Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Memories of April 27, 2011 – Mississippi & Alabama Storm Chase Account

5:10 p.m. 4/27/11, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Memories of April 27, 2011 – My Storm Chase Account


This is a personal account of my experiences as a storm chaser on April 26 and 27, 2011 in Mississippi and Alabama. This is just my story, as best as I can tell it. Over time, as information becomes available and my memories are triggered, I will periodically update this post with additional narrative, links, photos, or video.
I partially regret that I have waited eight months to compose a synopsis of my activities during the historic April 27, 2011 Super Outbreak of Tornadoes. The main reason we chase is to provide a public service by assisting in the warning process. My partner, John Brown and I have been Skywatchers for ABC 33/40 in Birmingham for many years. James Spann, Jason Simpson, Brian Peters, and Ashley Brand have assembled a great system of communicating with and training storm spotters for Central Alabama. It has been an honor to serve with this group for several years. John, Rick Lipscomb and I have spoken about our chase among ourselves and with friends, and we have all appeared on various local and national media outlets. Twenty four hours after the Tuscaloosa tornado, I spoke live by phone with KTEN TV in Texas. My most extensive interview was live on WHNT Channel 19 a few mornings later with Meteorologist Ben Smith. This is a shorter version of the interview as seen on the evening news. John was interviewed by ABC News Nightline and other media outlets. We told our story on the Weatherbrains podcast. In these interviews we told the story, but eight months later, I feel ready to relive the day in detail and put my memories in writing. I know John and Rick agree that it was a day that we will never forget and it will haunt us the rest of our lives. I have also spoken about the day on a few occasions with close friends, especially some of my closer friends in the weather community. Frankly, like others who witnessed the tragedy unfold, I have found it easier to spend the last eight months avoiding the subject. I usually post about my chase accounts immediately on this blog, but to this day I have said very little about my experiences on April 27. Witnessing the Tuscaloosa tornado was a shocking experience. I remember the next day my friend and fellow chaser, Jennifer New, asked how I was doing emotionally. I thought I was doing pretty well, but the depth and the shock of the tragedy really started hitting home in the coming days. She has encouraged me to tell the story. I think it is a story worth telling, and if I wait too long I will begin to forget details.

The story of my April 27, 2011 storm chase actually began eight days earlier. I pay close attention to forecast models, especially during the primary severe weather season. I also pay close attention to forecasters who look at the models closely who are much more knowledgeable than I. As early as Tuesday April 19, ABC 33/40 Chief Meteorologist James Spann mentioned in his morning “Weather Xtreme” video (this is his map discussion that he usually produces twice a day) that severe weather was a possibility on the 27th. By the next morning, the 20th, James said it could be a “significant severe weather outbreak”. On Friday April 22, James was mentioning the possibility of tornadoes, as was the National Weather Service Birmingham in their Hazardous Weather Outlook. Models were quite consistent in portraying a setup favorable for tornadoes as many as five days in advance. I asked to be off work on Friday the 22nd. As April 27 approached, confidence continued to increase that there would be multiple waves of severe weather, including the possibility of long-tracked supercells. By Monday the NWS Birmingham was referring to the storm system as “dangerous” and predicted the possibility of “strong, long-track tornadoes”. I later wrote an extensive blog post showing details of how local media and NWS offices forecasted this event.

With all of these ominous forecasts and the staggering severe weather indices that models were showing, Wednesday the 27th was obviously a day that I wanted to be out chasing. I was getting nervous, though, because I still had not been approved for leave at work. I finally received approval at 3:30 Tuesday April 26. I immediately texted my partner John Brown and we started formulating plans. He and I exchanged several texts and calls that evening. I also was contacted by my friend Rick Lipscomb, an Alabama native, who was going to drive up from South Georgia and tandem chase with John and I. The idea of the system coming in the form of two or three waves was still being shown by the models late Tuesday afternoon. By 4 p.m. portions of North Mississippi were placed in a "High Risk" area by the Storm Prediction Center. After leaving work, I immediately filled my vehicle with gasoline, drove home, studied every model and forecast I could look at, and called John and Rick.

The three of us decided to begin the chase that night. We decided to meet in Cullman around 11 p.m. at the Days Inn parking lot on the US 278 exit on Interstate 65. I drove from Huntsville and got there at 11:10 and caught about an hour of sleep in my vehicle while I waited for John to arive from Birmingham and Rick to arrive from Georgia. After Rick and John arrived just after Midnight we discussed our plan further. We didn’t necessarily expect to see a whole lot at night but we wanted to be positioned in the best possible location for the main events on the 27th. We decided to head west on US Highway 278. Around 1:15 a.m. the Storm Prediction Center issued a "High Risk" for North Alabama and surrounding areas. We saw our first storm in Hamilton, Alabama around 3:30 a.m. It was a strong thunderstorm with intense lightning and gusty winds. Jennifer Watson of WVTA Tupelo reported a severe thunderstorm warning for Lamar and Marion counties in Alabama until 4:30 a.m. with the possibility of winds of 70 mph. As we headed toward Tupelo on US 78, we encountered another storm between Hamilton and the Alabama State line. The lightning was almost constant between 3:45 and 4 a.m. These were the first of countless storms we would witness over the next 36 hours.

When we got to Tupelo we pulled into a Waffle House parking lot. I studied ongoing weather data as well as forecasts, and tried (mostly unsucessfully) to take a brief nap. Storms continued to fire that morning. Not long after breakfast, Pontotoc County, northwest of Tupelo, was placed under a tornado warning. At 9:15 a.m. there was a brief tornado at Esperanza, Mississippi, with minor damage. The clouds were impressive and very picturesque.

9:29 a.m., northwest of Tupelo, Mississippi

We saw what might have been a wall cloud, but nothing definite. As with all of the storms we had seen, the winds were very gusty and the lightning was intense. I recorded some video of the skies when we ate at Waffle House, along with the storm west of Tupelo on US 78 from 9:12 and 9:30. The video includes my discussion with Greg Nordstrom, Instructor of Meteorology at Mississippi State who is also a phenomenal storm chaser. He expressed grave concern about the nature of the environment, the type of supercells that we might see during the afternoon, and the danger it would pose to the public and also to any inexperienced chasers who might be out driving.

