On that early spring afternoon, the air was unsettled and the temperature was in the 80s. The clouds welled up, as they always seem to, out of deep-west central Alabama, rising, cohering and finally spinning back into the earth, heading north and east. They turned into tornadoes of varying sizes, cutting horrible swaths through the green countryside, killing a lot of people and displacing many more.
The awful, unexpected storms beggared description. “It sounded like 49 trains running wide open,” said one survivor. In Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama students joined in to assist the injured. In Cullman County, a twister left a 20 mile trail of destruction. Whole communities were smashed to splinters, and the governor traveled for days after the event, trying to reach all the damaged areas throughout the state. After some time, it was determined that 298 citizens had died of the weather and almost 2000 more were injured. It would go down in history as Alabama’s worst natural disaster of the century.
In that century, the year was 1932. When a dangerously similar scenario developed 79 years later, practically everything had changed in Alabama except its predisposition to generate killer storms. In this century, despite having a large, mobile population and a sophisticated forecast system, nearly 300 lives had again been lost to the implacable fury of tornadoes.
As you read elsewhere in these pages, you will see that each witness to last week’s catastrophe experienced it inimitably. Many of us spared by the storm experienced it vicariously, through a marathon performance by a local TV weatherman at the top of his game.
You cannot live in this state and not respect the tornado, but it is understandable that we get jaded by its ubiquity. Too, the era of the Weather Channel stormchaser has made us falsely conversant with the lore and lingo of killer storms; it’s not just a tornado, it’s a Cantore Story. We are often lulled into thinking a tornado watch is just another event to plan around.
The miserable truth is that we dwell among tornadoes as pan fish among sharks, never truly knowing when the brute killing machines will turn on us. Expert witnesses cite the homicidal caprice of tornado winds with equal parts of awe and disgust. A hurricane has a track unimpeded by topography, and you’ll see it coming a week away. A tornado has a hook echo. You’re really just seeing where it’s already been.
James Spann is possibly the reason you even know what a hook echo is. Arguably the most recognizable citizen of this realm, he and Birmingham were fated for one another, bound by a mutual fascination with weather. He wears the mantle of fame lightly, having walked as a broadcasting god among mortals most of his life (he was still in high school when he broke out as a rock jock, hair and all, on WTBC radio in Tuscaloosa).
Spann learned different nuances of the air from amateur radio and meteorology and brought them to television starting in 1978, first in Tuscaloosa, then in Montgomery, then Birmingham. After a mid-80s stint in Dallas, he and his family came back to the Magic City in 1989, starting at WBRC-TV and jumping to ABC 33/40 in 1996. At each stop, his expertise deepened and his audience share grew, to the point at which he was practically able to mandate whether a station would air its contractual network programming at times when it seemed the public’s need to know the weather should prevail. Other stations were obliged to follow his lead, which is why local television seems to go into lock down every time a major weather event threatens.
Often a threat does not materialize, and in those instances some people mutter darkly about missing their favorite shows so that TV weathermen can strut their stuff and pad their portfolios. Meteorologists, though, derive their pleasure less from performance than from contemplation. The high science of weather is what drew them to the field—Mr. Cantore perhaps excepted—and not the chance to gesticulate across a green screen.
What James Spann was part of last Wednesday was the ultimate test of a broadcast journalist, and as a primary portal for information in a weather emergency, he rose to an awful occasion. Up early to deal with the dangerous morning storm bursts that hammered Cullman, he was back on the air again in the afternoon as a dozen F-4 funnels ravaged the countryside, staying late into the harrowing night.
Not to make light of calamity, but watching Spann broadcast that day was like watching Jordan at Chicago Stadium or Tiger at Augusta. In the zone. So prepared was he by experience and technology that he was able to construct an instantaneous framework of narrative for what appeared to be an arbitrary assault from the clouds. When he realized the scope of the horror bearing down, his shock was palpable, but his first response was to delineate articulately the options of the viewers (and listeners; many who lost power to their televisions were still able to follow him on radio).
Revisiting just one hour’s coverage reveals Spann’s attributes. At 5:40 p.m., he already had Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox on the phone for a first evaluation of what had just happened in the Druid City; Maddox said he had been watching Spann’s feed for information. As the mayor acknowledged that damage was substantial, Spann narrowly eyed his laptop, where radar graphics showed nothing but bad news.
As he mapped the itinerary of the killer storm heading toward Birmingham from Tuscaloosa, Spann went over a civic checklist for hospitals, hotels and even the Birmingham Airport, where, he said, “Nobody needs to be standing by a window.” Now calling the situation “a tornado emergency,” he briskly explicated the terrain down to street level in Pleasant Grove, Concord and vicinity, giving viewers easy local references to describe the path of the vortex.
Spann’s knowledge of Alabama geography is vast, likely based on having driven all those two-lane back roads to speak to civic groups in little towns all over the viewing area. He knows his mile markers, he knows his high-profile ‘cue joints'. One half expects him to call out street addresses by family name when he gets rolling good.
On this night, however, no banter. With fellow weatherman Jason Simpson adjacent, Spann became the director of the broadcast, calling for specific sky camera shots from around the area to get different angles of the storm, then asking for a “double box” on the screen, with the studio shot in one and a sky cam in the other. He correctly predicted that the Red Mountain ridge would be a border for the incoming storm event and, urging drivers to get off I-59/20, repeated, “You must respect this deadly situation.”
