Alabama Meteorologist James Spann Remembers, Reflects on 10-Year Tornado Anniversary
James Spann isn't a psychic.
Being a meteorologist – perhaps the most recognized and renowned meteorologist in the South – Spann's job can really only be made easier by a fully functional crystal ball. But, dealing in possibilities is Spann's game, and in April of 2011, he tried his hardest to work the television cameras and save as many lives as he could.
Ten years ago, Spann used all the tools he had to communicate that a severe weather event was certainly going to impact the state and nothing else was guaranteed. Weather models indicated that April 27, 2011 was going to be a rough one, though, so Spann got to work.
"The key is getting people ready, and that starts days in advance," he said. "This was a Wednesday event and we started mentioning the possibility of a high impact event the Friday before."
Affectionately referred to as "Alabama's Weatherman," Spann knew that the weather event was going to be major. His team started reporting on the impending dangers nearly a week before April 27 rolled around, doing all they could to encourage their listeners to be prepared and take their premonitions seriously.
'We really hit it hard Monday: 'violent long-track tornadoes, this is going to be a really rough day, you've got to pay attention, you've got to be able to hear the warnings,'" Spann said. "You do that all day Monday and then all day Tuesday across all platforms, and then it starts."
Even so, 252 people in Alabama lost their lives on that day. Spann insists that, despite all the work and preparation he put into disseminating information to his viewers, that was still 252 lives too many.
A MANIC MORNING
The issue, he said, lay in the events of the morning. Smaller tornadoes had ripped through north and central Alabama, five people died, there was widespread damage throughout the state and, crucially, 250,000 residents were without power.
"We knew that the afternoon and the evening would be really bad, but I didn't expect the morning to be that bad," Spann said. "Looking back on that, I wish we could have done a better job of communicating that but we really didn't know it was going to be that bad. The models didn't pick up on it, you look at analogs, look at previous events...that really never showed up."
The worse-than-predicted morning wreaked havoc on a team that's wasn't expecting to deal with calamitous conditions until the late afternoon.
"That was pretty chaotic, and that's how the day started," Spann said.
Spann wakes up at 4:52 a.m. every morning and, on a normal day, won't return to his bed until 1 a.m. A severe weather event like April 27, 2011 requires energy and stamina that can't be maintained with less than four hours of sleep, so he had planned on taking a nap between the morning's round of severe weather and the afternoon event. Sleep proved to be impossible, and Spann was ultimately in the studio and on the air for nearly 17 hours.
The brief period of quiet before the afternoon event was spent assessing the massive infrastructure hit that ABC 33/40 took that morning and figuring out how to get through the rest of the day with what equipment and tools they had left.
"We had cameras down, we had microwave paths down, we had internet outages. It was like Apollo 13 going to the moon; we had an explosion," Spann said. "I don't think people know how much damage we had. All these engineers just streamed in there, telling me, 'This isn't working, this is down, this is not working,' and I finally said, 'Guys, timeout here. Tell me what is working because we have to get through a horrible afternoon.'"
HANDLING THE HATERS
Once the sun broke around 10 a.m., Spann said the "haters" came out in full force to criticize his team's inability to predict the future. While locals were disparaging media professionals for not being able to detect an undetectable morning storm, the disguise of gorgeous midday terrified Spann.
"They were out in full force because the sun came out. 'You nitwits, it was supposed to be bad this afternoon and tonight! It's all over! The sun is out!'" Spann recalled. "Of course to us, when the sun broke out, that was horrifying. Low-level heat and cold air in the upper levels create instability and buoyancy and adds to the intensity of the whole event. While the haters were just all over us, we had zero time for them. We were just worried about the afternoon."
What might be worse than hate, Spann said, is forgetting. He makes sure to remember exactly how many tornadoes devastated the state that day, recalling the death toll and using that event as proof that there is always something that can be done better.
"If you go ask somebody in Walla Walla, Washington, Chicago, Boston, what happened on that day, [they'll say], 'Oh, it was a Tuscaloosa tornado,'" Spann said. "Tuscaloosa was a horrible, horrible tragedy, but understand there were 62 tornadoes, 62 tragedies, and the death toll that day was 252. That is absolutely inexcusable for anybody – in the weather enterprise or in the public – and we've all got work to do after that."
Supercells began to form early in the afternoon, beginning just north of Jasper. That cell dropped a tornado – eventually classified as an EF-4 – that tore through Cullman, a town of 20,000 people, and no one died. The following storms only got worse from there.
NO RULE BOOK
In meteorology school, they don't give students a rule book on how to prioritize and handle a generational tornado outbreak. And though he'd covered plenty of intense severe weather events before 2011, Spann was working this storm as it happened.
"There is no book; there is no manual on how to do this," Spann said. "You are flying by the seat of your pants, and you just do the best you can. We don't know how to do this, we just don't. But we did the best that we could ... I did not get hung up in the magnitude of the event until several days after it was over."
There wasn't a second to spare for mental gymnastics, Spann said. Using what technology and resources they had left after the morning storm, they were able to capture some haunting, stunning live views of some of the storms, including the Tuscaloosa tornado.