While we were in North Mississippi during the morning we were hearing about severe storms with numerous damage reports in Alabama counties such as Marion, Pickens, Fayette, Tuscaloosa, Walker, Jefferson, and Shelby. We later learned that the damage was more extensive than initially reported and that some of the damage was produced by tornadoes. After the storm we witnessed northwest of Tupelo, the temperature dropped into the 50’s in northeast Mississippi. We made the decision to drive southeast into West Alabama where the air was more unstable.

As we drove south through Marion, Fayette and northern Tuscaloosa counties that morning we began to realize that the morning round of storms produced a great deal of damage to the communications infrastructure. This would prove to be a significant problem later in the day as it hindered people from receiving warnings. Power, cell phone, and internet service was out due to the extensive damage produced by the morning severe weather events. John, Rick, and I were handicapped for several hours without access to much in the way of weather data. We pulled up to a gas station and couldn't purchase gasoline because they were out of power and the credit card machines were down. Our instincts told us that supercell storms that afternoon would move through the I 20-59 corridor, but now we had added reason to chase in that area. We did not want to be stuck in Fayette, Marion, or Walker counties without data or cell phone service. For quite some time, John and I were chasing "old school", relying on nothing but NOAA Weather Radio, scanner, and occasional reports on commercial radio. Driving south through northern Tuscaloosa County we saw numerous trees down from the morning storms on Highway 171. I received a call from my friend Craig Woodham. He and his wife were considering driving home to Tuscaloosa from Mobile that afternoon. I advised against it. Craig told me that a family we know, Reginald and Danielle Eppes, who live in Coaling in eastern Tuscaloosa County, had apparently been in a tornado that morning at their home. You can listen to their miraculous story on National Public Radio, here. Here is another story on them in the UK's Daily Mail. Craig didn't know all of the details at the time, but that was a sad precursor of things to come for the Tuscaloosa area.

Jim Stefkovich, Meteorologist-in-Charge of the NWS Birmingham gave a chilling and accurate prediction of what to expect after the morning storms passed, live on 100 WAPI's Matt Murphy Show late in the morning of April 27.

John, Rick, and I stopped at the Burger King in Northport, across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa just after Noon. The temperature was 20-25 degrees warmer than what we experienced near Tupelo. It was now up to the lower 80’s here! The air was very humid and turbulent. As we ate at Burger King, John Brown uttered these words, “Someone is going to die today. They just don’t know it yet.” Those words hit hard but rang true to Rick and I. One thing I like about John and Rick is they take the public service aspect of chasing very seriously. It is our goal that we can play a part in the warning process so that loss of life can be prevented. John’s words were sobering, and sadly, all too true.

We stayed in Northport for nearly two hours, watching the satellite, radar, and mesoscale analysis page on the SPC site very closely. The severe weather parameters were off the chart! We felt like we were in the prime location, but all of North and Central Alabama was in danger. Finally, just before 2:00 p.m., we decided to head west towards Pickens County, near the Alabama/Mississippi border, west of Tuscaloosa. Storms were exploding in Mississippi.

By 3:30 we were on a tornado-warned storm in Pickens County. This was the scariest part of the chase. John, Rick, and I debated as to what we needed to do to be safe. We were not really in the safest place relative to the storm. We were on the north side of Pickensville as the tornado formed to our east. After it formed and we drove east to follow it, we ran into tree and power lines in the road. This storm eventually produced EF4 damage in Cordova in Walker County. This is my video of the formation of this tornado, along with the location it touched down.

When we came up on the initial damage (trees down on the road), our chase came to a major crossroads. Should we try to follow this storm or try to intercept a storm entering Greene County that was on a course for Tuscaloosa? John suggested hightailing it to Tuscaloosa. I was not confident that we could make it to Tuscaloosa ahead of the storm. But seeing that we had little alternative and considering that we always had the option of pulling back to be safe, I agreed with John. It was about 3:35 p.m. when we made the decision to go to Tuscaloosa. It was around this time that we were seeing ABC 33/40 cover a tornado live on towercam in Cullman. I tried calling my family there to make sure they were safe.

John was driving his truck. Rick was following us in his truck. We made our way to US Highway 82. This thoroughfare brings you into Tuscaloosa County from the west. We passed through the communities of Buhl and Coker, west of Northport. I was still unsure if we were far enough ahead of the storm to have time to get south in front of it. To make matters worse, Rick was behind us, and we didn't know how far. I told John we needed to hustle south over the Black Warrior River and get down I-359 as soon as we could. As we crossed the river, I looked west out of the passenger window. I saw an amazing display of cloud to ground lightning due west of Tuscaloosa. Bolts of lightning were striking in what appeared to be the same location repeatedly. Comparing what I was seeing to our Gibson Ridge Radar software, the lightning was striking out of the rain free base immediately ahead of what was later confirmed to be the tornado. It was a hectic time. We were having to navigate and keep track of the storm on radar and in the sky. John's GPS link to the radar software was a great tool in helping us get in a safe place relative to the storm. But it was not the only thing. Years of spotter training and a knowledge of the geography of the area served us well. We could not see the tornado at this point. We knew by now we were safely ahead of the storm but we were concerned about Rick. If he followed the same route, we wondered if he would run into the tornado. Frustratingly, I could not reach him by phone.

At this point, emotions and adrenaline were off the charts. I had a sense that this was going to be a major tornado by the time it approached Tuscaloosa. We then heard a report on ABC 33/40 that Meteorologist John Oldshue had streamed live video of a tornado leaving Greene County and entering Tuscaloosa County. Around this same time, Dr. Tim Coleman and Brian Peters were witnessing and reporting a large tornado on Interstate 22 in Walker County. I suggested to John that we go east on I 59-20 and pull off the interstate at the McFarland Boulevard Exit (U.S. Highway 82). We were on the ramp so in addition to having a great view of the sky we also had a very important escape route to the south or the east if we needed it.

After we pulled off, we grabbed our cameras and video cameras. While filming, I continued to try to reach Rick. I finally reached him by phone. He was seeing the tornado and seemed to be safe before I lost the connection again. Here is his video. As I said in my video, we really were in the perfect spot. We saw the tornado gradually appear on the horizon. As it did, within seconds, it appeared massive as it approached Tuscaloosa. John managed to report this on the ABC 33/40 Skywatcher chat. This tornadic storm in Tuscaloosa was streamed live on Ustream from 4:40 until 5:20. ABC 33/40's James Spann and Jason Simson covered the storm live as did The Weather Channel's Greg Forbes.

