MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The Washington Post’s headquarters is about 800 miles northeast of 12 East Delano Avenue, the home of WSFA-TV studios for nearly 65 years. But in the digital age, the two are just a click apart.
That was evident by a piece the newspaper published Thursday in which it dissected WSFA 12 News meteorologists’ coverage of what became a devastating EF-4 tornado. It slammed into communities in southern portions of Lee County, killing 23, Sunday afternoon.
Large portions of the wall-to-wall weather coverage were eventually posted online for the world to watch on-demand or to pick apart. Things are usually much more clear in hindsight since you have the advantage of already knowing what’s happened as you watch. But in this case, there’s no need for hindsight. The First Alert weather team was crystal clear - in real time- when it matter most.
“Having a voice of reason to guide you to safety can mean the difference between life and death, while acting as a source of reassurance that you will get through it,” Matthew Cappucci with the Post explained. “Sunday’s catastrophic tornadoes in Lee County, Ala., were no exception. And that voice was coming from Josh Johnson.”
Josh is WSFA 12 News’ chief meteorologist. Generally, our team of meteorologists waits until the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning before breaking into programming. Sunday, that wasn’t the case.
Josh made the decision to pull the station away from NHL Hockey programming before the first warning was even issued because he felt it was warranted. And he was absolutely right, despite drawing early ire from some viewers, though that quickly vanished as the reality of the situation set in.
For hours, Josh and fellow meteorologists Eric Snitil and Lee Southwick tag-teamed analysis and coverage in-studio while Amanda Curran focused her efforts in the field from StormTracker12.
“It was coverage that probably proved lifesaving for many Alabama residents,” the Post wrote, “and it blew away veteran broadcast meteorologists with its clarity, thoroughness and calm-yet-serious tone.”
To watch the coverage the first time was concerning. When you hear Josh call out roads and small landmarks in your rural little city like he’s lived next door his whole life, it’s time to sit up and take notice, and most likely get to your safe place with a helmet.
To watch it days later and see just how extremely accurate the forecasting was - the calm but urgent warning that “your life may be in jeopardy, no your life IS in jeopardy” - is a bit chilling. The county roads most affected in Lee County were top of mind and were being called out ahead of the massive, ominous dark blue blob that appeared on the monitor next to Josh.
That “blob” was debris being thrown miles into the air where it was then detected on WSFA 12 News’ new Baron radar system. If radar is detecting debris, chances are something is violently destroying homes, vehicles, businesses, tree limbs and anything - or anyone - in its path. That blob, was people’s lives being changed forever.
“Deep down, I knew that some people were not going to survive this tornado,” Josh told the Post when they contacted him days later. “That is a terrible, terrible feeling. But, it was important to compartmentalize my emotions so that I could invest one hundred percent of my mental and emotional effort into communicating the danger the tornado presented. My role, and the role of my team, was to minimize that death toll to the best of our ability.”
Josh says the event will be studied, and he and his team will learn from it. What did work? What didn’t work? It’s an effort to make sure sure those who lost their lives didn’t die in vain.
Part of the clear, concise coverage was noticed at another address, this one much closer to The Washington Post’s headquarters. About half a mile away at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House quickly picked up the coverage.
As the Post was dissecting the weather department’s coverage, the White House was making calls to the newsroom upstairs, putting together its plans ahead of a trip by President Donald Trump to the area on Friday.
While details of the president’s trip remained classified, an invitation from the White House was extended to just one Alabama television station to join the president as he toured damage and comforted survivors.
Working through Gray Television’s Washington News Bureau, that station was WSFA 12 News.
We hope we never have to go through such an ordeal again. But in our nearly 65 years of broadcasting and living in Alabama, we know it’s inevitable. The state will be hit by these types of tornadoes again.
We’ll be ready. Our job is to make sure you’ll be ready too, in a clear yet calm and reassuring way.