Dylan!” and then rushed to shake his hand.
      Best,
      Ron

  5. Carol MacDonald

    Great story about Richard. I remember him so well from Coleytown MS. He always knew the weather of my past birthdays. Always correct…amazing
    I’m glad his career has made him so happy!

  6. Dan– I love this blog! Where would Westport be without you, especially with the demise of WestportNow? In terms of Richard “Heatwave” Berler, I remember him well and have thought about him often over the years. He’s the opposite of a late bloomer. From the time I first met him when we were both in 7th grade at Coleytown, it was clear he wanted to be a weather forecaster when he grew up. He was so passionate, so knowledgeable about everything weather-related. I seem to remember him doing a weather report over the P.A. system at Coleytown, too. Is that right–or am I conflating my junior high and high school years? Anyway, I’m so glad he’s found a measure of fame and lots of success doing what he most loves. BTW: He looks just like I remember him, though a bit more mature. 🙂

  7. Peter Gambaccini

    Duluth to Laredo. Well, literally, that about covers it. Few of us make career choices as perfect as Richard’s. My path has crossed professionally with Ron’s (but not recently). Ask him sometime about his Joe Pepitone story..

    • Hey Peter, where art thou? It’s such a treat to see your name. I hope this finds you happy and well. One of the most valuable things about Dan’s blog is his ability to (re)connect old friends.

  8. Ahh the arrogance of Westporters. This is written in a glorious secret desert enclave in San Diego County were we have been for three days at 86, 88, an please God 90 tomorrow.. Shall I say, beer the fear of falling I a hideous icy snowy New England winter??? Oh, in. y 12 perfect years in a suburb of Palm Springs we achieved 117 at 5% humidity. Perfection if you paint, think, or breath as part of your real life. The mountains here could inspire another national anthem, but oops, that would not be PC!

  9. Richard Heatwave Berler

    Prill Boyle remembers correctly! I had my weather forecast on the morning announcements each morning starting with the 6th grade, and on through Staples. I don’t think I ever saw Prill without a smile on her face or something good to say to folks! I wish I could include an image of a sign that I made in Ms. Olin’s art class back in 1966 (6th grade) at Coleytown…”I, Richard Berler, Shall do my Best to be a Weatherman” in old English style lettering.

    I remember what a treat it was to have Peter Blau visit me in Duluth. He was amazingly kind to bring my bicycle all the way from Westport to Duluth on that visit!

    Hi Carol!

    As to the heat, Laredo has access during November to April to air that can descend from the Mexican Plateau, heating by compression as it does so, arriving in Laredo with temperatures not experienced elsewhere in the U.S. Laredo holds the U.S. record for January (98F), February (103F, February 20, 1986), earliest 105F in the U.S. record (105F March 6, 1991), and earliest 110F in the U.S. record (110F April 8, 1989). During the summer half of the year, although we reach at least 100F on 7 of 10 July/August days, the winds in the lower 5,000’ of the atmosphere are consistently from the gulf, and access to air from the Mexican Plateau is gone. During the summer, Death Valley is king! They reached 130F last August!

  10. Richard is on the savant spectrum concerning his encyclopedic memory of weather and dates

    • Richard Berler

      Hi Craig,

      I’m curious as to whether the pandemic and the related smaller range of social gathering, reduced scale/frequency of travel has had a discernible signal in what you are seeing in allergy related issues in children.

  11. Richard Berler

    …asthma in particular…

  12. people are indeed healthier!
    C

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