From staff, wire reports
Many people in high-stress jobs may equate their work environment to a “pressure cooker,” which would describe the atmosphere at the National Weather Service in Huntsville on April 27, 2011.
Not since the tornado outbreak of 1974 have NWS meteorologists had to stay on top — and ahead — of so many life-threatening tornadoes in one day. From the pre-dawn hours until almost 10 p.m. that evening, forecasters and radar operators watched the steady stream of twisters march across the Tennessee Valley from the NWS office, located on the campus of the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Meteorologist Robert Boyd worked the evening shift on April 26 and stayed through the early morning hours of April 27. He, like other meteorologists at the NWS, was keenly aware the conditions were becoming more dangerous by the hour.
“Everything was OK until 3 or 4 (a.m.) when the weather was becoming severe in Franklin and Colbert counties, which happened at the time I was leaving,” he said. “I went home, but didn’t sleep much because the sirens had started going off. I came back around 2 p.m. in time for the worst (storms).”
The memory that sticks out most from that day, he said, was watching the live Internet feed and television coverage of the tornadoes that hit Tuscaloosa, the Birmingham area and Cullman. The NWS in Huntsville issued the tornado warning for Cullman County, and Boyd said it was strange to see it live on TV.
“You can’t take it out of the back of your mind because you know it’s going through a populated area,” he said. “You just try to do your job and get out the warnings.”
The day was no less tense for meteorologist Jennifer Lee, who was more than 40 weeks pregnant at the time. She had been on maternity leave, but came into the office that day to help out.
“The running joke was, ‘Don’t have the baby today,’ but I was worried about us being down a person,” she said.
On normal days, she said, there are typically three people in the office to handle non-warning weather information, the aviation forecast and the seven-day forecast. On that day, Lee had to do all three.
“It was stressful, but that’s what we’ve been trained to do. We spend hours and days every year preparing for these big events,” she said. “Most of the staff live in Madison County, so we all had family and friends being impacted. You have to compartmentalize, though, because you have a job to do. There wasn’t an opportunity to have fear or worry.”
The NWS radar operators that day were meteorologists Chris White and Christina Crowe. White, who is also the chief climatologist, spent a total of 13 hours staring at the radar with Crowe, who was still relatively new to working with radar.
“It was her first big event, so she issued her first tornado warning and her 15th or 20th on the same day,” White said. “I myself issued 25 to 35 tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings that day.”
Management staff would ask White and Crowe if they needed a break after several hours, but White said it didn’t feel right “switching horses in midstream.” He said they were both fatigued, but did the best they could.
At about 5 or 5:30 p.m., the service’s main radar feed from Hytop was lost. The feed from the ARMOR radar near the Huntsville International Airport was also lost, leaving White and Crowe relying on images from Columbus, Miss., Nashville and Atlanta.
“I think we were an inspiration for each other to keep going, and I would think, ‘I can’t let her down,’” he said. “We both just stayed with it.”
White said the overall mood in the NWS varied from person to person, but he tried to stay as calm as possible under the circumstances. He knew his own family was also in danger at various points, but he had to focus on the job at hand.
“I had an idea of what was going on out there, but didn’t know for certain. If I sat back and thought about it, I could imagine the horror some people were enduring, but you have to detach from your emotions,” he said. “It really hit me when I saw some of the damage, because I had never seen damage on that scale. It was a rude awakening.”
Chris Darden, meteorologist in charge at the Huntsville NWS, said the computer models leading up to April 27 were accurate in pinpointing the severity of the storms and the timing. He hopes residents in storm-damaged areas have learned from the experience and are now more prepared for severe weather.
“Sometimes you try to take advantage of an unfortunate experience, which draws people to meteorology and storm science,” he said. “Maybe they’re buying storm shelters and weather radios, but we want people to be more vigilant about the weather. The apathy may kick back in over time, but maybe they’ve gained a greater respect.”