All Weather News

A weatherman’s dichotomy: Tornado coverage

30 Apr 2014, 5:00 pm

I always get the question: “Do you like covering tornadoes?”

Your simple answer: it’s the hardest and most exciting day in weather coverage.

When days like Monday emerge, when I knew heading in that powerful tornadoes were going to rip through towns and change lives forever, I had a mixture of excitement and dread heading into work on Monday.

First off, nobody gets into meteorology to talk about 70 degree weather and sunshine (no offense, San Diego colleagues). From hurricanes to severe weather to snowstorms, there’s almost always some extreme weather event that a meteorologist references as the root of their interest in weather.

So what ultimately excites and motivates you is the ability to save people’s lives. But at the same time, every storm-related death (there were 36 Sunday-Tuesday) is a referendum on your ability as a forecaster. What caused the death? Did we not properly inform the public with sufficient timing? How can it be prevented? Why did that person not heed our warnings? How can we reform our message to better reach that person and perhaps the others that didn’t make it?

Because of how quickly tornadoes form (and dissipate), I find severe weather coverage the most challenging, and partially because of it, it’s often the most important service we provide the general public as broadcast meteorologists. Even with the eye of a hurricane or a massive snowstorm approaching, you know with decent likelihood at least hours, if not days in advance where and when one will strike. Tornadoes are a different animal; you might have an idea of where they’ll hit (as we did on Sunday and Monday), but we don’t know what specific town might take a direct hit a certain day and which one won’t, and discovering and relaying that information as quickly as possible can mean the difference between life and death for many.

Like any weather nerd, I could talk Significant Tornado Parameters, helicity and gate-to-gate shear for hours on end, and you won’t even know that six hours has just passed. If I wasn’t working, there’s no question I’d just be tracking the storms at home instead. Tornado coverage is live television at its finest; constantly updating radars and situations make it a non-stop frenzy of colorful maps, live shots (sometimes of tornadoes themselves), interviews with storm chasers and panicked blabbing in your IFB (ear microphone) from your producer. Twelve hours of storm coverage usually feels like 30 minutes.

Tornadoes will occur as long as the earth is green. We’re not going to stop them. So the emphasis in forecasting is on preventing loss of life and serious injury. There’s not a lot we can do to prevent a house or business from being blown down from a tornado. But as the saying goes, you can always re-build, but you can’t bring someone back to life.

So is tornado forecasting fun? Absolutely. It’s what we’re here for. But we have to get it right. When lives are in the balance, there’s no margin for error.

Meteorologist Chris Bianchi.

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