Update, July 3, 2019: This post is five years old, but I just discovered that James Spann has a book coming out on weather and also his life in Alabama. Here is more information on him.
Meteorology is a very cerebral science – you have to know a lot about math, physics, fluid dynamics and earth science in order to see what’s happening in the invisible air over our heads.
Television, on the other hand, is a circus show, heavy on the visuals and music.
It’s the job of a television meteorologist to bridge these two worlds, getting the science right and keeping people informed and the station’s ratings high.
Most of the time, the job’s only difficulty would seem to be a search for more entertaining ways to say “periods of sunshine followed by showers.”
When the weather turns severe, however, the TV weather forecaster becomes a crucial link between emergency management services and the general public.
Two legendary TV weathermen are Gary England, former chief meteorologist at KWTV in Oklahoma City, and James Spann, chief meteorologist at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Alabama.
Gary England was born in Dewey County, Oklahoma, in the 1940s and decided to become a television meteorologist in seventh grade. After high school, he joined the Navy and learned meteorology there and at the University of Oklahoma, earning his degree in 1965.
After a stint doing weather for radio station KTOK, England joined KWTV in Oklahoma City in 1972. The only weather tools available to him were two chalkboard maps, a teletype machine and Weather Service faxes.
Rather than rely solely on Weather Service reports, England established a spotter network of ham radio operators. The station also bought a WWII-era radar and hired more meteorologists.
During the June 8, 1974, Oklahoma tornado outbreak, a surprise twister killed 16 people in the KWTV viewing area. England turned to the nearby National Severe Storms Laboratory, where researchers were experimenting with Doppler radar that could look inside a storm and “see” wind shear.
He convinced the station owners it was worth a try, and in 1982, became the first forecaster in history to use Doppler radar (the Weather Service was still using WWII-style radar). England began issuing tornado warnings before the Weather Service, which did not endear him to the federal meteorologists.
In 1991, KWTV purchased a Doppler system that included a computer to interpret data. The station’s software programmers soon developed Storm Tracker software that could predict arrival times, as well as a program that outlined counties under a tornado warning. The station marketed both programs nationwide.
Technology and weather science advanced far enough over the years that, by the time of the May 3-4, 1999, tornado outbreak, warning times ranged from 13 to 65 minutes.
The tornado got a little too close to KWTV for comfort.
Forty people died in Oklahoma on May 3-4, and another 675 were injured. That’s terrible, but given the scale of the outbreak it is a remarkably low number of fatalities.
In its service assessment (PDF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says:
The fact that casualties were low (compared to the many thousands that were affected by the main Oklahoma City tornado) is, in large part, attributable to the effective response of the public to early National Weather Service severe weather warnings. To help enhance public response, the Norman NWSFO has conducted an aggressive preparedness campaign for years in Oklahoma. Within the 3 months prior to the outbreak, 32 spotter training classes were held. In the 5-month period leading up to the outbreak, the office hosted 9 tours, conducted 4 safety presentations, participated in 3 televised safety shows and presented 2 safety displays (information booths) within its CWA. The office also has been active in the state’s annual severe weather awareness week.
Oklahoma City radio and television stations also played a crucial role that led to effective public response. They rapidly communicated National Weather Service warnings and gave hours of live coverage of spotter reports, aerial video and ground-level video of the tornadoes. Using the cable television override capability, the Moore City Emergency Manager broadcast NWS warnings (audio only) to the community. Many radio stations provided simulcasts of the live telecasts from the three primary television stations, as the main tornado approached the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. One television station urged people to get out of the path of this destructive tornado. This statement was cited as one of the reasons many people fled the path of the tornado, only to return to damaged or demolished property.
Gary England continued covering the tornadoes that happened around the Oklahoma City area for KWTV until 2013, when he took a position with the station’s parent company. Perhaps he never expected to see the likes of the May 3, 1999, tornado again.
He would, though, just before he left:
Amazingly, that May 20, 2013, tornado, while it caused catastrophic damage, “only” killed 24 people. Back in the days before TV weather forecasting, the toll would have been in the hundreds.
Tornado season in Oklahoma is generally from March to August.
Another TV weather forecaster, James Spann, faces a different challenge in his Birmingham, Alabama, TV market – where tornado season comes twice a year.
Back in 1999, I moved to the Tuscaloosa area in the late fall, during Alabama’s secondary tornado season (PDF). I can’t count the number of times I huddled in my “safe place” and listened to James Spann and John Oldshue track tornadoes during a warning.
Mr. Spann has been in broadcasting since 1978. He is actually a few years younger than me and a stranger, but I owe him that respectful “Mister.”
Tornado warning coverage from him and Mr. Oldshue has helped me many times to overcome my fear and to stay on top of weather threats nearby.
In 1979, James Spann became the country’s youngest chief broadcast meteorologist. Ten years later, he earned the National Weather Association and American Meteorological Society seals of approval upon his graduation from Mississippi State’s broadcast meteorology program.
In 1996, he began his ongoing work as chief meteorologist at 33/40 (WBMA-LD), ABC’s Birmingham television affiliate.
