Photos | Shane Rice
Television chief meteorologists are local celebrities whose insights are sought on everything from when the best time to walk your dog is to how to protect yourself from an oncoming storm. And as we stare into the teeth of hurricane season, that advice becomes even more important. Lagniappe is highlighting Mobile’s three top weathermen as hurricane season heats up and before you ask, they’ve all heard the jokes.
WALA Chief Meteorologist Jason Smith knows people are just trying to be funny when they blame him for a forecast that includes rain, or storms. He takes it in stride.
“It’s part of it,” Smith said. “I think that’s the main thing; you know you’re going to get weatherman jokes.”
WKRG Chief Meteorologist Ed Bloodsworth feels the same way, but added that it doesn’t happen as much as one might expect.
“People are much more weather savvy than they used to be because of the newer technology,” he said. “Most understand.”
WPMI Chief Meteorologist Alan Sealls said he doesn’t mind the jokes, especially when he’s meeting new people. ‘
“I love that people feel they can approach me,” he said. “I appreciate the jokes.”
Why did you want to become a meteorologist?
Bloodsworth saw his future in a storm cloud, as a Little Leaguer in Tampa, Florida.
Warming up on a baseball diamond, Bloodsworth looked to the sky, fascinated by what he saw in an oncoming afternoon storm.
“While warming up, a storm approached the field,” he wrote in an email message. “The teams ran to their dugouts at the first sound of thunder. I looked up to the sky and asked my coach about a weird-looking cloud. It looked like a spinning, upside-down ice cream cone.
“That funnel cloud became a rare Tampa tornado. The other players were scared. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Meteorology became an obsession at 6 years old.”
Smith grew up all over the region loving the outdoors, science and nature, so meteorology was just a natural career path.
“In about fifth grade, I figured out that weather had a big impact on fishing,” he wrote in an email. “So, I immediately took more interest in meteorology.”
Sealls grew up in a place where he experienced all four distinct seasons in a year, which made him curious about the weather.
“I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, where the variety of weather I experienced in four solid seasons always presented something that made me pause and question how it could happen,” he wrote in an email. “The career combination of science, teaching and performance looked like a good fit for my interests and strengths.”
Interesting hurricane stories
On the day Hurricane Katrina was set to make landfall, Smith came to the office at 3 a.m. and witnessed two newscasts happening simultaneously.
“Our sister station from New Orleans, WVUE, had evacuated to Mobile and was broadcasting from here,” Smith said. “I even filled in on the set for a bit to inform the New Orleans viewers before our own morning show started.”
Filling in for another station could have been an issue for some, but luckily for Smith, he was familiar with the different pronunciations of areas around “The Big Easy.”
“I do remember having a somber feeling about it, knowing you were working with people and communicating to an audience who would likely be impacted in a major way,” he said.
As for two stations using the same studio at the same time, Smith said the logistics worked out nicely.
“We have plenty of room in our studio and things seemed to run very smoothly,” Smith said. “Some of the reporters went over each day to get fresh content after the storm. The staff rented houses and stayed in Mobile for several months while their station was rebuilt.”
Sealls spent time on a hurricane hunter plane inside Hurricane Nate and enjoyed what some might find boring. The trip to and through the eye of the storm took 10 hours total, he said.
“In this case, it was a couple of hours getting to the storm from Keesler Air Force Base, around four hours inside the storm, and another couple hours to get back,” Sealls said.
The majority of the flight was not turbulent and the only things visible for much of the time were clouds, except for the eye, where water was visible, Sealls said. Another interesting aspect of this particular trip for Sealls was the presence of two former students of his from the University of South Alabama.
“The flight meteorologists take instrument readings and also visual readings,” he said. “With the rank of captain, my former students showed me how they do their jobs, estimating wave heights and collecting data, and asked me for my opinion as a fellow meteorologist.”
Bloodsworth was a high school student in Tampa in 2004 when Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan all made U.S. landfall. All of them, except Ivan, crisscrossed central Florida, which is what made the year so memorable for him.
Bloodsworth said he was surprised by the size of Hurricane Irma when he covered it in 2017.
“The storm made landfall near Marco Island, Florida, and moved north up the spine of the state,” he said. “The storm brought tropical storm winds to most of the state. The wind field was so vast, tropical storm watches and warnings were issued as far north as Atlanta.”
