Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Here's to the pilot who weathers the storm"

It's so strange how days that begin so ordinarily can so very suddenly become the exact opposite. And how later every moment of that day, even the things that happened before whatever caused a paradigm shift in your existence, remain locked, with a sometimes obscene clarity, in your memory. I can't think of a more ordinary day than a Wednesday. No voice lessons. No gym. Unless I'm in tech week for a show, no rehearsals. On that particular Wednesday, I awoke to a Facebook feed filled with friends and family who had awakened before dawn to the furor of a violent thunderstorm accompanied by straight-line winds. When I called them, my parents were still feeling the effect of the tail-end of the storm. Two hours to their southwest, my little sister was settling into a day where she found herself unexpectedly free from work. The threat of bad weather during morning commute hours with a further threat of more severe storms during the hours when afternoon busses would be delivering child to their homes meant that the school districts had cancelled classes. As a teacher at one of the weather-closed schools, she was excited about this unexpected boon. For the past two years she had shared a condo with, Morgan, a dear family friend who was an undergraduate at the University, but had decided to move into a house that my aunt and uncle had purchased, which she would be sharing with three of our cousins--Molly and our cousin, Katie, upstairs, and Katie's brothers, Andy and Carter, in the swinging bachelor pad apartment of a basement. A weather closing, with the storm seemingly past them and no other severe weather forecast until the late afternoon would give her the chance to bring several more loads of her things from her old condo to the new house. It was the morning of April 27, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Now, I love Tuscaloosa. Apart from my hometown, I've spent more of my life there than anywhere else in the world. Almost eight years during my undergrad and law school tenure. As such, I am well aware of the vagaries of Tuscaloosa weather. We always joked that on any given summer day, you could find the hottest temperature in the state and Tuscaloosa was bound to be three degrees hotter. Also that if there was a 10% chance of rain anywhere in the state that you could rest assured that you would literally have to wade down Sorority Row to get to class. And then there were the storms. In Tornado Alley, the peak of the tornado season is in April and May. The same is true for Dixie Alley. But with a second peak in November and December. And a fair chance of tornado sirens and glowering, yellow-green skies in pretty much any other month of the year. On the plus side, people in Alabama grow up hyper-aware of tornados. We know where in our house to go. We know the difference between a watch and a warning. We know. About hook echoes, and supercells, and debris balls. And we know this because of James Spann.

James Spann is to meteorology in Alabama, what Bear Bryant is to football. He is revered. Respected. Trusted implicitly. He has helmed the weather report at one of the Birmingham network affiliates for as long as I can remember. Since I was in college, that affiliate has been ABC 33/40. If there is a severe weather situation anywhere in the Birmingham television market, James Spann's coverage begins immediately and continues until the threat is over. The man will stay on the air, warning of weather danger for hours at a time. I have watched the man broadcast for 8, 10, 12 hours straight. Not only that, he has an almost omniscient knowledge of Alabama geography, to the point that he can tell you not just that the suspected funnel cloud is passing through the northern part of City X, but that it's near the intersection of Roads Y and Z,very near Barbecue Joint A and the First Baptist Church of Q. When he removes his jacket and you see his suspenders, you know that the situation is serious. When he rolls up his shirt sleeves, you know it's really serious. When he tells you to head to your safe place, you do it. BECAUSE HE'S JAMES SPANN!!!

Sometime around lunch on April 27, I had called Molly to ask her something. She told me she was watching James Spann and that it was amazing. Well, that's because it's ALWAYS amazing. Even if you aren't in the path of whatever's happening, James Spann Severe Weather Coverage (and yes, it does deserve all caps) is Alabama Must-See TV. Molly said that their cable was iffy because of the wind, so she was watching on UStream. Which I immediately did as well. I mean even from a many hundreds of miles away, I felt connected to home. And it was clear as soon as I started watching, that this series of storms was...different. In that moment, when the radar pictures began to register, I felt a tickle of fear. But not really, because of all the storms that I remember--Palm Sunday in '94, Oak Grove in '98, Tuscaloosa in December of '00, and any number of less memorable storms--they always happen to someone else. Which is why I went numb when a tower camera recorded and broadcast the tornado tearing apart downtown Cullman. I KNOW Cullman. I know people who live in Cullman. Friends. Parents of a very dear friend. I've been there a million times. And then.