In 2000, he and fellow meteorologist John Oldshue each won an Emmy for tornado coverage that included these moments:
Nobody thought that would be topped any time soon. Some 11 years later, on a very sad April day, it was.
Is it worth the drama?
I think so, but still wonder sometimes.
The bottom line is not just ratings. TV tornado coverage involves getting information and the longest possible warning time out to the public. In this respect, science and technology have achieved wonders.
The problem is in the link between the meteorologist, who has one foot planted in science and the other in the broadcast arts, and the audience.
We viewers can hear the tension in the voices of meteorologists and see very dramatic real-time footage.
It’s a very intense experience for everybody. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the forecasting field has an overall increased incidence of posttraumatic stress disorder.
It’s wearing on the audience, too.
There are always false alarms. If the first warning you ever get is one of those, it might be pretty easy to stop being scared for your life and to start focusing on the drama in televised tornado coverage.
Frankly, my first warning in Alabama wasn’t a bust, and I still eventually got drawn into the drama.
Altering our behavior
Here is how this all has played out for me.
Back in 1998, a tornado outbreak hit upstate New York.
I was living in the city of Troy then. There probably was local TV coverage, but I never heard it. My friend’s daughter hollered to me to join them in the basement. Without a well-known forecaster to turn to, we didn’t think to bring a radio or portable TV down with us (it was the Nineties – there were no smartphones).
Of course none of us had ever considered buying a weather radio.
My friends and I just huddled down there, thinking, “Well, this is awkward.” The sky turned black outside. We had no idea what to do or expect. Two people that I knew went outside to look at the dramatic sky – they weren’t injured. Luckily for all of us, the twister didn’t touch down until it was a little further east.
In Tuscaloosa, you quickly learned to turn up the radio or TV before heading to the safe shelter (and you made darned sure you had a safe shelter ready).
James Spann or John Oldshue would talk almost continuously, sometimes for hours, telling us where the storm was, where it was heading, and what we might expect and should do.
It was tremendously reassuring, though we were on our own. Technology and human effort were providing us with more information than our ancestors ever had, but we still had to use it to protect ourselves.
I used it very poorly during one warning in September 2005. Mr. Spann had said the tornado was near Lake Tuscaloosa, where I was living at the time, and had just lifted.
I went outside to look for it.
Yes, it was an awesome sight over there across the lake – a huge funnel in the sky, majestically rotating. Luckily for me, no debris happened to be falling and the inflow wasn’t strong enough to knock me off my feet or hammer my unprotected body with deadly objects.
I just never thought of those hazards before going outside. I wanted to see the show – live.
Most people don’t do such stupid things in a tornado, but sometimes a tornado will get you even if you’re smart. Circumstances or habits will keep some members of a TV forecaster’s audience from using helpful information.
According to the NOAA assessment of the historic April 27,2011, tornado outbreak in which over 300 people died – including many in James Spann’s market – the high toll depended on factors that no meteorologist could control:
- Individuals in the affected areas who did not respond to warnings until confirmed by more than one communication source
- People in the paths of the storms who waited for visual confirmation before taking protective action
- The rapid pace of the storms, which moved at 45-70 mph, giving people who waited for secondary confirmation a smaller window of time in which to take shelter
- Residences that did not have adequate storm shelters
Had I not been back up in New York state, had I still been down on my luck and living in Alberta City (or East Tuscaloosa as the Post Office calls it) that day, I would have died.
I marked this AP photograph with a yellow circle to show the location, as near as I can tell, of the little apartment house where I used to live. That smear of debris just to the right and in front of the circle is where the house once stood, the one the landlord told us to shelter in during a tornado warning.
Those of us who couldn’t catch a ride out of harm’s way would have been over in that house, listening to streaming coverage as we hid in closets or the bathroom (few buildings have basements in the South). Then…we wouldn’t have needed it any more, as that unmistakeable freight-train roar got louder and louder….
Gah! Over three years later, and I still get the willies.
I’ve never watched the Spann/Oldshue coverage of that April 27, 2011, Tuscaloosa tornado. It’s too personal.
I am cured of stupid actions now. It’s true, what NOAA said in their service assessment of that event:
Many respondents said they had been changed by this event, and that seeing the destruction had changed their perceptions. They had gone from perceiving a tornado as unlikely and therefore not requiring action, to being motivated to take action despite tornadoes being low- probability occurrences. Devastation from this event, even for those without personal loss, personalized the risk for survivors. The NWS should consider distributing photos and videos of damage to Websites or to media outlets as a way to help people see the destructive potential of major tornadoes. Interviews with survivors may also be effective.
I hope this article is helpful, too, if only in some small way. And I also want to thank all TV forecasters who work so hard and selflessly.
Now, let’s all of us – audience, forecasters, emergency management people, media and government authorities, and scientists – work together and get those fatality and injury numbers even lower.
- Service Assessment, Oklahoma/Southern Kansas Tornado Outbreak of May 3, 1999 (PDF). NOAA
- Service Assessment, The Historic Tornadoes of April 2011 (PDF). NOAA
- Mathis, Nancy. Storm Warning. Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 2007
- Gary England. Wikipedia
- James Spann. Wikipedia.