Even so, Spann still wonders what would have been if he had divided his airtime differently, covering any of the dozens of other tornadoes that ripped through his home state that day, taking the lives of more than 200 of his neighbors.
"When Tuscaloosa was happening, we had Cordova happening," he said. "And in a way, I feel horrible that we focused so much on that live video of the Tuscaloosa tornado that we didn't help our friends upstream from the Cordova tornado. That was an EF-4 – that was just as big."
Spann has a soft spot for tiny, rural towns. Growing up in Greenville, Alabama, Spann knows what it's like to live out in the country, and some of the hardest-to-swallow stories came out of towns that many people had never heard of.
"I think about little places like Boley Springs and Sawyerville and Webster's Chapel. People had never heard of these places and they probably never heard of them today, but they hurt just as bad as the people in the city of Tuscaloosa."
The photos prove it: after the storm, Alabama was a state of one people. Folks came out in droves to help one another, whether by passing out barbecue sandwiches and bottled water in church parking lots or helping sift through the rubble for personal salvageable belongings and everything in between.
This is what Spann cherishes about that day. At least for a little bit, no one saw skin color or political affiliation or religion or education or football team preference – everyone was there for one another.
"The days after April 27, 2011, what did you see? You saw everybody coming together to help. It didn't matter if they were a left-winger or a right-winger, if they [would vote] for Trump or Biden, if they were Black or white, it didn't matter," he said. "And why can't we do something like that again and remember that we're just all one people that can work for the common good, despite our differences? I think we should look at that because it was amazing."
The following weekend, Spann took time off of work to take his family and members of his son's youth baseball team to assist in the recovery efforts. When they arrived, what they saw was astonishing.
"There were no FEMA people, there were no state people. The churches got together, all of them, and they had a well-oiled machine of relief," Spann said. "They were distributing food, when volunteers came into town they knew exactly where the volunteers needed to go. And that was amazing to me and that was repeated all over the state. I hope that we can remember that and maybe consider that again."
For Tuscaloosa, the hashtag #TTownNeverDown circulated throughout the community and its surrounding neighbors. Houndstooth ribbons adorned Facebook pages and game day buttons the following football season. Ten years later, the tradition continues.
STORIES THAT STICK
Spann repeats the number 252 a lot, as the death toll still weighs heavily on his heart 10 years later. He urges those who remember the 2011 tornadoes to celebrate how far they've come since that tragic event, but never forget the lives that were lost that day.
"252 people, 251 names – we had a woman six months pregnant, delivered the baby, the baby didn't survive, the baby didn't have a name. So, the death toll was 252, the name count was 251," Spann said. "Let's not forget those people. These were precious people that died. Some were your age, some were mine. Some live in the city, some live in the country. And we have to protect their memory – that's a big thing to me."
Many Alabamians regard Spann as a sort of celebrity – his suspenders and signature stare make him recognizable by nearly anyone in the South – but he insists that he's just a guy who happens to report the weather. However, many folks who watch him on television are like family to Spann, and that's just the way he likes it.
"I've been here a long time," Spann said. "People know me because we have lived through countless tornado events and hurricanes and floods and these high impact events where, if you go through something traumatic with somebody else, you kind of bond. And I think that's what's happened with me and the people of this state. I want them to know me because when the weather's dangerous, I want them to know where to find me."
While Spann will likely never forget any of the 252 people who died on April 27, 2011, he recalls some victims' stories vividly to this day:
"I look at some of the stories like Jonathan and Justin Doss, a couple of brothers killed in Cordova," he said. "Cordova, that day, had two tornadoes: one in the morning one in the afternoon. Those two boys survived the morning tornado; the afternoon tornado resulted in both of them losing their life. It was just horrible.
"I look at stories like Loryn Brown, Danielle Downs and Will Stevens, these three college students. They were at 31 Beverly Heights. Friends from high school, they gathered together in a spot there where a couple of them lived, and all three of them died. In fact, Loryn Brown's birthday was March 19. I know her mom, Ashley Mims," Spann continued. "Loryn was at Shelton State. She was finishing up, she was going to transfer to the University of Alabama. She wanted to be a sportscaster. Will Stevens was a student at Stillman College, where he played baseball, and Danielle Downs was about to graduate from the University of Alabama. They heard the warning and they did the right thing but despite that, they all three lost their lives. Sometimes I'll drive by 31 Beverly Heights, just off University Boulevard toward Alberta City east of DCH.
"I think of Ashley Harrison. Ashley was an only child, about to graduate from the University. Her boyfriend was Carson Tinker, the long snapper for the University of Alabama football team. And she lost her life that day," Spann said. "I see photographs of graduation – they delayed graduation at the University for later in the year – and you can see Ashley's parents, Darlene and Dave Harrison from Dallas, and the pain in their eyes, it is visceral. If you can't feel that pain. you're not human. And the hurt is very real.
"These people died on my watch. Understand, I'm a small cog in a big process here, but they died on my watch," Spann concluded. "But people must understand this happened to real people at a real place at a real-time, and a lot of people are still healing today from that whole thing. It's just...it's a process."
To watch Spann's full live coverage from April 27, 2011, check out the YouTube video below:
For all coverage pertaining to the 10-year anniversary of the April 27, 2011 tornadoes, click here.