Phillip Tutor: ‘Human suffering’ amid Alabama’s storm
Jan 30, 2014 | 7204 views |  0 comments | 43 43 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Parents and their children walk gingerly down the snow-covered hill outside The Donoho School on Wednesday. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
Parents and their children walk gingerly down the snow-covered hill outside The Donoho School on Wednesday. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
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Until this week, James Spann could run for governor of Alabama as a liberal Democrat who supports Obamacare and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential possibilities. He wouldn’t win, but that’s not the point.

His popularity as the state’s most prominent weatherman is unrivaled.

Then, Tuesday happened.

“There was clear human suffering as a result of my bad forecast,” the ABC 33/40 meteorologist wrote Wednesday on his station’s blog, Birminghamwx.com.

Which, sadly, is true.

We all know what happened. Spann and other forecasters — including the National Weather Service — predicted a strong winter storm would hit south Alabama, but that the state’s central counties would get off with only minor inconveniences. Temps would plummet, but we’d get little snow.

A dusting, they said.

Given no reason to worry, Alabamians along Interstate 20 — Tuscaloosa to Birmingham to Anniston — went about their normal routines. Schools welcomed students. Businesses opened. An otherwise routine January day.

Routine, that is, until snow started falling. And falling. And falling. School officials all across central Alabama began planning to close early in the afternoon, but the snow kept piling up. The threat was real, warning or not. Schools couldn’t wait; by 11 a.m., they were dismissing classes in hopes of getting students home before the worst happened.

It didn’t work, of course.

Buses couldn’t drive on the icy roads. Parents had trouble picking up their children. More than 4,000 Alabama students, along with their teachers, stayed overnight at their schools.

By mid-afternoon, with ice covering the roads and rush-hour traffic in full force, the perfect storm — pun intended — arrived. Roads with hills were impassible. Across the state, cars slid off roads, 18-wheelers jack-knifed and stranded motorists spent hours in their cars. Some walked home or to shelters, abandoning their cars on the side of the road.

Spann is The Face of Alabama Weather, the man who warns us about tornadoes with pinpoint accuracy. But The Face of Alabama Weather missed this one — badly — and could do nothing about it once the storm began en force. He may be good at his job and wildly popular, but he can’t control the heavens.

As the snow piled up, Alabamians piled on.

“... Over the last 12 hours, lots of social media vitriol has been directed at me, and it is deserved,” Spann wrote. “People who are tired, hungry, in strange places trying to sleep away from their families and children, need to vent. Do NOT vent at school officials or your boss. They make decisions on weather forecasts, and what they got was bad information. I am the one to blame.”

Calls for Spann’s head — or weathermen in general — were ubiquitous. When I scrambled to pick up my kids Wednesday, one of the first things I overheard at their school was, “boy, they really missed this one.”

Yes, they did.

Three points: (1.) I’ll let trained meteorologists explain the science behind the failed forecasts; (2.) no single person was to blame; and (3.) Spann was hardly the only smart guy to foul this one up. The National Weather Service called for a “dusting” of snow for central Alabama. Over in Atlanta, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal spent part of his day Wednesday blaming forecasters for that city’s nightmarish problems dealing with the storm.

Unwillingly or not, Spann sits on a pedestal built on expertise, a strong track record and personality. He is the closest thing to a rock star this state has in television weather, if not television news. His social media presence is immense. (He has more than 240,000 combined followers on his Twitter and Facebook accounts.)

When he speaks, Alabamians listen.

The problem with stardom — when it’s formed by science and knowledge — is our expectations. Politicians don’t win every election; even Nick Saban, a god among coaches, loses games. But we believe scientific stardom to be infallible. I’ve heard scant blame hurled toward Spann’s colleagues at other stations, and neither have they written lengthy apologies for the failed forecast and tried to absorb all the fault for a region’s problem.

Spann is a big boy. He can defend himself as he sees fit. His fan base is surely intact. And I’d be shocked if this bases-loaded strikeout puts much of a stain on his professional reputation. Come tornado season, if he says hunker down, you will.

And you’ll expect him to be right, even if this time he was not.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.
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