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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Storm savvy: Meteorologist James Spann, donning his trademark suspenders, tells an assembled crowd what to do during a tornado. Some 600 people turned out for this segment of his 'storm warn' tour.
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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.

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.

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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."

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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."

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.

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.

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