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.
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But TV coverage does have its place. Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman for NOAA, says sophisticated computer models and National Weather Service warnings are critical, but local meteorologists offer a familiar face that government entities can't provide. "They can build rapport and have a positive influence on how the community receives critical weather information and appropriately reacts," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Jay Prater, chairman of the broadcast committee for the American Meteorological Society, believes this is a big part of Spann's success – his tireless work and incessant tutoring about severe weather. "Twenty years ago, TV was different," says Mr. Prater. "You had time to do different things. Now there's so much you have to do, yet Spann seems to find the time."
At Bethel Baptist tonight, there's no doubt Spann and his team are popular. Fans arrive two hours early, hoping for autographs. Eight-year-olds collect bio sheets like baseball cards. Spann takes it in stride, but admits it makes him uncomfortable. "I'm pretty low-key," he says. "I never took a class in TV or radio, never had the fluff, never looked like a 'TV guy.' Young reporters now are out to make a name for themselves, but they're not the story; it's the people."
Interns say he drives this point home by taking them to the heart of Americana – the local Wal-Mart. Spann watches how the would-be meteorologists talk with people and compares it with their on-air performance. The best meteorologists, he says, aren't coming out of college with telegenic smiles. The best are real people telling a story to other real people.
Charles Springer is one of Spann's typical viewers. He says Spann helps people understand the incomprehensible and react without fear. "I had a friend who was in Dallas during a tornado warning," Mr. Stringer says. "He was able to tell people where the tornado was because of the hook echo on the radar, explaining the inflow patterns of the storm. Someone asked him if he was a meteorologist and he said, 'No. I'm from Alabama.' All thanks to [what he had learned from] James Spann."
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Spann's passion for education is rooted in who he's dealing with – not just viewers but neighbors. He grew up in Alabama. As a child, he had an "electrifying fascination" with storms. In high school, he was sending eyewitness ham radio reports, humbled by events like the April 3, 1974, "super" tornado outbreak, which killed 350 people. "Seeing all that – people so badly hurt – changed my life," he says. "I thought, these people should have known this was coming."
He studied electrical engineering at the University of Alabama before earning a broadcast meteorology degree at Mississippi State University. He took his first TV weather job with Tuscaloosa's WCFT in 1978.
Spann is straightforward when dispensing advice. He tells people not to waste time opening windows during tornadoes to equalize air pressure. He reminds them to use a common household item – a bicycle helmet – to prevent head injuries. He is also unusually blunt. Last week, a thunderstorm spawned three tornadoes in central Alabama, killing one resident. For the first time in 11 years, Spann's team didn't provide continuous coverage. "I take the blame," he wrote on the ABC 33/40 weather blog, which gets 100,000 unique visitors a day. "We run long schedules most folks wouldn't believe, but that's no excuse for an office with four meteorologists."
Despite his hectic professional schedule, he finds time to coach Little League and teach Sunday school. As tonight's seminar draws to a close, he packs his laptop and hurries to make the 10 p.m. newscast before a 30-mile drive home. His wife and two children are waiting.
Tomorrow morning, at 4:52 a.m., he'll mull over his day before heading out the door. He's judging a biscuit bakeoff, and there's excitement in the Alabama air – he's predicting snow.