Words cannot express what went through my mind as I witnessed this beast approach a town I love and lived in for eight years. As it approached I imagined someone was about to be killed while he walked to his car after paying for his gas. I imagined a little old lady who might lose her life as she walked out of the grocery store. My mind was racing with thoughts of people being unaware of the danger headed their way. I felt helpless! It was too late to even send another report to help Tuscaloosa residents. All I could do was pray!

My video:

John's video:

If you watch my video, you will hear me say repeatedly, "Jesus help these people," or "Jesus help these people be safe." I have been amazed at the amount negative response to this on YouTube. There were so many hateful, derogatory, obscene, mean, and attacking comments about the fact that I prayed. I had many people ask that I turn the comments off on the video because some were so vile. I thought about it but I think it reflects the reality of this world and we should let people voice their opinions. Also, about the video, I took it down from YouTube for several days. It seems it was being stolen by certain media outlets and I was advised to bring it down until it could be protected. Thanks to Kendra Reed with KDR Media for help with this. It was a shame because John helped me get it online at his house within two hours of the tornado and it garnered a lot of interest. Not that it matters in the big scheme of things, but it would have had hundreds of thousands of more views.

John and I followed the tornado up 20/59 from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham. Some have asked why we didn't try to drive into Tuscaloosa to help assist victims. It isn't that we were unwilling to do something to help, but there was no way we could have been in a position to get to where help was needed. Back in 1995 I helped rescuse a tornado victim, but it was a rare situation where I just happened to have easy access. Once the authorities arrived I was no longer needed. We stopped near Bessemer where John shot some video and I took some still photographs. John and I noticed that the storm became more rain-wrapped as it approached Jefferson County. We saw the storm as it was tearing up places like Concord to our north.

The next day John and I witnessed the destruction at Concord. John was being interviewed by ABC News Nightline. One of my best friends, Tom Windsor, lived in Concord for years. They were also affected by the April 8, 1998 F5 tornado. The destruction we witnessed the next day was unbelievable.

4/28/11 7:28 p.m. Concord, Alabama

After seeing the damage in Concord on April 28, I thought there was a lot of high end EF4 damage. There were a lot of bare slab foundations. It was very sad to witness. Four or five people (at least) died in that little neighborhood. If that was the only community affected in the state it would have been on the national news. Sadly, it was only a small fraction of the horror our state experienced. I hope I never see anything like this again. There was warning. But there was nothing these people could do to be safe from an EF4 tornado unless they had access to an underground shelter. Our minds will never grasp the magnitude of this tragedy. When I witnessed first hand the kindnesses given to those affected in the wake of the storms, I am prouder than ever to be an Alabamian.

Back to the chase. As we approached Birmingham, John asked me if I minded ending the chase. He was concerned about his family and wanted to check on them. Of course I told him that was a "no-brainer". As we approached his home in the Trussville area, we were very close to the area of circulation. We didn't know it at the time, but the tornado temporarily "lifted" just east of Fultondale. John and I tried to take shelter in a gas station but the employees had locked the door and would not let us in. We drove to John's house. His family was ok. I was finally able to get in touch and find out that my sons in Cullman were ok. By this point in the day cell phone service was becoming spotty in many areas. We uploaded my video and sent reports to ABC 33/40.

My vehicle was still in Cullman. John had to drive me back to Cullman. It was after dark and we began to wonder if the Cullman tornado hit the area where my vehicle was parked. The magnitude of the storm event was such that we had no idea, even by this hour, how many parts of the state were devastated. Everything was completely dark north of Birmingham. The North Alabama tornadoes had destroyed the power infrastructure. After we found my vehicle, surrounded by utility trucks, I drove home to Huntsville. With no power and no moonlight it was surreal driving home. The normal glow in the sky over Decatur, Madison, and Huntsville was missing. As I drove through Huntsville I only saw lights at the hospital and police station, which were running on generator power. As I pulled in my driveway, my garage door opener didn't work (of course), and as I opened the car door I heard the roar of generators in the neighborhood. I used the light of my Droid phone to get me to the back door of the house. Then I looked for candles and flashlights and a radio. I could tell from the radio that things were worse up in North Alabama than I realized.

Thus ended a very long and emotional day......


Here are some of other links of interest. I will be adding to this list over time.

The May 3, 2011 Weatherbrains, Episode 275, was a two hour special. Regulars James Spann, Bill Murray, Dr. Tim Coleman, and Kevin Selle were joined by John Oldshue, John Brown, and Mike Wilhelm to simply share their thoughts on the horrible April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak that has killed over 300 people across the Deep South and injured thousands more.

Dr. Jon Nese of Penn State University describes the forecasting of the tornado outbreak as well as the warning process in his weekly program, Wxyz (Weather Whys) which airs on Pennsylvania Public TV. In September 2011 I had the pleasure of visiting Dr. Nese as he gave me, Bill Murray, Ben Smith and other guests from Alabama a tour of the PSU Meteorology Department. Penn State people did a lot to reach out and help Alabamians.

WHNT 19's Michelle Stark tells the story of this historic tragedy through YouTube videos.

WSFA Montgomery's Rich Thomas showed radar history of the Tuscaloosa-Jefferson tornado.

John Brown raised money for victims selling We Are Alabama tee shirts.

ESPN visited Tuscaloosa and did a special story on the tornado recovery in May. My video was used in that story.

James Spann wrote a famous blog post about the warning process that was even covered by the media in the UK.

NOAA movie showing the rapid scan infrared imagery from the GOES-East weather satellite from April 26-28, 2011.

Miraculous story of survival and recovery of one Alabama student.

NWS Meteorologists "detective work" in performing numerous, massive storm surveys.

Crazy video someone took inside the Fultondale tornado.

