Tornado Terror- Meteorologists’ worst fears captured in new podcast

March 1 kicks off arguably the most active weather season, as tornado outbreaks begin to increase in the Southeast part of the country.  It’s also a time when those whose duty is to warn the masses of killer storms –recall their scariest moments while on the air, during storm coverage.

WHNT News 19’s Jason Simpson is one of five veteran meteorologists who talked openly, in a new podcast that debuts today, “Tornado Alert: Emotional Terror.” You can catch the podcast by clicking below.

Simpson recalls “the single scariest moment of my career came on April 27, 2011, during one of the most violent tornado outbreaks in U.S. history.”

In the podcast, he is joined by KFOR Chief Meteorologist Mike Morgan who works in Oklahoma City, WREG-TV’s Chief Meteorologist Tim Simpson in Memphis, along with WREG Meteorologist Jim Jaggers, and Garrett Lewis, Chief Meteorologist at 5 News, KFSM-TV, in northwest Arkansas.

When tornadic weather is headed their way, these meteorologists know the importance in tracking these storms live and guiding their audience when to seek a safe shelter.  But what if it’s your own family in the path of a killer storm?  What if they know it’s headed to a school, filled with students? What if your station is in the path of a killer storm?  These weather veterans know there really is no option for them to leave their jobs to help their families.

Back in April 2011, Jason Simpson was on the air then at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham.  Simpson and ABC 33/40 Chief Meteorologist James Spann had been on the air for nearly 18 straight hours together.  “Tornadoes were going towards every single family member alive within the state of Alabama,” Simpson recalls in the podcast.   There is an old saying–Those who run from danger and those who run toward it.  But then you have the meteorologists who need to stay in place, and do their job, to track storms and in the end, help save lives.

Early in the day, tornadoes had hit several parts of Alabama. Later that afternoon, another outbreak of storms hit, including the Tuscaloosa/Birmingham tornado, and other tornado touchdowns elsewhere in north and central Alabama.   “We have had multiple large tornadoes in Alabama today,” Simpson said on that day, on the air, “this is maybe a once or twice in a lifetime severe weather event.”

But then Simpson saw something that horrified him on his radar.   “A smaller super cell had developed over Bibb County, which just off to the west where my house was, in Shelby County, and it was on a direct path to my neighborhood.”  His pregnant wife was in there home at the time. “We were on a hill, didn’t have a basement, didn’t really have a place for her to get in the event this thing stayed on the ground.”  Simpson gave his wife guidance, that he knew he could never give to a mass audience. “I told her to get out.” The tornado lifted as it came over his neighborhood, but debris from the high winds was everywhere, he said.

Therein lies the dilemma for these weather watchers.  “We’re mass communicators. The advice that I would give you, individually for your house, for your storm, is going to be different than what I can give to your entire neighborhood.”

Morgan, a life-long Oklahoman has been tracking storms for almost 40 years. He recalls the May, 2013 tornadoes, one poised to hit a school area just when kids were just getting out of school.  Two schools were destroyed in Moore, Oklahoma –killed 25 people, including seven school children.  An EF-5 tornado hit one of the schools directly.  In the podcast, you can hear the horror of his broadcast team, knowing the worst has occurred. Morgan talks about how meteorologists are in a position to help “mitigate injuries and human loss of life.”

Tim Simpson has tracked storms in Memphis for 25 years, and he worked years before that in Huntsville, at WHNT News 19. Jaggers has been tracking storms since 1977.

“Local television is the only medium that can warn people of life-threatening weather.  It is so easy to show and tell people what will affect them in the very near future,” Jagger said.  They recall the “Super Tuesday tornado outbreak” in February 2008.  Both men remember it was “Super Tuesday’ voting in a presidential primary in many states. It was forecasted to be a “high risk” day.

“We knew we were going to see some pretty bad storms,” Tim Simpson said. Eighty-seven tornadoes occurred over the course of the outbreak, which lasted 15 hours, over two days.  Fifty-seven people were killed over that span, over many areas.  It was an EF-2 tornado that hit the Memphis area where three people were killed and 13 others injured.  “Every time these sirens go off, I am going to have a memory,” one survivor tearfully said then.

As these tornadoes were wreaking havoc, again, a meteorologist had to someone get word to his family.

“One of the most effective things I have heard while on the air… I heard Tim Simpson start to talk that a tornado was approaching his neighborhood, and he said, to the audience, ‘Please excuse me for just a moment, but I need to speak to my wife, my kids, you need to get down to the basement right now.’ And I thought to myself, ‘what better, effective way to communicate the danger, than a guy telling his own family, to take shelter and where to take shelter. And if I was just your average viewer, I would say to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, you need to do something,”  Jagger said.

Lewis looks back in the podcast to April 2008, “By far the scariest moment I had as a broadcast meteorologist.”  As he was on the air live, a weather system that appeared to be a tornado, was headed right at the TV station.  “We may need to actually take shelter here in the studio,” Lewis told his audience that day.

In the podcast, we hear Lewis instruct his team inside the station where to go as the tornado approaches.  The station stayed on the air, as the tornado’s wall cloud and hail were passing over the station.  “We’re actually in the center part of our hallway right now,” Lewis told his live TV audience.

“It was one of those moments you realize you have a responsibility to the audience, to the viewers at home, because they are basically experiencing the same thing,” Lewis says almost 11 years later.  “Windows were breaking out of the station, it was an incredibly scary moment,” he says.

The helplessness during these storms hits veterans like Morgan, Lewis, Jaggers, Jason and Tim Simpson.

“When I tell my wife, ‘ this is what you need to do for me to continue to do my job, so that I know you are OK.’ I can tell her that but there is no way I can tell all of Shelby County to drive south, because nearly a million people live in Shelby County, so you can’t do that,” Jason Simpson says.

All of these meteorologists made tough decisions on those days, balancing their task to keep many safe versus those that are close to them.   They battled the urge to race home to be with family and keep their responsibility to thousands of viewers.

You can click below to hear their stories.  You can also catch the new podcast on iTunes or Spotify.

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