Wes Wyatt drove the streets he had grown up on watching the tornado in his rear view mirror demolish south Tuscaloosa. Covering the disaster paths of tornadoes was a part of Wyatt’s early career as a meteorologist. Having grown up in Tuscaloosa, he said he experienced a myriad of weather disasters and weather changes. Wyatt said this was what made him a fan of the weather and gave him a desire to be a meteorologist.
Editor’s Note: As this articles goes to be published online, tornadoes have touched down in Alabama and Georgia. Up to 14 fatalities have been reported.
Photos above, from the left: Kris Allred, chief meteorologist WSAV-TV, Savannah, Ga.; Jamie Arnold, chief meteorologist WMBF-TV; Wes Wyatt, meteorologist, WBRC-TV, Birmingham, Ala. All three meteorologists will be panelists at the SPJ Region 3/Savannah State JMC “Trauma & Stress: while working in journalism” on March 9 in Savannah, Ga.
Reporting from the South’s tornado alley
For the past eight years, Wyatt is a weekend evening meteorologist and weekday fill-in for WBRC Fox 6 in Birmingham, Ala. He said he got his start at WJRD radio station in Tuscaloosa on the weekends while he finished his degree at Mississippi State University. One weekend in 2000, Wyatt said he was at the station when the conditions came together for an EF4 tornado – the same tornado he would watch in his rear view mirror as he drove to safety.
Wyatt was sent to cover the storm, receiving directions on the phone with the station, when he said he saw the tornado ahead of him. This tornado caused significant damage to the town he had grown up in as a child. As he drove south of it, he watched it in his rear view mirror.
“I just remember when I got to safety, I mean, you know, my foot was just shaking, I was scared to death,” he said. “And when I went back and it’s just – everything’s you know, it’s just leveled. And there’s the smell of natural gas in the air and there’s homes destroyed.”
Walking through the destruction of the Dec. 16, 2000, tornado, Wyatt said he saw Christmas presents littering the street, and the bodies of those not as fortunate as himself on the ground. Photo: Wes Wyatt, meteorologist, WBRC -TV
“This tornado also becomes the strongest tornado recorded in December in Alabama since 1950, and it is the strongest tornado recorded in Tuscaloosa County since 1950,” The National Weather Service said. 11 people were killed and 144 injured.
“It was just- it was such — such a shock and just a sickening feeling that came over me.”Wes Wyatt, WBRC – TV, Birmingham, Ala.
Informing and educating others of the dangers of these storms helped him cope. By informing people of the dangers and precautions that could be taken and sharing his story, Wyatt said he could deal with the aftermath.
Most of his storm coverage comes from inside the studio, he said. Wyatt covered several major storms such as Hurricane Isidor, Hurricane Ivan, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Dennis, the 2000 tornadoes, the April 27, 2011 tornadoes and the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, which included 11 tornadoes.
In April of 2011, as tornadoes ripped through Alabama, Wyatt said that at one point there were three EF4 tornadoes on the ground. For a meteorologist, he said, this may mean deciding which tornado needs the most coverage.
Wyatt described tracking any storm as a before, during and after experience. Before a big event, he said there can be time to prepare such as with a hurricane or winter weather. But sometimes, an unexpected storm pops up, like a tornado, will keep Wyatt and his colleagues covering all day and night long.
“ … adrenaline is … kind of kicked in … and that’s kind of getting you through a lot of these events, but then there’s the post-event and reality sets in … and you see what’s happened and when there’s dangers,” Wyatt said.
Working in a television studio may not keep a meteorologist safe. He said that there have been times when a storm is making its way toward the news studio.
Wyatt said, “Can you believe that just happened? Can you believe it?”
“If you think you’ve seen it, you haven’t and there’s always something, you know, down the road that will surprise you,” he said. “There’s always a once in life time event or something that will happen.”
In addition, he said his station spends time in the communities offering assistance or to spread the word for people who needed help.
“When you go to these areas in these post-phases, a lot of people want to tell you their story and you see what they’re going through. I guess in a way — for a lot of meteorologists that may be going through certain stresses of having to hear these stories, see these [devastation] sites.”Wes Wyatt
“I think in a way it does give some people comfort to share what they’ve been through with another person,” he said.
Wyatt went out into the community after the April 2011 tornadoes, just as he had done years prior in Tuscaloosa.
Walking through the rubble, he said he came across a woman sifting through the remains of her home, where only one room was left standing, a closet. She had already received assistance but wanted to find a picture of her husband, who lived in a nursing home.
Wyatt said the woman and her daughter had hunkered in that one remaining closet during the tornado and had lived.
