Sunday, February 25, 2018

Robin Maharaj: The man for all seasons

...T&T's beloved 'weatherman' reports

Former Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) weather man, Robin Maharaj.

If you were a child of the 80s and stumbled into adulthood in the 90s, you will recall the lone television station TTT, the Panorama newscast, and its weatherman for our two seasons – Robin Maharaj.

Maharaj was the one who educated us about the evil Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (the ITCZ), the approaching storms, and that the waves were probably going to be two metres high in open waters, and one in sheltered areas.

Even the worst weather news, Maharaj, dapper in shirt jack or suit, delivered with an engaging smile and perfectly groomed sideburns and pompadour.

His most memorable moment on TV for us, of course, would be his 'Rain in dey muda$$ tonight!', comment that accidentally went live, a line so perfect in its Trinidadianess that it lived on…long after TTT died.

Around the time State-owned TTT went out of business, Maharaj vanished from public view.

And when CNMG went on air, there were new weathermen and women to tell us about how hot or rainy it was going to be tomorrow.

And we would hear nothing much of Maharaj, until earlier this month, when the rains of biblical proportions began the night before Divali and lasted for six days.

 Maharaj became a meme, and middle-aged Trinis demanded his return, with long discussions about his forecasting ability and the need for people with expertise to share reliable information before we were all washed into the sea with the fridges and car parts.

We found Robin Maharaj. He lives thousands of miles away. But he has been following local events for decades. And his life has been epic.

This is his story:

Dades Trace, Rio Claro, when Maharaj was born and rasied. Photo: Richard Charan 

Dades Trace is tiny agricultural-based village near Rio Claro that was once connected to Port of Spain by the railway lines of the Trinidad Government Railway. When the railway system closed in 1968, the village suddenly became a distant place. (You can read about this place in the Express story titled “Defending the Bridges”).

This is the birthplace of Maharaj, born October 1942, educated in Rio Claro and academically gifted enough to make it into the Naparima College in San Fernando.

Maharaj would go on to get his credentials at the Caribbean Meteorological Institute in Barbados and Pennsylvania State University in the United States.

He told us: “I joined The TT Met service in 1964 as a Meteorological Assistant; then trained at the US Naval Base in Chaguaramas to man and operate the US upper air weather station when the US Navy left in 1966. Became a meteorologist in 1972 following a  two year training course in Barbados, at the Caribbean Meteorological Institute. My job in the TT Met Office was mainly weather forecasting for aviation and maritime services, as well as making local public weather forecasts.

Importantly, I first did the TV weathercast on TTT on Sept 5, 1972. My last was on December 17, 1999. In between, I completed around 4,000 on-air forecasts, comprised of individual local, international and special occasion forecasts and interviews.

In 1999, I left the TnT Met Service where I was Chief Meteorologist, and also the TTT Chief Meteorologist, to take up a job as a Senior Meteorological Scientific Professional at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), at its Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. WMO is a UN Agency. This posting was feather in the cap of Trinidad and Tobago, as the job was advertised globally. The government of the day showed appreciation by awarding me the Medal of Merit for my local career in meteorology, at the 2000 Independence Day Ceremony.

At the WMO, my experience, research and expertise in both meteorology and weather broadcasting were utilized in coordinating and organizing global activities and training in weather forecasting, weather broadcasting, and devising/designing and packaging weather office products for a wide spectrum of public users.

And most importantly, I was tasked with assisting Met Services in the developing countries to boost their capabilities in severe weather forecasting and warning, with a view to promoting the safety and security of populations and property. This entailed direct training, preparation of training manuals and use of whatever scientific, professional experts/expertise we could garner from member countries, on projects.

It was a great experience and my wife Grace and I enjoyed our stay in Switzerland. The job entailed lots of travel and that was a bonus.

Robin Maharaj and his wife Grace.

I retired in 2005 and we migrated to Minnesota, USA, since our only two children, (two boys, the older - Gary - being a highly respected, veteran CEO of biomedical engineering device companies; and the second - Glenn - is a biomedical engineering expert working in research and development), and grandchildren, reside there. Our grandson is a cardiologist and one granddaughter, also a physician. Residing near the core family in the USA was merely a decision to be with our family and see our grandchildren grow, not just to not return to Trinidad.

In retirement, I continued by being very active in the meteorological and environmental sciences, and did produce work and advice in these areas. In addition, over the years I have also written articles and letters to media in different countries, including TT, on pertinent topics and issues, not only weather-related. I am a strong defender of things meteorological, and that includes the Trinidad and Tobago Met Service. My advice has been sought by a few meteorological services in consultative capacity.

You may recall the energy accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima, initiated primarily by the tsunami following the Tōhoku earthquake on 11 March 2011. After the nuclear event, my opinion was sought on Fox News TV here in the USA about the prospects of the spread of radiation in the USA. Excerpts of the interview were played for two days following.

While my interest in meteorology remains high, I have pursued another interest that is more in line with health and lifestyle plans. When I did my first weathercast on TTT in 1972 I weighed 135 lb. When I completed my last weather report 27 years after, I was 165 lb. The TV screen was challenged for space and by age 61 in 2003, I was hitting the scale at over 185 lb. The UN Medical Staff in Geneva, Switzerland, began predicting a range of possible health issues if I did not lose the excess avoir du pois.

