By Lucy Frost-Helms
You may recognize him from his colorful suspenders, enthusiastic attitude or for simply being on your weather channel. This past Monday, Feb. 28, famous Alabama weatherman, James Spann, visited the University of Montevallo. Spann actively visits schools across Alabama and came to the Center for the Arts building at 9 a.m. to share his insight. Focusing on the tornado season in Central and North Alabama that consistently occurs in November, March and April, Spann spoke about how to prepare for severe weather. He also shared emotional stories about those who lost their lives in the midst of natural disasters, specifically the deadly 2011 tornadoes that devastated Tuscaloosa.
Spann said, “You must have a weather radio, helmet, airhorn and hard soled shoes.”
While this may not be what you typically think of having on hand, Spann made it clear that tornado sirens are not reliable and often give out false warnings. Spann even has a name for the reliance on tornado sirens.
“I call it the siren mentality. The tornado sirens cry wolf, if you get what I’m saying. 30% of tornado siren warnings are inaccurate.”
Christina Heichelbech, a victim of a tornado in Clay, Alabama in 2012, passed away when she was 16. Spann touched on her story in connection with the importance of severe weather preparation.
“Christina did not hear the warning siren and it cost her her life. You need a weather radio.”
Weather radios, which cost about $30 each and can be bought on Amazon or in most electronics stores, are more reliable in his opinion and will sound an alarm when a warning is distributed. Spann also recommends having a helmet to prevent blunt force trauma to the head, which is the leading cause of death and injury if caught in a tornado. An air horn to provide an auditory signal if you are trapped in rubble and hard-soled shoes to walk across tornado site damage are also recommended. Spann made it clear that these items can be the difference between life and death.
Spann also highlighted that he is committed to distributing information and providing resources for Alabamians beyond the weather station. By providing translations of warnings and news to those who are not native English speakers, allocating transportation to severe weather shelters for those who cannot afford personal vehicles and raising funds for preparation kits are three ways he described that have improved the outcome of natural disasters in Alabama. However, he emphasized that his outreach can only go so far.
Spann stated, in reference to the 2011 tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, “These people died on my watch. The fate of these people is on my shoulders…One death is a failure…Our goal is no loss of life when tornadoes hit.”
Spann emphasized that efforts to better prepare Alabamians for tornadoes are never finished and that these deadly disasters are not predictable in the long term.
“I only do short term predictions. Long-term predicting requires a skillset that is unreliable and unattainable.”
Recognizing that even the favorable short-term predictions can be inaccurate and receive negative feedback, Spann transitioned into speaking more about his relationship with being a public figure on TV and also social media. Weather predictions are not the only thing he receives criticism for.
In regards to a woman commenting on an Instagram picture he posted of Noccalula Falls in Gadsden, Alabama, Spann said, “It’s a rough place we have today. I was chewed out yesterday. She didn’t like me posting this picture from Noccalula Falls and said it was dangerous and I was encouraging people to slip off the falls. I appreciate the point, but you don’t have to be mean…I have a folder with nice things and hate messages. It’s a balancing act. It’s a weird place to be in.”
Spann is active on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.
In a TikTok video posted on Jan. 15 of this year, Spann said, “There’s a lot of really bad information on here and what we are trying to do is cut through some of that noise.”
No matter the severity of the feedback he receives, he summarized that his ultimate goal is to spread awareness and provide factual information about the weather. At the root of it, James Spann is passionate about meteorology, the people of Alabama and educating others about severe weather preparation.