Birmingham NWS Meteorologist in Charge Jim Stefkovich describes the event.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Causes of the Birmingham Snow and Ice Shutdown on 1/28/14

There has been much debate among Alabamians as to who or what was to blame for the chaos of thousands of motorists being stranded on Birmingham area roads Tuesday January 28, 2014 for, in some cases, over 12 hours.  It seems like most of the blame has been placed on meteorologists "blowing" the forecast.  Well known ABC 33/40 Chief Meteorologist James Spann took responsibility in a blog post this morning saying, "There was clear human suffering as a result of my bad forecast."  James has been a fixture in Alabama meteorology for over 35 years and has played as large a role in saving lives and reducing human suffering due to weather during that time as anyone.  I have known and respected James for almost 20 years as an ABC 33/40 Skywatcher and storm chaser and almost always agree with his viewpoints.  I agree with many of his points here, but I do not believe that he, or other meteorologist should bear sole blame for this terrible event.  I would like to point out why.  I would like to submit that the forecast was only a small, small part of what led to the problem.  I would submit, instead, that it was a combination of numerous unfortunate factors. 

Before I get into that, let's look closely at the official statements put out to the public by the NWS Birmingham in the days and hours leading up to the event.

5:00 AM 1/26/14: NWS Multimedia briefing describes uncertainty in the forecast due to conflicting models.  It also reminds viewers to check with the State Department of Transportation web page.

2:53 PM 1/27/14: In addition to the snowfall there will be a period for freezing rain accumulations south of I-85. Ice amounts will be around a tenth of an inch in these locations. Expect the wintry mixture of precipitation will begin around 10 am and last until around 6 pm before switching to all snow.

FYI...We have added Bibb, Shelby & Talladega Counties to the Winter Weather Advisory for tomorrow (Tuesday). Potential snow accumulations remain about the same...generally up to 1/2 inch.

5:15 AM 1/28/14: In addition to the snowfall there will be a period for freezing rain accumulations south of I-85. Total ice amounts will range from a tenth of an inch to around a quarter inch for the highlighted locations above. Expect the freezing rain to begin around 10 am and last through about 9 pm before switching to all snow. Travel may become quite hazardous where ice accumulates. 

5:35 AM: Wintry precipitation is expected to begin across Central and Southern Alabama this morning and persist into the overnight hours tonight. The highest snow and sleet totals will be across areas along Interstate-85 where 2-3 inches of snow/sleet accumulations are expected. There will be a sharp cut off in snow/sleet accumulations to the north. Locations north of a line from Livingston to West Blocton to Talladega to Heflin can expect to see a dusting to one quarter of an inch. Across locations south of Interstate 85, including the cities of Troy, Eufaula, and Hurtsboro, an extended period of freezing rain is expected before a transition to snow after 6pm.

9:37 AM: A large area of wintry precipitation is currently overspreading Central Alabama. While the heaviest amounts are expected to be along and south of the US 80 and I-85 corridor, hazardous conditions and slick roads are expect nearly area wide. 

2:41 PM: A large area of wintry precipitation continues to overspread Central Alabama and slowly make its way southeastward. While the heaviest amounts are expected to be along and south of the Interstate 20-59 corridor... hazardous conditions and slick roads are expect nearly area wide. Travel is discouraged.
As illustrated here, forecasters pointed out the uncertainty in snowfall forecasts, especially in the South.  Forecasts for the Birmingham area ranged generally from a dusting to 1/4 of an inch.  2-3 inches were forecast to the southeast, along the I-85 corridor.  What actually occurred in the Birmingham area was 1-2" of snow.  The forecast was off by an inch or so, with the caveat given, as always, that there was margin for error.  Was the forecast perfect?  No.  Was it a major bust leading to human suffering?  I also say "no" to that!  There were certainly other factors at play:

  • Just plain bad luck.  1-2" of snow would rarely cause this much havoc, even in the South.  It was the perfect storm of weather events and social interaction. If two inches of snow was forecast, many, if not most people would have still been vulnerable.
  • The forecast was not that bad.  If 11 inches are forecast and 12 inches fall, people would be amazed at the accuracy of the forecast!
  • In the days of schools closing for cold dry weather, why was the decision not made to close schools?
  • Road conditions were worse than usual due to the fact the weather has been colder than usual  The temperatures were colder than forecasts.  Road conditions were not expected to be that bad.  Weather forecasters are not road condition forecasters.
  • Mass panic.  I submit that in these days of social media and sensitivity to the weather, many people made the same decision at the same time to leave their places of safety, causing unusual gridlock.
  • Governor Bentley issued a State of Emergency the day before for the entire state.  However, roads were not prepared by salting them down in advance.  Alabama may not have the resources for that, but nevertheless, it would have mitigated this disaster.
  • Coordination among public agencies maybe could have been better.  The Department of Transportation, EMA, NWS, media outlooks, and local governments can always be improved.
  • I am reluctant to say this, because it is only a part of the problem and it goes against the grain of many in our society, but personal responsibility is a factor.  Ultimately, we all are responsible for our own safety and weather-awareness. 
  • The need for integration of social science and the science of meteorology.  Public and private meteorologists need to continue to look for better ways to communicate forecast uncertainty, potential outcomes, and how to mitigate these situations.
  • Limitations of the science of meteorology!  If the same scenario arose next week, we just plain do not have the ability with current technology to pinpoint things like this and the same forecast would probably been made given the same data.  
I think there were probably many other factors that I haven't even pointed out.  But as a guy who loves weather (not a professional meteorologist) and respects the scientists who dedicate their life to it, I felt compelled to point out a few other factors that we may need to consider.  My hope is that we can all learn from this event and prevent it in the future.  Thanks for reading!

Mike Wilhelm

Monday, May 20, 2013

Storm Chasing - The Best and Worst

Severe weather brings out the best and worst of storm spotters and storm chasers. If you are doing it for notoriety or money, you are probably doing it for the wrong reasons. If your primary motivation is to provide a public service, “ground truth” reports to the media or National Weather Service, advance scientific research, or to explore your fascination and knowledge of weather, you are in it for the right reasons.

During the recent outbreak of tornadoes on the Plains, many photos, videos, forecasts, and comments flooded social media. Most of them were fascinating and useful. However, having chased storms for over 25 years and having been close to some heartbreaking and traumatic experiences, I have lost patience for “chasers” who seem oblivious or callous to how severe weather affects people. It rubs me the wrong way when people seem to get excited and even seem to like the fact a tornado is moving toward a highly populated area. And as bad as that may be, I really don’t understand why they cannot at least keep such feelings to themselves, rather than projecting it publicly through social media.