And then. It was about 5:45 my time. I was making dinner while watching 33/40 on my laptop. The Mississippi state line. Greene County. Approaching Tuscaloosa County from the southwest. From the southwest. Three words that any experienced tornado watcher dreads. Then video. At first I didn't understand what they were talking about. There wasn't even a tornado in the frame. And then I realized that I was looking for an archetypal funnel cloud. And what they were frantically warning of wasn't a neat little movie funnel cloud. It was that enormous mile-wide son of a bitch from the end of Twister. I'm on the phone with my mom. They can't get through to Molly. The circuits in Alabama are already jammed as the parents of 30,000 students try desperately to contact them. I finally get through. By this time, Molly, all three of my cousins, Morgan and a friend are in the basement. Morgan and her friend Ben both decided that Molly's basemented house is safer than their apartments. Plus, the house is brick. Most of the houses in Forest Lake are brick. Molly and I had spent the day joking. I would call her every time there was a warning anywhere yelling, "SAFEPLACE!!!" Only this time, for the first time in my life, I meant it.

And all the while, the dialogue from my computer becomes more terrifying. Downtown Tuscaloosa. Greensboro. Skyland and 359. And then....15th Street. By this time, I've pulled up a second news feed because the tower cams are freezing as the power goes on and off. I frantically tell them that they need to go wherever they're gonna be. NOW. The call cuts off. You know how in movies at the big climactic moment everything is in slow motion? That's how the next 10 minutes of my life happened. My face and hands were numb. And a tornado, the biggest I've ever seen, is headed straight at five people I love dearly. Then it becomes a question of where. The tower cams are downtown. I know if it goes in front of the stadium, it's on campus. If it goes behind the stadium, it's over 15th Street. And Molly. Behind the stadium. Desperately dialing. Busy circuits. Ringing phone. One of my cousins got a text through to my uncle. No one has anything more than scrapes. Roof gone. All windows gone. All cars destroyed. But safe.

They had to walk out, over debris, past bodies being pulled from houses. Or more accurately, what used to be houses. They were confused because what we forget is how much we rely on landmarks, even when traveling down streets we travel every single day. We found out they were evacuating when a picture of them, like a little row of ducklings in waterproof North Face jackets, showed up on weather.com. A friend was at the Starbucks near Molly's house and rescued them, as it were. Molly was finally able to get through to me about two hours later (at which time the same storm, still on the ground, was bearing down on my parents--who had, in a weird twist, taken shelter in the basement of Morgan's parent's house).

Molly, my parents, my friends and family in Alabama, they all knew that severe weather was imminent. They knew this because of the excellent coverage provided by James Spann on the days leading up to the outbreak and the day of the outbreak itself. Two days ago, a rarer, but not unheard of January storm spun off tornados that tore through the north Birmingham suburbs. The next night, the ABC Nightly News with Diane Sawyer led with the story of the storms using words like "complete surprise" and "no warning". This is an insult. Not just to James Spann, but to every meteorologist in Alabama who began predicting the storms late last week. And also to the hundreds of meteorologists from stations across Arkansas, Mississippi and the rest of the South who did the same. The local news on Sunday was covered with reports and warnings. And yet, all the national news could concentrate on was the fact that people claimed they didn't hear sirens. Of course they didn't. Because if you had ever watched five minutes of a weather report during a southern storm, you would known that every meteorologist, and also the National Weather Service, explicitly state that the weather sirens are to alert people who are outdoors and that the solution for everyone is to have either the weather alert app on their phone OR to have a weather radio. Which I damn well assure you will wake you up (and maybe your neighbors, too). Having been called out on Twitter, by James Spann, and then by his legion of followers, ABC's news tonight offered at best an anemic response, and certainly not an apology or retraction. And then to add insult to injury, they displayed a graphic that had the date of the April tornado wrong. As of tonight three people were tragically killed two nights ago. Three is, of course, too many. But three. In the heavily populated suburbs of northeast Birmingham. James Spann, the other meteorologists of Alabama, and a knowledgeable populace saved many lives two nights ago.

In April, more than 250 people died on that awful Wednesday. Some of them were unprepared. Some of them were victims of circumstance, specifically, a storm of a magnitude that most of us will probably never again see on this lifetime. There were scores of tornados on the ground that day and night. After the storm, there were four houses that bordered Forest Lake that weren't completely destroyed or marked for demolition due to structural damage. My sister was in the basement of one of them. I don't know how many lives James Spann saved that day. It is most likely in the thousands. I know for a fact he saved six. My friends and my family are here today because of his vigilance and dedication. And for that, James Spann, we are forever grateful.

1 comment:

Mermaids and Sailors said...

The man is a weather guru.

I found out from my parents a couple of days ago that they were expecting bad weather this week (b/c James said so). And I know that I usually get the bad weather about a half day before they do. So even I was prepared.

Our weather people here aren't bad... but they tend to overlook the smaller cities around Memphis and they never really let you know bad weather's coming until it's already in Arkansas.

I think having James Spann as a weather man should be a selling point to businesses and people wanting to move to the state!