Before moving back to my home state of Tennessee in 2007, I spent nine years forecasting the weather in southwest Florida, and two years in Yuma, Arizona.
Yes, in Florida we would have the occasional EF0 or EF1 tornado that would pop up whenever a tropical storm moved through, but needless to say my experience at forecasting tornadoes was somewhat lacking on the resume.
I was like everyone else concerning tornadoes, they were academic. They made great video of how other parts of the country could get damaged by tornadoes, but fortunately I lived in the Tennessee Valley where strong, "Oklahoma City" tornadoes never happened.
April 27th changed everything.
Sure, I have dealt with strong tornadoes - Pisgah, Alabama comes to mind - that have done damage to our area in my five years here, but in terms of total damage and loss of life, there is no comparison.
April 27th was a Wednesday. The possibility of severe storms had been predicted for our area for several days, at least on Monday when I came in, I knew we could be seeing something on Wednesday. All indications were that it would be Wednesday afternoon.
The Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma will issue a daily severe weather risk for the country. They will forecast graphically what we will most likely see: general thunderstorms, slight severe weather risk, moderate risk, and high risk.
Early in the week - if I recall correctly - there was already moderate risk of severe weather for us. In my experience, when there is a moderate risk, that usually means you better start planning on a severe weather day. I do not recall ever dealing with anything for our area higher than a moderate risk in my time here.
As Wednesday dawned, the map looked like bullseye, with Chattanooga at the center.
As a forecaster, there was something surreal about seeing that pink shaded, high risk, area. If I am on high alert during a moderate risk, what should be done during a high risk? How much preparedness is possible? I am still not sure we completely know the answer to that.
Anyway, as I was going through the morning, the forecast was still that the primary activity would be during the afternoon, but at around 7:00 a.m., a cluster of rain that I had been seeing off to the west started to grow. By 8:00 a.m., this system was spawning tornadoes! From that point on, Channel 3 provided wall-to-wall coverage of every storm cell and tornado that appeared that day.
My primary experience was with the morning storms. Nick Austin graciously came in and was amazing in helping get out information.
At one point, I was talking about a storm and possible tornado near McConnell Elementary School, knowing that my daughter was at that school at that moment. A friend of mine texted me and said folks at McConnell had indeed spotted a tornado - it touched down and did quite a bit of damage to Camp Columbus, right behind the school. I think that was truly the point for me when it became more than academic, my family was at risk.
The rest of the morning is kind of a blur. I do remember looking at a map that showed individual reports of storm damage, and being amazed at how clearly it mirrored the paths of the tornadoes.
Paul Barys, whom I was an admirer of in high school (don't hate me for that time stamp, Paul), and a raving fan of now, came in sometime during the late morning. That's when I went into backup mode, keeping people updated on Facebook and Twitter, and feeding in pictures you sent in of damage so we could get them on air and start visually showing the impact this was having on the area.
I really have mixed feelings about that day. When I think about Cherokee Valley Road and the lives lost, my heart breaks. When I hear stories about lives saved as a result of heeding warnings, I feel pride for my industry. When I think of Ringgold, Apison, South Cleveland and the other areas where cleanup of personal property is, to this day, a monumental task, I am in awe. When I think of the miraculous way (miraculous was a carefully chosen word) in which some lives were spared - a college student who rode a tornado in a bathtub for example- I feel joy and amazement.
As far as what I've learned:
Life is precious and fleeting and should be protected at all costs. That means having a plan in place. Where will you go, what will you do if that day ever happens again? Know before it happens.
I work with the most amazing professionals in the industry. From the meteorologists, to the producers, to the reporters and photographers, to the control room, to management, everyone played a role in providing life-saving coverage that day, and I will always be proud for having played a part.
I live in a freakishly awesome community. I am so proud of how everyone pulled together, and is still doing so, to help their neighbors and, in many cases, people they did not even know.
Thank you for letting me part of your community in the role that I have. I don't, and never will, take it for granted.