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As tornadoes again strike, Alabama is more weather aware

By WILL WHATLEY, Alabama Daily News

The Drive-By Truckers have a unique ability to capture the essence of Alabama in their work. Songs like “Puttin’ People On The Moon” and “Zip City” embody the everyday life of many Alabamians. Unfortunately, so does their song “Tornadoes.”

Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, brought back an all-too-familiar feeling for many here in the state.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the victims of Saturday’s severe weather,” said Gov. Kay Ivey in a statement. “I am profoundly grateful for our emergency management officials, meteorologists, law enforcement and first responders who remained on watch throughout the dangerous weather.”

House Minority Leader Rep. Anthony Daniels (D-Huntsville) also mourned the victims of the tornadoes and vowed to work with other legislators to give first responders the resources they need to protect their communities.

“During severe weather events, we must remember that there remains an inequitable allocation of support in our cities and towns across the state, and rural areas are the most vulnerable to storms like this,” Daniels said. “Let’s work to mitigate these areas against future danger like we saw [Saturday].”

Meteorologists from across the state were on television and social media warning others about the potential weather dangers the day could produce. I spoke with Chief Meteorologist Josh Johnson of Montgomery’s NBC affiliate WSFA about the many factors that go into media coverage of such weather events as tornadoes.

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According to Johnson, such instances don’t necessarily follow the same pattern every time.

“Saturday’s event actually started showing up over a week in advance,” Johnson said. “The signal became more consistent last Sunday and Monday, and that consistency stayed in place all week. So, we had higher confidence than normal in (Saturday’s) storm setup.”

Johnson said that meteorologists like himself will look for the strength and placement of large-scale features days before a potential hazardous weather event. He said they look at such things as where the surface is low, the general orientation of the upper wind fields, and how much warm, muggy air is available.

“Then, once we get inside one to three days, we’ll start to try to identify the smaller-scale features that make or break each event,” Johnson said.

Johnson added that these smaller-scale features are determined by if the storms will be alone or in a line. Other factors include exactly how much warm, muggy air is present and where it’s maximized and how much does the wind direction and speed change between the ground and the clouds.

When asked what’s important for the general public to consider during tornadoes and other hazardous weather conditions, Johnson gave two important things to remember.

“First, make sure you have multiple, reliable ways of getting weather warnings, he said. “These need to be able to reach you indoors, wake you if you’re asleep and function without electricity in case the power goes out.”

Johnson added that outdoor sirens often don’t reach people indoors, usually don’t wake up people and cannot be relied upon.

The second factor Johnson said, is to know where you’ll go if a tornado warning is issued.

“Pick that safe place out ahead of time. You can’t stay in mobile homes, the lack of strong Anchorage makes them prone to rollover or, even worse, being thrown through the air.”

According to Johnson, Alabama ranks first nationally in tornado deaths per capita, so while some get angry about weather coverage on their television screen instead of a sporting event like the NFL Playoffs, he suggests those individuals stop and examine the situation.

“I understand the frustration. I genuinely do,” Johnson said. “[U]nderstand that the man or woman on your screen is not interrupting the game for fun. They’d probably rather watch the game, too. But, we have a commitment to keeping people safe, that’s why we are there. So, consider that even if YOU aren’t being hit, your neighbor may be.”

Johnson closes his comments by suggesting that if you can’t help but complain about television coverage of hazardous weather, keep it solely about the content of the coverage.

“Leave the personal, mean, angry stuff out of it, he said. “And whatever you do, don’t threaten to blow up the station or harm anyone. In the world we live in, our management has to take that seriously. Don’t say something you regret and get three hots and a cot over it.”

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