One Alabama weatherman's crusade to improve tornado safety
On-air, meteorologist James Spann dispenses vital information about the weather. Off-air, he holds frequent seminars to educate the public about storms.
He's won an Emmy and dozens of other awards, but for many people in central Alabama, he's just "James," the meteorologist they trust when severe weather strikes. They clamor to meet him. They make jokes: He's great with tornadoes, but not so good with snow. A storm comes and there's James, interrupting your favorite program. He starts off wearing a suit and tie, but when he rolls up his sleeves, people know it's serious: They run for cover.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
After 29 years as a meteorologist in a state that's no stranger to severe weather, James Spann takes his role seriously, especially this year. Alabama had 24 tornadoes in February alone, surpassing the yearly average.
In the limited toolbox mankind has to protect against tornadoes, national forecasts help. So do local sirens and weather radios, which send out warnings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But, by most accounts, a good local weatherman can do a lot to prevent calamity, too, and Mr. Spann is considered one of the best at what he does.
For one thing, he is always at the station, ABC 33/40, which serves 23 counties in central Alabama, during a storm. While some stations provide similar coverage, many just break in with periodic reports, or run a scroll updating local forecasts. But Spann provides up-to-the-minute street-level warnings honed by what national broadcasters can't offer – several decades learning every crook in Alabama's back roads.
It is, in fact, another local joke – Spann's use of everything from country stores to mailboxes to pinpoint storm paths. But there's a purpose to his method, giving the jumble of radar polygons and velocity signatures real-life relevance.
Spann says he was never one of those weathermen with blow-dried hair and a toothy grin who merely pinned felt suns on a board. As a certified meteorologist, he understands much of the science behind severe weather, and when he's not standing in front of the lens talking about it, he's out in the community educating local residents. Many people credit him with saving lives over the years.
"I call him 'Super Spann' because he does his best to protect us," says Olympia Hewitt, a Tuscaloosa County resident who watched in horror Dec. 6, 2000, as Spann stood on-screen – sleeves rolled up, wearing his ever-present suspenders – and warned residents of Bear Creek Trailer Park to seek shelter from a tornado. Eleven people died that day, but residents believe the toll would have been higher without his coverage. "He talks like he's right there," Ms. Hewitt adds, "telling you what's happening."
• • •
It can make a long day even more grueling. Spann, a lover of numbers and a stickler for details, wakes up at precisely 4:52 a.m. and often returns home at midnight after speaking at schools, uploading weather videos, writing blog updates, providing forecasts for 25 radio stations nationwide, conducting three local broadcasts, and teaching evening storm seminars. He's energetic on air, even when exhausted.
"I don't think weather should ever be boring," he says. "I owe people that."
Tonight, he's conducting a seminar for a crowd of 600 at Bethel Baptist Church in Moody, Ala., outside Birmingham. Ten years ago, the church was leveled by a tornado. Spann's goal is more than telling people when they'll need an umbrella. He hopes to foster awareness of storm safety, eliminating habits like too much dependence on warning sirens or television.
"Tornadoes can happen in the middle of the night and times when the TV is off or folks are watching cable or satellite channels," he says. "All I can do is keep preaching the message: Get a NOAA weather radio receiver in every home, business, and church in the state."