Personal experiences have made it impossible for me to be oblivious to how severe weather changes people’s lives. One of my best friends’ wife was permanently injured in the F-4 tornado that hit Airport Road in Huntsville November 15, 1989. On May 18, 1995, while chasing, I drove up on damage from the F-4 Anderson Hills tornado at the Oakdale Mobile Home Park near Athens. Every mobile home was destroyed. There were people wandering around and some yelling and screaming for help. I, along with another man, found a man lying on his back. He was bleeding badly from his face down to his abdomen. We carried him out, using someone’s front door as a makeshift stretcher. This was such a traumatic experience. On April 27, 2011, I witnessed the EF-4 tornado that destroyed much of Tuscaloosa, a town I lived in for 8 years. I have been around several tornado-damaged areas over the years. These events were not only heartbreaking, they have cemented in my heart and mind the fact that there is nothing exciting, fun, or gleeful about a tornado that damages property or injures or kills people. On the contrary, I see my number one role as a spotter is to provide information that will help prevent people from being hurt or losing their lives. I am committed to maintaining that as my primary reason for chasing.

Some may ask, what is wrong with making money storm chasing? In and of itself there is nothing wrong with it. We live in a free enterprise system. But the fact of the matter is that there are probably only a handful of people, at the most, who make a living by chasing storms. If you are thinking about getting into it in order to make money, you might as well not even begin. Most chasers make no money at all. Those who do are fortunate if they make enough to cover the expenses of chasing. When you consider the cost of equipment, communications, time off work, and transportation costs, chasing can be an expensive hobby. A few chasers have been able to make back some of those expenses working with media, giving paying passengers chase “tours”, and selling outstanding video to media outlets. I have been fortunate enough to work with media and numerous media outlets have purchased my video. However I was also chasing in the 1980’s when practically no one knew I was out and I did it because I was fascinated with weather, never dreaming I might make a few dollars.

I don’t like to be quick to judge the motives of other people, because it is nearly impossible to know what is in the heart of another person. Sometimes it’s hard enough to judge our own motives. But, I see signs that make it appear that a lot of folks are way too concerned about notoriety. Don’t get me wrong, it is nice to be recognized and appreciated. Whether it is someone I know in another walk of life, a member of the local media or National Weather Service, or people I meet, it is gratifying when people express appreciation or respect for what I do. It just seems that some people go overboard blowing their own horns. I also understand that it is important to get your name out there if you want to reach more people. I am not pointing fingers at anyone specifically, but there can be overkill with the fancy flashing lights, stickers, magnets, signs, tee shirts, and constant bragging on social media. Generally, I think the best approach is to work hard, study, learn, meet others, put the basic information out there, start out with a servant’s heart, build credibility over time (years), and then let your work speak for itself. One way to monitor your motives is if you at least occasionally enjoy chasing “stealth”, meaning going out without telling many people. When I began chasing in the 1980’s, virtually no one knew I was doing it. I still go out some these days without telling anyone so that I can photograph lightning or storm structure or to get a time lapse of clouds. Even if I happen not to have equipment with me, I will be looking out the window to watch the weather.

I do think the life-saving and scientific information provided by storm chasers far outweighs the negatives. So much information has been gained from chasers over the years and it has helped advanced the science of meteorology. The information provided by storm spotters and chasers has also contributed to a warning process that has saved many lives. When a meteorologist with the National Weather Service is told what a trusted, well-trained storm spotter is seeing at a particular time and location, it can have an effect on whether a warning is issued, what kind of warning is issued, whether a warning will continue, or even the wording in a warning. If a trained spotter with a good track record reports a definite tornado, it is powerful and useful information. It is also useful when the same spotter reports there is no tornado at a particular time and location. Even with the advances in RADAR over the years with the advent of NEXRAD velocity products and Dual Polarimetric technology, radars are limited. In addition to reports, photographs and video that spotters and chasers can transmit in real-time can be extremely beneficial. When television stations actually broadcast video of a tornado live, people are more prone to take shelter. These are some of the reasons why trained, experienced, and credible storm chasers are an integral part of the warning process.

I have noticed that there are numerous young people that have shown an interest in storm chasing in recent years, especially since the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak. This is a great thing! I would like to submit a few “do’s” and “don’ts” for you to consider as you move forward with the hobby. I don’t claim to have always abided by every one of these items perfectly, but it definitely needs to be our goal.


• Drive dangerously, block traffic, or violate traffic laws

• Forget about the dangers of hydroplaning

• Park on the road to shoot video

• Try to get too close to a tornado (err on the side of caution)

• Core punch or drive into areas of large hail

• Drive into tornado damage areas

• Be insensitive to storm victims

• Plan on making a living by storm chasing

• Send in erroneous or exaggerated reports to the NWS or media

• Let your emotions get out of control

• Consider it a failure if you don’t see a tornado

• Expect a constant adrenaline rush. Chasing is mostly a hurry up and wait proposition

• Forget lightning, hail, and flood safety rules

• Chase at night, unless you are particularly experienced and have a plan

• Drive while staring at your phone or laptop

• Chase in metropolitan areas if at all possible

• Drive on mud roads

• Drive under or near a wall cloud

• Get tunnel vision. Keep looking around.

• Park under overpasses.


• Get all of the storm spotter training you can

• Continue to get training on a regular basis, as long as you chase

• Make sure you are prepared with the best equipment possible

• Spend adequate time looking at data and coming up with a plan of the day

• Be willing to adjust your plan based on radar trends, etc.

• Listen to weather simulcasts, NOAA weather radio, and scanner traffic, as possible.

• Have a reliable chase partner with whom you have good rapport

• Obey traffic laws, including speed

• Respect private property

• Come prepared. Maintain plenty of fuel, drinks, and snacks.

• Allow enough time and get as much rest ahead of time as possible

• Maintain communication with other chasers

• Have someone “on-call” for back-up support

• Remember that traffic accidents and lightning are the main dangers

• Have an escape route. Know the roads.

• Know the geography of your target area well.