Offscreen, Simpson passed on sky watchers’ reports of “constant roaring.” The tornado was heading for the Magic City at 55 miles an hour.
Down the road, stormchasers John Brown and Mike Wilhelm had a camera mounted on their vehicle’s dashboard, and Spann took that streaming video live a few minutes before six. Near Bessemer, he spotted his quarry. “There it is,” he said as the camera swung around to capture the deep black funnel. “That is one large tornado.” He called for a double box of the stream and the current radar pattern.
With the tornado now into the metro area, Spann called for a camera atop the Daniel Building downtown to pan west. The image that filled that lens was jaw-dropping. “I’ve got it zoomed all the way out,” Simpson said. “You can’t see the entire tornado.” The funnel cloud was easily a mile wide, and Spann correctly projected that Forestdale and Fultondale were targeted next. “This is just a monster,” he said, passing on quick news of houses leveled and possible injuries in Hueytown.
At 6:05, he put up a Department of Transportation camera feed from Red Mountain that limned the storm even more starkly. Two minutes later, veteran stormchaser John Oldshue made a first report from Tuscaloosa. Saying it looked like a 5000 pound bomb had gone off on 15th Street, he gave the now-familiar list of businesses and eateries erased by the afternoon tornado strike.
Spann switched to a stream from other chasers, Brian Peters and Dr. Ted Coleman. As he read out the fragmentary reports he was receiving, he noted, “This thing is heartbreaking, but we have to carry on because this thing is far from over.” Sure enough, at 6:17, a new, deadly tornado signature appeared on the radar between Brent and Centreville just as the one that passed through Birmingham, now headed for Trussville, seemed to be losing its congruence. Though the organization of that funnel might have weakened somewhat, he warned, “You’ve got to pay attention to both of these.”
In fact, there were at least four killers on the map at that moment, and Spann pulled back to point each out, including one nearing Arley in Walker County and another near Greensboro in Hale County. At 6:36, he observed that the Centreville tornado was showing a reading of 12.8 on the Significant Parameter index, “which technically is a zero-to-ten scale.” He noted that these storms were not likely to be hit-and-run, but long track, violent storms. He repeated his advice to clear specific roads of traffic and at 6:47 was taken to a full stop by information on his laptop: “You can stand at the corner of University Mall in Tuscaloosa and see all the way to Coleman Coliseum.” That could only mean that everything in between, a considerable amount of infrastructure, had been flattened. It was not an augury for a good outcome in James Spann’s old hometown.
What sets James Spann apart in an instance such as this is the sense of authority he exudes, based on a consummate command of the information he is asked to impart. There is no sense that he must reach for an explanation; all seems to be at his fingertips. What’s more, he is able to handle a prodigious amount of information—arriving via computer, his in-room collaborators and the IBF earpiece he wears—assess it instantaneously and present it fluently. That he makes this look so effortless is a significant portion of the gravitas that makes him a peerless broadcast anchor.
Sadly, the weather coverage that night was not followed by comparably comprehensive news reportage. It is logistically difficult to report a breaking story from the storm track of a tornado. Chaos can dictate confusion to the best of reporters. Nevertheless, that’s why they were hired in the first place, as the best options to make sense of chaos.
That Wednesday night, though, chaos had a pretty good run on every channel. Many news gatherers arriving on scene in Tuscaloosa, for example, carried small video cameras but had little apparent sense of how to frame a shot, so indecipherable were the images flashed back to viewers. Worse, unfamiliar with the area, they could provide no geographic perspective for the damage they were witnessing. Worst, they lacked vocabulary. “I have no words to describe what I am looking at,” said one dazed gatherer, confessing a crucial shortcoming for one who would be a journalist.
Without a context to frame it, reportage is no more valuable or helpful than the torrent of tweets from a disaster site. Those of us who watched Wednesday night in vain for details of the destruction could feel the fail, especially in areas close to home such as Concord and Pleasant Grove.
Things started shaking out with morning’s light, when areas of concern could be more readily identified and investigated. The news flow became a stream of unforgettable images alongside the endless crawl of data on the bottom of the screen. As more reporters moved in on the ground to relay the stories of survivors, aerial footage confirmed the awful scope of the calamity.
This event was anomalous, but it underlines some everyday concerns we should have about the quality of news we receive from our publicly licensed television channels, especially since the Ask Alabama survey in 2009 showed that 56 percent of us get our Alabama news from local television. Saving money by hiring less experienced news gatherers is good business but bad journalism. What good does “touching the story” do a reporter if he or she has no clear sense of what the story is? We are thrilled to see the stormchaser’s video of a funnel, but we are perplexed by the reporter holding a brick to illustrate what the funnel has done.
Social media can and should be integrated into broadcast news to improve its response time, but not without structure and critical oversight. James Spann was able to offer a glimpse of news future through his team of volunteer videographers, each of whom had been specially trained and equipped to retrieve images pertinent to the story at hand. As he told The New York Times last week, “If you can show a live tornado with a camera, there’s no doubt that people will react in a more urgent way.”
We do not know what the future holds for families and communities now rebuilding in the wake of the April horror. All we know is that this is Alabama, and that tornadoes always return. With luck, James Spann will be there to warn us when.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.