My wife, Grace, who kept active and controlled her weight since we met in High School, began insisting I allow her to take control, which she did. She designed a rigid regime of exercise and diet to preempt the dismal forecasts of the UN Doctors and carve a path to my good health. My exercise was primarily walking fast, and long distances on outdoor trails. Under her guidance, I lost 30lb before I retired in 2005. When we migrated to live in Minnesota, USA in 2005, I took personal charge of my exercise regime and walked through all seasons, up to 340 days yearly, completing up to 2,500 miles annually, and my weight dropped to 140lb by 2007.

 During the winters in MinneSNOWta I faced temperatures down to minus 35C, with wind chills below minus 50C. It took true grit and gumption. Then I fell on the ice a few times during the winter of 2011 and the family decided I must not walk outdoors when it is icy. So, I joined a nearby gym in my 70th year. I changed to walking three days weekly between April and October (warmer) and doing gym on the other days. Grace is with me always at the gym, and several times on the walking trails. At the gym my weight increased a bit as I am getting a bit muscular. I weigh 145lb today and I feel strong, healthy and positive.

News of my distance walking have spread to several colleagues, friends and relatives. Some call me Mahal, after the famous Trini walker of yester years. But there was a difference over the past 5 years since I started walking between 3am and 4am, in predawn dark, giving me free reign in our safe and well-lit community, and at a rate of 4 mph. When it dawns, I hit the trails around the lakes here and I would complete between 12 and 20 miles, up to three times weekly, before breakfast. On occasion, and for special reasons, I have completed walking marathons in the past few years. How long can I keep this up? I have no way of predicting but I see no way that I will give up my current lifestyle.

We no longer diet – we eat sensibly. Just say we eat with moderation in moderation. Over the years I used to cook occasionally for the family. In retirement, I do all the cooking. Grace cleans, does laundry and instructs me. We limit oil, fat and carbohydrates. We burn lots of calories daily through exercise and maintaining a high metabolism. We do not eat out, not at McDonalds or in restaurants. I do not eat it if it is in a pack. I drink only water, not even coffee. Of course, we cook versions of TRINI MEALS but we eat based on the saying, IN THE MORNING EAT LIKE A KING, FOR LUNCH EAT LIKE A PRINCE, BUT FOR SUPPER EAT LIKE BEGGAR. Earlier this year our gym chose Grace and me as the Valentine's Day couple. 

I keep active around the house as a handyman, landscaper, fixer of anything, so call me a Jackofalltrades. I remain alert and physically strong, lifting heavy things and taking them up the stairs. I am pushing the envelope and trying to show that being 75 is not as limiting as many think. 

It has been a wonderful life, one that has been rewarding in many ways. The one I wish to mention is the public recognition of my work in weather; that approval helped me improve and to fine-tune my talent. There were times when I might have invited opprobrium, but the kind people stressed my strengths, abilities and talent, and led me to believe in myself. This went on for the period 1972-1999, when I was the public face of the TT Met Service, and I definitely appreciate the public esteem and kindness over that time.

To find that some people remember me on TTT, or from having met me in my public role, is most touching. The internet is a wonderful means of communication and from time to time I am regaled with funny stories or pictures reminding me of my weathercasting days. The one that keeps recurring carries the headline RAIN IN DEY MUDDA ASS TONITE. Did I say that? Let me tell you what the true story is.

While standing by to get the Floor Manager's cue to go ON AIR, and waiting for a commercial to finish, I was asked by the crew leader to give a final test on the microphone. We were always joking and kicksing during breaks so I tested the mic by speaking and summarized the forecast by saying IS RAIN IN DEY MUDDA ASS TONITE. It was a test, not on air. But the Director had the channel ON AIR. Blooper? Not really.  This was in July 1994, if I recall well. DJs and calypsonians made mincemeat of that and I got news from several people over the years, of the line becoming mostly famous, rather than infamous. But I know I am not remembered for that only.

I keep reading of Trinidad's excessive floods resulting for heavy and persistent rainfall, and causing havoc and suffering. Rainfall is an act of nature. I also venture to say that some floods due to heavy rain are unavoidable eventualities. The sheer volume of water is way too much for the natural drainage systems. But the latter are modified by man, his public works, engineering, construction of buildings, roads and pavements. In the process the ground component of the water cycle is severely corrupted and even annulled in places, causing general incapability of the landscape to cope with heavy rainfall, and leaving many people quite vulnerable to property damage and loss of life.

I am certain everybody knows the cause of the problem; I am also certain that the solution is known to authorities with the appropriate responsibility. However, it takes care and understanding of the related issues, and a will and intent to solve the flooding problem. Posturing in government, among officials and regulators prevents flood mitigation.

Evidently, there is need for a comprehensive analysis of every square foot of ground to create a data system to help analyze the related hydrological issues peculiar to localities. It means measuring and documenting everything from land shape and form, geology, tree and shrub cover, drainage, human dwelling and agriculture etc. With that in hand, and with a knowledge of the historical behavior of heavy rainfall in locations, planners can then define what public and environmental works are required to prepare the area from severe flooding. And too, what regulators must insist residents do to prevent and/or cope with dangerous flooding. I am certain that no such comprehensive endeavor has ever been made in Trinidad.

Indiscriminate and unchecked land development, along river basins and on the hill slopes have aggravated flooding. Any action leading to changing of the behavior of surface water flow needs to be regulated and controlled. There are regulations in the books but inadequate regulators to enforce the rules and laws. Even so, bribe-taking corrupts the system allowing for rampant disfiguration of the landscape and flooding. Ordinary people need to take action to force the authorities to do their work and ensure flood attenuation and diminishment.

Robin Maharaj.