• Post chase consider what was done well and what can be learned

• Remember that most of the time chasing is down time

• Remember to report what you see, and where and when you saw it

• Keep your safety and the safety of those around you as your number one priority

Monday, March 11, 2013

20th Anniversary of Blizzard of 1993

Updated to include videos of coverage by James Spann, Kevin Collins, and Dan Satterfield on WBRC 6 in Birmingham. Scroll down to the bottom of the post.

None of us who are old enough to remember the blizzard of March 12-15, 1993 will soon forget it. This storm shattered snow records and caused amazing weather events from Canada to Central America.

I will focus mainly on the extreme weather Alabamians witnessed. According to the NWS Birmingham, all time Birmingham snow records include:
MAXIMUM in 24 hours 13.0 inches March 1993
MAXIMUM in a single storm 13.0 inches March 1993
MAXIMUM in a single month 13.0 inches March 1993
MAXIMUM in a single season 13.0 inches 1992-93

Below is a clip of the home video I made of the snow that fell in Huntsville, Alabama March 12 & 13, 1993. Huntsville "only" received seven inches from the storm. However snowfall amounts of greater than one foot were common, especially from Birmingham to the east and northeast. The town of Walnut Grove, Alabama, actually received 20" of snow!

All of Alabama was covered in snow. Mobile received 3". The highest total reported in Alabama was at Walnut Grove near the Blount-Etowah county line. Red Mountain in Birmingham recorded hurricane force winds according to meteorologist James Spann. Thundersnow was reported all across the state, from Huntsville to Mobile.
Here is a list of Alabama snow totals posted originally by J.B. Elliott:

20 inches at Walnut Grove
17 inches in Valley Head
16 inches in Oneonta and Bessemer
13 inches at Anniston, Talladega, Pinson and Birmingham Airport
12 inches at Thomasville, Childersburg and Scottsboro
11 inches at Sylacauga
10 inches at Cullman, Clanton and Heflin
9 inches at Thorsby
8 inches at Ashland, Centreville, Moulton and Guntersville
7 inches at Alexander City, Huntsville and Whatley
6 inches at Camden, Evergreen, Jasper, Livingston, Andalusia, Haleyville and Highland Home
5 inches at Auburn, Winfield, Muscle Shoals and Chatham
4 inches at Montgomery, Union Springs, Vernon, Tuscaloosa, Demopolis, Frisco City, Greenville, Troy
3 inches at Brewton, Hamilton, Bay Minette and Mobile Airport
2 inches at Atmore and Robertsdale
Trace at Coden and Fairhope

Here are some great links:  A Storm to Always Remember J.B. Elliott 2008

Pictures from the 1993 Blizzard James Spann 2008

Anyone Remember the Blizzard of 1993 James Spann 2008

15th Anniversary of the "Blizzard of '93" Thread on Talkweather.com 

Meteorologist James Spann's account of the storm.

James Spann posted some really cool viewer photos and stories from the storm.

Remembering the "Blizzard of 1993" NWS Birmingham

The Blizzard of 1993 WBHM FM 90.3 Birmingham

Photos WBHM FM 90.3 Birmingham

Listen to the feature story commemorating the Blizzard of 1993 WBHM FM 90.3 Birmingham

Steve Chiotakis remembers forecast and broadcast challenges WBHM FM 90.3 Birmingham

Superstorm 1993 - A Case Study

Wikipedia Storm of the Century (1993)

The Historic American Engineering Record was surveying Birmingham historic sites when the storm occurred. They took the following pictures in downtown Birmingham and in Southside. Photo 1 Photo 2 Photo 3


The video below is part one of the historic "Storm of the Century" or "Blizzard of 1993" in Alabama. These clips are in chronological order.

This clip begins on Friday morning March 12, 1993 with meteorologist Dan Satterfield as the precipitation was entering Alabama.

This clip ends just after 10 p.m. when Kevin Collins says that several inches have accumulated on secondary roads.

It includes updates that were provided throughout the evening by meteorologist James Spann, Kevin Collins, and news updates at the end of the clip by Brenda Ladun.

Below is part two of the historic "Storm of the Century" or "Blizzard of 1993" in Alabama.

During this clip, which was recorded between 10:15 p.m. and midnight, wind gusts were 37 and increased to 41 just before midnight as the storm officially became a blizzard. Thundersnow was reported for the first time around 11 p.m. Thundersnow was also reported in Huntsville and Mobile at the same time. Kevin Collins reported 4-6" of snow just before midnight.

Meteorologist James Spann and Kevin Collins of WBRC 6 report on this historic storm along with news anchors Scott Richards and Brenda Ladun.

The next video, below, is part three of the historic "Storm of the Century" or "Blizzard of 1993" in Alabama.

These clips are in chronological order. This one begins at 12 a.m. on March 13, 1993 and ends just before 1 a.m. Notice how the power is flickering at the station during the past few minutes of the clip.

The blizzard was really cranking up in Birmingham by this time. Spann reported 6-8" on the ground and winds gusted to 51 mph on Red Mountain at approximately 12:50.

Meteorologist James Spann and Kevin Collins of WBRC 6 report on this historic storm.

This is part four of the historic coverage of the "Storm of the Century" or "Blizzard of 1993" in Alabama.

These clips are in chronological order. This one begins at approximately 1:50 a.m. on March 13, 1993 and ends at 3:15 a.m. By this time snow accumulations across Central Alabama were over 8" and wind gusts atop Red Mountain at Channel 6 were recorded at 58 miles per hour. Many, if not most of the people tuned in at the time were listening on portable radios as the power was out in many areas.

Snow was accumulating as far south as the beach at Gulf Shores in Baldwin County, Alabama.

The most fascinating part of this video was during the final five minutes as photographer Jeff Thorn describes the video he made, which includes thunder and lightning.

Meteorologist James Spann and Kevin Collins of WBRC 6 report on this historic storm.

This is the fifth and final part of James Spann's and Kevin Collins' historic live coverage of the "Storm of the Century" or "Blizzard of 1993" in Alabama.

This clip begins at approximately 3:15 a.m. on March 13, 1993 and ends at 8:44 a.m. By this time snow accumulations across Central Alabama were over one foot and wind gusts atop Red Mountain at Channel 6 were continued to exceed 40 miles per hour. Many, if not most of the people tuned in at the time were listening on portable radios as the power was out in many areas.

