One of the South’s top meteorologists shares the facts (and dispels the myths) about keeping safe in bad weather.

By Valerie Fraser Luesse
February 10, 2021
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James Spann wishes you would forget about the tornado sirens and buy a weather radio. (And no, he doesn't sell them or endorse a particular brand.) Also, as his huge audience already knows, he wants you to "Respect the polygon!"

The enormously popular chief meteorologist at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham has devoted his entire career to keeping Southerners safe from severe weather, working at stations in several metro areas within his home state and even doing an award-winning stint in Dallas before returning to Alabama. He came to ABC 33/40 in the late 90s and has been there ever since, racking up prestigious national broadcasting awards and Emmys along the way.

You have to glean most of that from his public bios, however, because Spann would rather talk about the weather. And for him, it's not idle chitchat—it's literally a life-and-death conversation.

If you don't remember anything else, he says, remember this: Put yourself in a position to be warned.

Spann remembers the horrible tornado outbreak Alabama suffered ten years ago, when 252 people in the state lost their lives. "The number one reason people died April 27, 2011, is the siren mentality," he says.  "It's ingrained in the hearts and minds of the people in tornado country. They honestly believe they're going to hear something like a World War II air raid siren in their home or in their business or in church before a tornado. But sirens have never, ever been effective at reaching people inside, especially at night during a raging storm. They have a purpose, and that is to reach a limited number of people outdoors. It's an absolute last resort, and yet most Alabamians think that's how they're going to hear a tornado warning. That mentality has killed more people than anything else."

How best to protect yourself, especially if you're new to the South and have never experienced tornado season?

1. Buy a weather radio. (It’s your best wake-up call during severe weather.)

"That's the baseline, a weather radio in every house, just like a smoke alarm," Spann says. "Everybody has to have one. Cell networks can go down so you might not hear the warning on your phone, but weather radios operate independently of cell networks. And if you're at home watching Netflix or Hulu or Amazon, you're not going to hear the warnings from your local TV and radio stations."

2. Use the emergency alerts on your cell phone. (BTW, they do no good if you turn them off.)

"Every phone sold in the U.S. has Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEAs," Spann explains. "This is not an app. It's built in. Where we are, your WEAs include tornado warnings, flash flood alerts, and Amber alerts. But some people turn this feature off. Everybody needs to leave these emergency alerts on because your phone is always with you. Most people wouldn't carry around a portable weather radio, but we all have our phones with us."

3. Download additional weather apps to your phone.

"I'm not in the app business, but there are a lot of good weather apps out there," Spann says. "If you have a weather radio, the WEAs on your smartphone, and a good weather app, you're going to get that warning 90 percent of the time."

4. Identify your safe space. (Hint: It can’t be a Winnebago.)

Maybe you have a storm shelter or basement in your home, or a sturdy interior room with no windows. You can create a safe space there. If you live in a mobile home or you're traveling in an RV, however, you have to leave. "Mobile homes offer great, affordable housing but in a tornado, they go airborne," Spann says. "That's just the way it is. So you need to figure out where you'll go—maybe a nearby gas station or convenience store—but you need to decide and you need to make that decision on a clear day, when there's no severe weather. Don't wait till the last minute and don't pick a safe space that's, say, 20 minutes away because you might not have time to get there after the warning."

5. Prepare your safe space. (You won’t like the last part.)

Should the worst happen, and you find yourself surrounded by tornado debris, you're going to need hard-soled shoes to protect your feet from broken glass, nails, etc. Also, a mini airhorn can let first responders know where you are. There's one more thing, and you aren't going to like it. "Everybody needs a helmet," Spann says. "I know, I know—it's not a good look for an adult. But that's how most people died on April 27 (2011)—blunt force trauma to the skull region. So a bike helmet, a batting helmet—anything like that—really increases your chances of survival if you take a direct hit from a big tornado."

While we're talking tornados, let's do some myth-busting.

Myth #1: Tornado season begins in April.

No, it actually peaks at that time. Spann says he considers November through May tornado season. A tornado, which struck Alabama in January 2021, made national news, largely because it was reported as "rare." That's just not true, Spann says: "We've had 145 tornados in January since 1950."

Myth #2: Tornados can strike only certain places in my state.

They may strike some places more often, but tornados can strike anywhere.

Myth #3: I should've heard a warning if there was a tornado in my county.

"Tornado warnings haven't been issued for entire counties in a decade," Spann says. Ever-advancing technology has made it possible for meteorologists to pinpoint warnings to much smaller areas—polygons. (Need we remind you: "Respect the polygon!") Back in the day, local meteorologists had to forecast based on facsimile prints off a radar screen—in Alabama's case, there was only one radar center for the whole state. Now, Spann and other meteorologists have Doppler radar, which lets them see wind velocity, and even newer technology that can show them what type of debris a tornado is lofting.

Myth #4: "Memaw says we don't have to worry about tornadoes because there's a mountain on the west side of the back forty and tornados always split and go around . . ."

Topography might have some effect on a small tornado, but not a big one, Memaw. Bless your sweet heart. Is that your peach cobbler we smell in the oven?