My head hurts.
It could be from the abrupt change in the temperature from Birmingham to Bowling Green but it’s probably more from the depth of information my brain soaked in this week at the 36th Annual National Weather Association Conference.
As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts from this week, this has been a week of learning from Mother Nature. We all agree that no matter how much we think we know, there is still much to learn. Mysteries remain from the incredible tornado outbreaks of April and May. However, the data that was gathered will go a long way in helping those of us in broadcast meteorology better prepare you for the next outbreak.
The compelling videos, the detailed PowerPoint slides and the chilling recount from those that lived through those killer tornadoes all got to me. And I can attest that TV doesn’t do it justice. Even six months later, there are parts of Alabama…not just Tuscaloosa and Birmingham…that remain in ruin from the EF4 and EF5 tornadoes.
Many of us who do TV weather took time from the comfort of the hotel meeting rooms to venture out to places such as Tuscaloosa, Bessemer, Fultondale and Cullman. When you stand amidst the rubble and easily visualize the path of the tornadoes, you get a cold chill. In some places, only slabs of homes and businesses remain while others either stand condemned or just a shell of what they once were.
Granted, the majority of the affected towns are untouched and life goes on as usual. But the lines of destruction are clearly marked…as if crossing into another dimension…the look of everything changes. You begin to see signs of promise like “We’re Coming Back!” and “You Can’t Keep Us Down”. Driving through some of the neighborhoods in Tuscaloosa you peer through the windows where families are repainting and repairing all they can. I tried putting myself in their position and I can’t even begin to imagine all they’ve been through. Six months later, the storm is still very real.
Being there – where the tornadoes struck – taught me more than any class ever could. Still, there are so many things I still don’t know…we still don’t know. This gathering was more than a bunch of weather geeks getting together and talking shop. It was a learning experience.
Probably the most compelling day of the National Weather Association Conference was the public Town Hall meeting which put those affected by the April 27th tornadoes in the same room with first responders, National Weather Service meteorologists and TV broadcasters.
A cross-section of those living in the path of the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado which killed 238 Alabamians (52 of those in Tuscaloosa) were invited to take part in this special Town Hall to answer questions and offer insight about how they responded to the high risk of weather dangers that unfolded that day.
Using a unique direct-response electronic device, the respondents were asked several questions including “how seriously did you take the tornado warnings that were issued” to “what was your number one source of getting word of the warnings”. The responses showed within seconds on large screens at the Wynfrey Hotel meeting room for all of us to see.
For instance, the respondents said that NOAA weather radio and local TV was their number one source for learning of the severe weather threat and to monitor for warnings.
A few others went on to comment that they trust “the sound of the voice of their local TV weather person” in severe weather situations. Further, the “tone of urgency” in their voice compels people to take further action.
Another question posed to the panel “can there be too much time between the issuance of a warning and the actual storm?” 56% said “No”.
As a member and sealholder of the National Weather Association, I will receive a copy of the entire questionnaire and results of tonight’s Town Hall in the coming weeks. In fact, I think it might be good to hold a version of this meeting in Southern Kentucky. It would be interesting to see if responses to the questions would be answered differently in our area.
I’ll grant you this, tonight’s Town Hall was both enlightening and educational. It was also humbling to hear from some of the actual victims of the tornadoes describe how they watched TV, heard the warnings, lost power and then sought shelter as best they could.
It certainly gives me a whole new perspective on how we cover the weather and I look forward to bringing some of what I’ve learned back home to you.
I’ve got another full day tomorrow including a presentation that I will give to my fellow meteorologists who use WeatherCentral products as we do at WBKO. I will be showing other stations how to use live webcam images with Mesonet data. Apparently, WBKO is one of the few stations in the country that does this on a regular basis!
Day 3 of the National Weather Association Conference in Birmingham was filled with reviews of the April and May tornado outbreaks. Many of the talks centered on the atmospheric setup for each event and how the National Weather Service handled the issuance of warnings on those days.
There was much discussion about the warning polygons themselves. Those are the boxes you see on top of the radar images that show where the potential tornado is located and the direction the storm is moving. One of the NWS mets from the Birmingham office suggested the possibility of extending the length of the polygon from the usual 30 minute warning time to 60 minutes. His thinking is by the time a 30-minute warning is issued, it’s already time to issue another warning after a 10 minute period in order to adequately warn the folks down the line. Therein lies the confusion to those watching TV or trying to keep up with “who” is under the current warning.
In the future, there is some discussion of issuing warnings by zip code. Who doesn’t know their zip code? Many have stated…even to me…that they just don’t understand things like “Northwestern Barren County” or “Eastern Hart County”. Just where are those places and is it going to affect me? Maybe if we started saying “the tornado will hit 42210, 42104 and 42221 in the next 20 minutes that would better grab the attention of those in danger? I don’t know.
The most compelling part of this day was my trip over to Tuscaloosa. My friend Brandon Robinson who does the weather at our sister-station WYMT in Hazard decided to take the 45-minute drive Monday afternoon and asked me to go with him. We were curious to see how much progress in recovery had taken place since the killer tornado struck there on April 27th.
It was eerie to still see the path the EF4 tornado took through one of the main business and residential districts of Tuscaloosa…just missing the hospital and the University. And while I saw damaged homes being rebuilt and a spirit of pride and strength of the people there, there were many homes still in ruin, businesses that will not return and 238 lives that cannot be replaced.
It was chilling to see up close even six months later.
Scenes like these not only motivate me to do my job better but leads me to pray we never have devastation like this in Southern Kentucky…or anywhere for that matter.
Well, I’ve got another full day of training ahead of me.
God bless y’all!