In addition to James and Kevin, WBRC 6 anchors Scott Richards, Janet Hall, photographer Jeff Thorn, and reporter Art Franklin contributed to this coverage.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Radar Training

I was invited, along with several ABC 33/40 Skywatchers, to attend a radar seminar at the National Weather Service in Birmingham on Saturday June 23, 2012.  Meteorologist Kevin Laws, Science Operations Officer for the NWS Birmingham, conducted the training. 

Below are my notes from the seminar.


Radar is a very complex machine from a mechanical and engineering standpoint. Radar is an “active sensor” of energy. By “active sensor” we mean that it sends out a signal and waits for a return.

There are categories of weather radars. There is no such thing as a “best” radar, they all just have different applications.

1. S-Band (10 cm) radar. Example: (NWS Nexrad Doppler Radar)

2. C-Band (5 cm) radar. Example: (Terminal doppler radars)

3. X-Band (3 cm) radar. Example: (DOW, mobile Doppler radars).

NWS Doppler (WSR) radar objective is to survey and cover broad areas up to 250 nautical miles. WSR stands for “Weather Surveillance Radar”.

C-Band has better resolution that S-Band radars but the surveillance range is much less.

X-Band has the highest resolution but range is the lowest. These 10 mm radars can “see” targets that are 1 mm in size. Some radiation returns from the target, some scatters, some is absorbed, and some goes through the target. S-bands have less attenuation than X and C bands.

Radar equation:

is received power, is transmitted power, is the gain of the transmitting antenna, is radar wavelength, is the radar cross section of the target and is the distance from transmitter to target.

Power of the return is measured in decibels (dBZ).

Doppler radar was introduced in 1942. Wind speed is measured by comparing the angles on the wavelength that the returns are coming back from on consecutive pulses. For example, if the first pulse came back at 0 degrees and the second pulse came back at 90 degrees, the radar “sees” that the target has moved from 0 to 90. Radars can only measure angles between 0 and 180 degrees, limiting the maximum “measureable” wind speed to 58 knots at 180 degree differences. Once wind speed exceeds 58 knots, the angle measurement starts going down from 180. This maximum velocity that can be correctly displayed by a Doppler radar is known as the Nyquist velocity.

By sending out more frequent pulses, the ability to measure higher velocities is possible. However, due to the decreased “listening” time between the more frequent pulses, the effective range is reduced significantly. This is known as the “Doppler Dilemma”.

In order to suit the needs of the meteorologist during different weather conditions, NWS WSR-88 Doppler radars have nine available Volume Coverage Patterns (VCP). Each VCP has a predefined set of instructions given to the antenna that control the rotation speed, pulse and listening time, and elevation angles. The longer listening time is better for reflectivity, but worse for accuracy. Some of these VCP’s enhance the measurement of velocity (VCP 212). Clear air mode VCPs of 31 and 32 are used when velocity is not a concern.

Dual Pol. Single pol radar cannot distinguish between the size of objects within the target area. For example, a target area may contain 700 1 mm raindrops (drizzle) or one 300 mm raindrop. Since those reflectivities are equal, they appear the same on the radar display. Dual pol radar can help distinguish between these targets. Single pol radar looks horizontally only. As a result it doesn’t distinguish well between the size of the objects causing reflectivity. Dual pol, looks at a vertical cross section in addition to the horizontal. This additional data can be compared. As a result, meteorologists can obtain a good idea of the size of the objects being reflected. This, in turn, enhances the ability to distinguish between precipitation types.

One of the dual pol products is ZDR, or differential reflectivity. Hail has a differential reflectivity of around zero. This is measured by subtracting the horizontal dBZ value from the vertical dBZ. When looking at radar products, if you see an area of high dBZ (i.e. 61)on reflectivity and a corresponding low (0) ZDR, the precipitation is hail.

Correlation coefficient (CC) indicates how similarly sized the objects in the target are. This helps indicate where there are areas of mixed precipitation or hail.

“Three body scattered spike” or 3BSS. This refers to an “artifact” that can occur on radar that is caused by large hail. When the wave intersects hail, it is reflected back and also reflected down to the ground. If the ground is wet it is sometimes reflected back to the hail and back again to the radar. This is displayed as a weak echo region that resembles a “spike” protruding from the part of the thunderstorm producing large hail. While many “artifacts” or anomalies on radar are problematic, some, such as the 3BSS can actually be beneficial to the meteorologist.

Future of radar will be phased array radar. The phased array radar is able to scan a variety of pre determined targets which will provide a real time “movie” of a storm system.

GR data: Level 2 vs. Level 3 – Level 2 data is raw data (reflectivity, velocity, spectrum width).

Level 3 data includes processed data from the NWS. In addition to the raw data, it includes SRV, VIL, Mesos, and TVS. Level two radar software from weather vendors may include processed data, it is not the same processed data as the Level 3 NWS data.

Velocity aliasing and folding can be a problem in data provided by level two images provided by vendors. Since the max velocity is 58, the doppler display sometimes shows “couplets” that are nor “real” It also may mask real couplets. Kevin Laws showed examples of various broadcast meteorologists using bad images from their vendor data and compared it to the valid NWS data.

Changes to Gibson Ridge GR3 version 2…

There is a button to pres too “de-alias” velocity data but the three main changes were the Google Earth map background option, Dual pol data (ZDR, CC, HCA, and KDP), and changes to the color scale.

An excellent site to get additional training online is the Warning Decision Training Branch website… http://www.wdtb.noaa.gov/courses/dualpol/

The NCDC archives level 2 data from previous weather events.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Responsible Storm Chasing

To some, that title is an oxymoron. But it doesn’t have to be that way. News reports from the Plains since Saturday’s tornado outbreak indicate that in some areas at least, storm chasing has gotten out of hand. In an article in the Salina, KS Journal, Dickenson County, Kansas EMA Director Chancy Smith said that chasers were clogging roads, failing to yield to emergency vehicles, and driving over downed power lines. Over the past twenty years or so, storm chasing has evolved from a relatively small tight-knit group of scientists and spotters to a virtual free-for-all which includes thrill-seekers, adrenaline junkies, publicity hounds, and people wanting to make a quick buck. A “perfect-storm” of events has contributed to this phenomenon. I think the movie “Twister” started the ball rolling. Then, with the proliferation of home video cameras, smart phones, and social media, over time the face of “storm chasing” has changed. Sadly, the change has been for the worse in many ways.

