By RICK WATSON
During spring and fall in our state, Mother Nature often throws us a curve: a potent mix of warm air, cool air, and other more exotic ingredients make the atmosphere as volatile as matches and gasoline.
Where does one turn for immediate weather information, when the sky looks even more threatening than usual?
Most of us in central Alabama have never met James Spann, chief meteorologist at ABC 33/40 and a Greystone resident, but we feel like we already know him, especially after the April tornadoes.
“James Spann has probably saved more lives in central Alabama than penicillin,” Randy Palmer of Tuscaloosa said.
Casie Bridges and Regina Hicks of Argo can testify that listening to Spann’s on-air reports that day saved their lives. They were in the path of the tornado and took shelter when Spann said the storm was near. Their homes were heavily damaged, but they came out okay.
Since that historic week, Spann and his team have spent a lot of time trying to decompress. Their days following the disaster were consumed with site surveys, meetings and evaluating their performance during the emergency.
Spann said his team did a pretty good job of predicting the tornado outbreak and getting the warnings to the public. The problem was that no one realized the path of the storms would be so widespread.
When the topic turns to the number of deaths, his face saddens. “When we learned that more than 230 people died,” he said, “we felt at that moment that we’d done a horrible job.”
But a few days after the disaster, Spann and his team met with National Weather Service representatives from Washington. The NWS specialist told them that without those intensive real-time warnings as many as 3,000 people could have died in the storms.
One factor that set these storms, and their warnings, apart was how Spann used not only traditional TV and radio, but also social media – Facebook, Twitter and other tools – to warn people of the impending disaster. “Many kids today don’t watch my newscast, and they don’t read the paper,” he said. “Some people make fun of me for using social media, but if we hadn’t, I believe a lot more college kids might have died.”
Spann said he’s always been an early adopter of new technology. He got into ham radio as a kid, and his fascination with technology has continued throughout his life.
Saving lives with skycams
ABC 33/40 was one of the first stations to install video tower cameras, giving the weather team a way to see approaching storms in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Anniston. In December of 2000, when violent weather struck just days before Christmas, it was 33/40’s tower cam that showed the tornado live on the ground.
Spann said he’s always believed that if you can show viewers a tornado on the ground and heading in their direction, they’ll take action. But the early tower cams were cumbersome and hard to manipulate by remote control.
After the tornadoes in 2000, Spann went on a quest to improve that technology. He found other types of cameras that were better suited for the weather team, and ABC 33/40 now has some two dozen of them throughout central Alabama. Their goal is to eventually have 500.
In addition to the Skycams, Spann and his team host sky-watcher training sessions each year in November. At the first meeting they trained some 50 volunteer weather observers, and the number has grown significantly each year since.
Some of the sky-watchers use cameras on the dashboards of their vehicles to capture even more compelling video from the field. “John Oldshue is one of the unsung heroes of April 27,” said Spann. “He captured that big wedge tornado on the ground when it was still 30 miles south of Tuscaloosa. That dramatic video convinced a lot of people to take cover.”
Spann feels that the cameras and other technology are literally saving lives—as is the practice of preempting regular programming when a tornado warning has been issued anywhere in the station’s direct market area (DMA).
“During the negotiations with the family-owned company, part of the deal was that whenever tornado warnings are issued by the National Weather Service for our DMA, we immediately go live.” Now, the policy is practiced by other local TV stations.
Another skill that makes Spann effective at his job is his encyclopedic knowledge of central Alabama’s geography: “You can tell people a tornado is south of Clanton, and they may not act. But if you tell them it’s approaching Jim’s BBQ, they know exactly where that is,” he said. He learned about these small towns by taking what he calls “the road less traveled,” but that’s a story for another time.
Spann’s regular on-air shift at ABC 33/40 is evenings from 2 until 11 p.m., but he’s up at 4:52 a.m. each morning writing blogs, doing radio (he’s on 27 stations across the country), answering emails, tweeting, posting to Facebook and other work online. He rarely gets to bed before 1 a.m.
In his “spare time,” Spann speaks to kids at various schools across central Alabama.
After April 27, he wanted to do more than report on the weather. He’s since gotten personally involved with the relief effort, working with a team of volunteers who have fanned out into affected areas to bring emergency supplies and help with cleanup. The Sunday after the tornadoes hit, he led a team to Cordova in Walker County to do whatever they could to help. They picked up debris, entertained children and talked to residents.
One woman whose house the team cleaned was surprised to see Spann. “Where’s the camera, James?” she asked.
“There’s no camera,” he said. “I’m just here to help. I don’t really like cameras.”
When Spann’s not doing weather, he stays active in the community and leads children’s worship at Double Oak Community Church in Mt Laurel. He’s a past trustee for the Alabama Baptist Children’s Home and is the (unpaid) chairman of the board for Trinity Medical Center, which has plans to move its Montclair facility down to Highway 280.
Even with this hectic schedule, Spann spends time in the morning with his wife, Karen. The family gets together most evenings—sometimes for a meal, and sometimes at the baseball field to watch Ryan, their 13-year-old son, play. Spann and Karen also have an older son, 26-year-old James Spann, Jr., who is heading to Mississippi State to become—surprise, a meteorologist.