A Birmingham resident was quoted several days after the April 27 & 28 Super Tornado Outbreak saying, “There were two things that got me through April 27th: Jesus and James Spann”.
This was an opening statement made at the 26th Annual National Weather Association Coference, held in Birmingham last week, and to me it speaks volumes as to how critically important broadcast meteorologists were in saving lives in April 2011.
The conference lasted several days, with meteorologists from broadcasting and forecasting avenues, coming together to discuss many weather aspects, with the first two days concentrating on the tornadic outbreaks in North Alabama, and Joplin, Missouri in April and May of 2011.
This blog isn’t going to go over everything I learned at this conference, but I’m going to do my best to highlight some of it.
First of all, everyone loves facts. The tornadoes from April 27 & 28 caused 9 billion dollars damage. 62 tornadoes developed over the course of 16 hours, with two EF 4’s tornadoes. Before the supercell outbreak during the afternoon hours, a Mesoscale Convective System blew through the northern 3rd of the state. Basically a squall line of wind driven storms moved through, at times producing EF 3 tornadoes and 100+ mph, and whipping out power to over 500, 000 households, with an estimate of 3.5 people per household. Tornadoes tracked over 2500 miles from those days, with tornadoes on the ground for a collective time of over 5 hours!
This may or may not have contributed to the number of casualties that arose during that event…which caused 251 fatalities in those two days. Several media outlets conducted surveys in the weeks following the outbreak in order to learn about how people may or may not have gotten their information concerning the severe weather. TV was an overwhelming leader, with sirens following.
Several comments noted that when watching TV media, viewers sensed a change in the tone of voice that differed from any other event they had witnessed. A severity that spoke to them beyond the words they were saying. This unquestionably saved lives.
The National Weather Service in Birmingham,Memphis and Huntsvillehad tremendous challenges that day. With a fast moving MCS moving through in the morning, warnings had to be issued very quickly. Within a squall line, tornadoes can be harder to recognize, their signatures are not as easy to denote and can deteriorate quicker than a dangerous tracked path super cell. InSmithville,Mississippion April 27, at one point the NWS was tracking thirteen different tornado warnings at one time. In addition to keeping up with dangerous storms, NWS agencies had to get the warnings out in a fast enough fashion to protect lives. Lead times for tornado warnings from Tuscaloosa varied between 30 and 60 minutes.
On a “routine” severe weather day, a NWS office typically staffs 5-7 officers to man the storms: a coordinator, social media operator and a few radar operators. Social Media operators work on NWS chat which many broadcast meteorologists and emergency management agencies use to acquire directional, intensity information as well as other things. As you can imagine, with 5 hours or tornado warnings they certainly had their hands full. Their challenges include defining roles for staff, being flexible, and giving forecasters adequate rest in order to perform their duties.
Despite the 500,000 homes without power after the first of 3 batches of severe weather between the 27th & 28th, broadcasters played an amazing role in preparing their audience several days in advance for deadly tornadoes. James Spann, Chief at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham still cannot present on the events of that day. It is still too fresh, too emotional. In his eyes, 251 lives were lost on his watch. But how many were saved? Tornados leveled houses, trees and everything in their paths. Debris balls were picked up on radar up to 20,000 feet high….that’s nearly 4 MILES. In Smithville, MS, a town virtually leveled, a Ford Explorer was thrown as high as a water tower, striking it, and then landing ¼ mile away.
A meteorologist from the small town of Joplin, Missourispoke at the conference. Joplinis roughly the size of Dothan, and took a direct hit from an EF5 tornado in May 2011. This one tornado had more fatalities than April 27th & 28th combined, and even struck the hospital. The pain was poignant in this meteorologist’s voice, and he remembered the day that affected everyone. He told the audience there was a hero, who was an elderly woman near death in the hospital who ultimately died. She was a hero, because she told her son that her life was lived, and that he needed to go protect others. This tornado was easier to track by the NWS, because it was one, not dozens. But it was arguably harder to swallow because it was unstoppable. There were damage swaths that ripped tiles from cement, and left paths into the ground at times over a foot deep. Within this type tornado there is nowhere that is safe.
In summary, from the tornadic talks’ aspect of the conference, reflecting on these incidents I refer back to James Spann. He stated “opinions don’t matter, facts matter.” And the fact is to me, that Southerners will never forget the year of 2011. Everyone, those affected and those indirectly affected will always take tornado warnings more seriously now, and be proactive with a plan of action. What was thought could never happen, did happen.Tuscaloosahad not had a tornadic path through the town since the 1930’s. It CAN happen. Heed warnings, watch local media, be flexible and communicate. Be proactive and stay ahead of a storm. Never take for granted day to day life.