“To me, it brings comfort to be able to share her stories and to be able to educate folks, you know, and I saw it right there first hand … a closet saved her life,” he said.
“If you think you’ve seen it, you haven’t and there’s always something, you know, down the road that will surprise you,” Wyatt said. “There’s always a once in life time event or something that will happen.”
There is always the possibility for a violent hurricane season
In the fall of 2018 as Hurricane Florence completed its war path, a hurricane-producing tornado passed within a quarter of a mile right by one South Carolina coastal television stations, WMBF- Myrtle Beach, SC.
Jamie Arnold is chief meteorologist at WMBF. He said that there have been many times when he and his team were worried for their safety, despite being in the studio. Photo: Jamie Arnold, chief meteorologist, WMBF-TV in Myrtle Beach, SC
Arnold said that during the heat of the moment, the stress [of working as a meteorologist] isn’t what he’s thinking about.
“During the high of the storm, the studio was shaking and creaking and the lights were swinging back and forth,” Arnold said. ‘We may start seeing falling lights and losing roof.’ Thankfully it never got here.”Jamie Arnold, Chief Meteorologist, WBMF-TV, Myrtle Beach, SC
For anyone looking for a job with normal hours or low stress, meteorology isn’t for them, Arnold said. He said that he’s had vacations cut off early or canceled because weather never ends. Despite this, the job is worth it, he said, even when things get difficult.
“We’re there because we want to be there and there’s no where else we want to be. We just want to get the warnings out, get the important information out, we’ll do it no matter what.”Jamie Arnold
With each hurricane season potentially producing monster hurricanes, Arnold said the year before Hurricane Matthew was another major storm that caused concern for his community and his newsroom.
The Hurricane Research Division said that there have been a rough estimate of seven hurricanes to hit the U.S. every four years. A majority of these affect Florida and the surrounding area. Alabama has sustained 24 hurricanes from 1851-2017, Florida 120, Georgia 22 and South Carolina 30, according to the Hurricane Research Division.
In an early tropical report given out by Colorado State University, experts say that 2019 may have less storms in the next hurricane season cycle.
“Most models predict that a weak to moderate El Niño will develop over the next few months,” the report states. “There is considerable uncertainty as to whether any El Niño does develop [and if it] will persist through next year’s hurricane season.”
El Niño is typically associated with fewer Atlantic hurricanes.
Weather teams concerned about their families when hurricanes hit
Like Wyatt and Arnold, Kris Allred has a passion for weather as the chief meteorologist for WSAV 3 in Savannah, Georgia.
Allred said she discovered her love for weather in high school. When her grandfather had his right leg removed, she said he experienced phantom pains, especially when the weather would change. This sparked her interest in weather, she said.
Watching the meteorologists on TV in the Birmingham area, Allred said she realized there were few, if any, women in that market. Since then, Allred has been working as a meteorologist in Savannah, Ga., for eleven years. Photo left: Kris Allred, chief meteorologist, WSAV-TV, Savannah, Ga.
Allred said she, as chief meteorologist, has to prepare her team, as well as herself, for major storms. The job as a meteorologist requires a love for weather, for forecasting and working sometimes in a highly stressful environment, Allred said.
“I will be honest there’s a side of me that, yeah, we want to be as accurate as possible [reporting storms and hurricanes], and it feels good when you are right … but at the same time, after seeing the [hurricane] storms hit and the destruction that they can do, you want them to bypass, you want them to go.”Kris Allred, chief meteorologist, WSAV-TV, Savannah, Ga.
In 2015, the National Geographic published that roughly ten tropical storms affect the US every year with two or three major hurricanes.
“In 2005, there were 28 named tropical storms — so many that the National Hurricane Center ran through the 21 alphabetical names it had designated for the year and had to use the Greek alphabet to name the last seven,” wrote National Geographic.
“Four of those storms—Dennis, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma—became monster hurricanes that devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast.”National Geographic Magazine
“You want to have a good team that, you know, everybody knows their stuff, and fortunately we do have that here,” Allred said, “… you want to make sure everybody is up to par because, I mean, everyone has different experiences.”
Keeping a close eye on hurricanes also reaching over into her private life such as checking on her flood insurance for her home, but more importantly, to make sure her family is safe.
While Allred usually stays in the station to cover major [hurricane] storms, she said she doesn’t think twice about sending her kids to Cullman, Alabama, and out of danger.
“It has been harder and harder and now the kids are at an age where they understand the severity of it and the consequences. This last time they begged for me to go with them.”Kris Allred
Hannah Lester is the 2019 SPJ Region 3 spring intern and reporter for SizingUpTheSouth.com. She will be graduating from Auburn University this spring with a major in journalism. firstname.lastname@example.org