This is not to question the motives of all storm chasers by any means. I have friends in the chaser community who seem to be in it for the right reasons, such as to serve the interests of public safety and science. There is certainly nothing wrong with chasing for the opportunity to learn about and witness nature or to shoot amazing photos or videos to document storms. Few will ever make money by chasing. The expenses outweigh the earning potential. I don’t even have a problem with someone trying to make a few dollars to help defray costs. I think the problems arise when the motive of 15 minutes of “fame” outweighs the interest of serving the public and doing so in a safe way.

There is an inherent risk involved in storm “chasing”. There is no way around that fact. Driving carries its own risks, even under ideal conditions. Throw in wet roads and high wind and it becomes more dangerous. Obviously the safest scenario is to be as far away from tornadoes, thunderstorms, and flooding as possible. Frankly, I am more concerned about the possibility of being struck by lightning than by a tornado.

These risks can certainly be minimized by following some basic rules. Chuck Doswell has authored the best paper I have read on chaser safety, courtesy, and responsibility. He outlines three primary risks to chasers: driving, lightning, and the actual storm itself. I have read this at least once a year for the past few years and I wish everyone who considers chasing in any way would do likewise. He talks about the importance of driving safely, having a partner, looking out for standing water in the road, pulling far enough off the road, avoiding cities, and many other factors related to driving. He also talks about lightning safety which is the second greatest threat. Finally he talks about the storm itself; tornadoes, high winds, hail, and flooding. For those who are trained storm spotters, the storm should be the least dangerous aspect of chasing.

Safe chasing means you are well prepared, you have an escape route, you do not take unnecessary chances, and you drive carefully. Pull off main roads or at least off the shoulder if the terrain allows or in a parking lot. Learn all you can about storms before you begin chasing. Avoid core-punching! It is better not to chase alone.

If you are new to storm spotting and chasing I highly recommend that you start with storm spotter training with the National Weather Service. I also recommend that you find an experienced chaser to ride along with before you consider going out on your own. Remember, even those of us who have done this for many years can, and have made mistakes. Even though I have attended NWS storm spotter training and numerous other weather conferences, along with a great deal of reading, I still am not above going back to basic training every year. This February I attended NWS storm spotter training provided by the NWS Huntsville. There is always more to learn and be reminded about every time I attend.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Oklahoma Twisters

Today, I am going to talk a little about the weather this weekend out on the Plains of Oklahoma. Six people were killed in Woodward, Oklahoma Saturday night during a tornado. This was one of 135 tornado reports in the Plains Saturday. I witnessed a few of those tornadoes myself.

My long-time storm chase partner and friend, John Brown and I left Alabama Friday night and drove to Oklahoma. We actually stopped just past Little Rock and caught an hour or two of sleep in John’s truck. Our plan was to target northern Oklahoma or southern Kansas. Both of those areas were included in a “High Risk” of severe weather by the Storm Prediction Center (SPC). This was only the second time a “High Risk” was issued for an event in the “Day 2” outlook by the SPC. While tornadoes were being reported to our north in Kansas, John and I were hanging back in northwestern Oklahoma. Storms were firing along the dryline in western Oklahoma and moving north-northeast into Kansas. Although we witnessed a wall cloud and a funnel cloud north of Woodward (a town which was later had six fatalities in an overnight tornado), the afternoon storms in our location were not producing tornadoes until they moved into Kansas. This was really testing our patience. But we kept reminding each other of two very important things. One was that the primary window for tornadoes in this area, according to model data, wasn’t until around 7 p.m. and later. The other factor was that often the southern supercell (“tail-end Charlie”) becomes the dominant cell. We were counting on this, because as the afternoon wore on, we were running out of daylight and no more new cells were forming to our southwest.

Around 5:30 or 6:00 there were a pair of cells near Woodward, one of which was tornado-warned. After a short time of debate, John and I agreed to drive north on Highway 34 and then east on US 64, toward Alva, Oklahoma. My thought was that we would be ahead of these storms, giving us plenty of time to adjust our position and watch them pass from a safe position. It also gave the storms a little time to mature. This proved to be a good decision. For quite some time the northern storm was dominant. As time wore on, the relatively cool outflow winds from the southern storm were ingested by the northern storm, choking off much of the warm, moist air that it needed to maintain its strength. As the storms evolved, we waited near Ingersoll, Oklahoma, north of Cherokee. There we saw some very impressive mammatus clouds.

As we saw the southern storm become dominant and show signs of rotation we headed south toward Carmen, Oklahoma. Another storm chaser, Greg Nordstrom, an Instructor of Meteorology at Mississippi State University, called us and said he was already doing the same thing for the same reason. We never saw Greg, but evidently he was only a few miles ahead of us. It is always good to know that someone as experienced and knowledgeable as Greg is making the same decision. By the time we approached the Carmen community, the southern storm was rotating and tornado-warned. We drove west through Carmen and pulled over. Here we were able to see a funnel cloud, and then a tornado. We decided to follow it toward Cherokee, to the north. While John drove us north, I called a storm spotter friend, Jennifer New, who relayed our tornado report to the National Weather Service in Norman.

We stopped just south of Cherokee. There we witnessed not one, but two tornadoes on the ground simultaneously.

Since there were no hills or trees to obstruct our view, we were able to watch these “twin” tornadoes for eight minutes. It was an amazing display of nature, and even better, the tornadoes were not impacting people, since this is a very rural area.

After shooting an 8 minute video of the tornadoes, John and I followed he storms north of Cherokee. By this time, traffic was heavy with storm chasers and it was getting dark. We were tired. We pulled off the road and watched the tornado in the distance as it was being back-lit by lightning. This tornado later affected southeast portions of Wichita, Kansas. It was a successful chase. We were able to witness a few very photogenic tornadoes at sunset that were moving over the open Plains. After midnight, back at the hotel, we watched coverage of the killer tornado in Woodward. It hit especially close to home because John and I spent much of the day in and around the town of Woodward. The National Weather Service in Norman has rated the Woodward tornado an EF3.