Too often, Seals said, folks take advice or listen to those they don’t know or trust when it comes to severe storms.
Bloodsworth believes too many people, especially salty Gulf Coast natives, prepare based on the category of the storm and they should be more vigilant.
“This was quite evident after Hurricane Sally,” he said. “Many residents I spoke with were taken aback by the storm’s impacts. Many said, ‘We did not do much prep. It was just a Category 2.’”
The issue with this thinking, Bloodsworth said, is it doesn’t take into account other variables that can make a storm deadly.
“The Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale is just that … a wind scale,” he said. “It does not consider storm surge or impacts from heavy rain. It is always important to remember most fatalities caused by tropical cyclones are the result of flooding, both saltwater from surge and freshwater from rainfall.”
For Smith, there are two things he sees people do that they shouldn’t. One is they use tape on windows in preparation for a hurricane.
“It doesn’t do any good and it’s difficult to remove the tape,” he said. “Boarding up is the best way to prepare.”
Smith also said that sometimes evacuees wait too long to leave.
“Another big issue is waiting too late to evacuate,” he said. “Traffic jams are no place to be as the storm is bearing down.”
Preparing for life before and after a storm is vital, Bloodsworth said. That starts with having enough non-perishable food and supplies on hand to survive up to a week without electricity.
“Having enough non-perishable food, water and toiletries for you and your family is vital,” he said. “Your vehicle’s gas tank should be full and ready to go. You should have a plan for your pets before a storm threatens your area by knowing where you will board your animal should you need to evacuate.”
While preparing beforehand is key, what you do after a storm hits is also important, Bloodsworth said.
“After a storm, cash is king. ATMs and banks may be without power making cash withdrawal impossible,” he said. “Recovering from a storm can be a long and daunting process. Having important documents (insurance forms, identification cards, medication lists, emergency contacts, etc.) at the ready can make this time a little less stressful.”
Seals agrees with Bloodsworth that the size and the scope of the storm don’t mean much if a resident is in its path or nearby.
“Don’t just focus on one thing like the storm category or center of the forecast cone,” he said. “Don’t assume the storm projections won’t change. Don’t think you can always compare your past experiences with future storms. Follow the cliché, ‘Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.’”
Smith believes hurricane preparation starts with knowing basic facts about where you live so that when it comes time to evacuate, a resident can make the best possible decision.
“Understanding your location and knowing your elevation [is important],” he said. “If you are in an area that may flood and is in an evacuation zone — you need to leave.”
There’s another important aspect of preparation for people who own boats.
“Also, make sure to get your boat out of the water,” Smith said. “Hurricane Sally was a big surprise for a lot of residents who were unprepared.”
What’s in store this season?
Despite the slow start to the season, all three forecasters believe the tropics are about to pick up. The middle of this month is usually when activity ramps up and they see no reason why that won’t be the case this time, as well.
“We have already seen several named storms in the early part of the season,” Smith said. “The quiet phase is normal and it is expected to be temporary. All indications point towards an uptick in activity by mid-August.”
Just because the season had a slow start, doesn’t mean those on the Gulf Coast should let their guards down, Sealls said, as the future is unpredictable.
“Past performance does not control future yields,” he said. “I have no idea what’s ahead for our region. That’s a week-by-week and day-by-day assessment.”
The slow time is typically June and July for a variety of factors. Those reasons include “very fast trade winds” and “high wind shear” and “Saharan dust” off the coast of Africa, Bloodsworth said.
However, as those factors change, activity should increase, he said.
“Activity tends to ramp up dramatically in August and September,” he said. “More organized tropical waves roll off Africa and travel west over the warm waters of the Atlantic. All signs point to another very busy season.”
Specifically, this year, a prominent La Niña could spell an active late season, Bloodsworth said. Water temperatures are also running higher than normal, which drives tropical cyclones.
“Ideally, we would see every storm that forms curve out to sea and not impact any land masses,” Bloodsworth said. “Realistically, we know that it is more likely than not that a storm will impact someone this year. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts 2022 could yield up to 21 named storms. That would match the total number of storms from 2021.”
For many, the difference between an active hurricane season and a not-so-active one could hinge on how many impact land masses where people live, Bloodsworth said.
“An active season with dozens of storms that all stay out to sea would be perceived by many as a quiet season, but it only takes one storm making landfall and causing significant damage to make it a bad year,” he said.
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