Huntsville Tornado, Nov. 15, 1989 - Southern Region Disaster Survey
Television and Radio Station Dissemination Activities
WHNT TV - 19, the Huntsville CBS station, felt advance warnings on the severe weather situation were excellent. First indications of upcoming inclement weather were available Tuesday night. TV-19 is the only major network station with a noon news program. Tornado Watch Number 750 was included in the noon weather show. Weather "crawls" and/or "cut-ins" were done every 15 to 30 minutes beginning at 12:30 pm. The crawls were composed and sent across the screen 2 to 3 times in a row every 5 to 10 minutes. The 4:13 pm Severe Thunderstorm Warning for Madison County was aired before the station lost power at 4:35 pm.
WAAY-TV, Channel 31, the ABC affiliate, was the only major network station to stay on the air after the tornado because emergency power was available. Many listeners called stating TV-31 was their source for storm information during the disaster. WAAY simulcasted with WAAJ-AM 1550 and WKQD-FM 93.3 until midnight. A chronology of the station's activities is shown below:
As a general policy, severe weather watches are "crawled" on the screen at least once every half hour. All warnings for the entire TV-48 viewing area are broadcast live and then crawled followed by a watch or warning emblem in a lower screen corner.
WAFF viewers were advised as early as Monday of the possibility of bad weather by mid-week.
The day of the storm, TV-48 was broadcasting on Comcast, the CATV system for Huntsville.
There was some confusion in regard to the 3:40 pm and 3:54 pm warnings. A Tornado Warning was issued for Morgan County (adjacent county southwest of Huntsville in Madison County) at 3:40 pm. At 3:54 pm a Severe Thunderstorm Warning was issued for Morgan County. This seemed to indicate to TV-48 that the warning was downgraded and the storm appeared to be weakening. The 3:40 pm Severe Thunderstorm Warning for Morgan and Lawrence counties aired at 3:44 pm. It is not known when the 4:13 pm Severe Thunderstorm Warning for Madison County was broadcast. At 4:37 pm the station received the report of the storm at the golf course on the east side of Redstone Arsenal. The 4:39 pm Tornado Warning over NWR was carried live on TV-48.
WDRM - FM, Decatur, AL
WDRM does not subscribe to NOAA Weather Wire. Weather data is obtained from ACCU-Weather, Alan Archer out of Tampa, FL, Alden radar, NWR, The Weather Channel, and the AP wire.
The radio audience was informed Tuesday night that Wednesday would likely be a bad weather day. The more the NWS emphasizes the weather, the more WDRM does. The Public Weather Outlook issued by the NSSFC, and the Special Weather Statements out of WSFO Birmingham, added additional credence to the possibility of severe weather and were taken seriously.
WDRM prepared differently for the Wednesday storms. Based on NWS information, the entire staff was alerted to stay on station as of 8:30 am because the big news event and story of the day would likely be weather related.
By noon the weather was balmy, there was a thunderstorm line in western Tennessee. At 2:30 pm the station broke format to go to weather information every 4 to 5 minutes, or every two songs. Then it became weather after every song. Commercials were deleted.
General Manager & Co-Owner Mack Bramlett stated the station was aware of the 3:40 pm Tornado Warning for Lawrence and Morgan counties (Decatur) based on the report of a tornado near Moulton, AL. At 3:55 pm, large hail was falling in Decatur and it sounded like a tornado was passing overhead. Mr. Bramlett notified the Decatur EMA. City sirens were sounded.
As mentioned earlier by TV-48, the sequence and type of warnings issued between 3:40 pm and 4:13 pm caused some confusion, but overall had no detrimental effect.
A tornado struck south Huntsville around 4:30 pm. WDRM returned to normal programming at 7:15 pm.
Mr. Bramlett stated, "The NWS outdid themselves for this storm, yet got the worst press. Yet, local people commented about how some people said they were not warned." WDRM received many calls congratulating them on their weather coverage with promises to listen to the station in the future during threatening weather.
WEUP - AM, Huntsville, AL
WEUP, a black-owned station, is associated with the Shearton Broadcast Network (SBN). The station has NAM with alarm, AP, and is on the Madison County EMA ring-down system. However, this system didn't ring the day of the tornado, but the problem will be investigated and fixed. Because of a limited budget, NWWS is unavailable.
WEUP monitors WBHM and TV-31 (ABC WAAY). Information over monitored scanner channels gave first-hand, on-scene reports.
Based on the report of inclement weather in the Decatur area, more emphasis was given to weather. At the end of every song, or every other song, weather updates were given. All commercials and music were suspended from 4:30 to 8:30 pm. Some live reports from the tornado scene were done between 4:30 pm and midnight. The station usually reduces power at sundown, but stayed on full-power until midnight. Prerecorded severe weather safety rules, received from WSO Huntsville in the Spring and Fall, were aired Wednesday afternoon.
Station personnel knew of the Tornado Watch at least 2 hours before the storm struck. Specifics were not available, but Team members were told that the 4:13 pm Severe Thunderstorm Warning was broadcast.
Mr. Brewer, Assistant Manager, commented that severe weather was rather routine in the Huntsville area and people adjust to it. A lot of people were at work when the storm struck, but felt most were aware of storms in the area. In his view, everything was handled as well as could be done considering how quickly the tornado formed.
WTAK - AM Radio, Huntsville, AL
The station monitors NWR, other media, and is on the Madison County EMA hot-line. It does not have AP, UPI, or NWWS. Mr. Buxton, Station Manager, felt that people sensed it would be a rough day weatherwise. Huntsville lies in "Tornado Alley" geographically according to Mr. Buxton.
WTAK aired the Tornado Watch and Warnings, but specific broadcast times were unavailable. Mr. Buxton stated that, "The best information possible was available in a terrible situation." He expressed no criticism of the warning system.
WBHP - AM Radio, Huntsville, AL
Reports on a monitored scanner increased staff awareness about the approaching severe weather. According to station personnel, the police scanner is best source of information, then spotters. A wind shear report at the airport caused WBHP to switch to emergency power. NWWS was pouring out information; NWWS is wired to the newsroom and must be reset after each warning alarm. Staff members stated the upgraded NWWS was like birthing a baby, painful and frustrating to get the installation, but once it was installed and operating, they loved it. Favorite aspects of the new NWWS are the circuit speed and ability to program desired products.
Upon hearing the report of a funnel cloud at the old airport, their chief engineer looked outdoors and saw the storm 2.5 miles to the southwest of the station. Station music was stopped and weather coverage began in earnest. WBHP was already broadcasting the Tornado Watch and the 4:13 pm Severe Thunderstorm Warning received on NWWS. NWR lags behind NWWS. NWWS was about 1 minute faster than NWR. Later the station got the 4:39 pm Tornado Warning from the NWS with the EBS request.
The first message on NWR around 4:36 pm, live broadcast, may have given the wrong shopping center as the storm location which was about 1 mile south of the actual touchdown point. This was corrected with the written 4:39 pm warning and when rebroadcast.
The Alabama State Weather Summary at 5:00 am mentioned the possibility of severe weather. The SELS Public Weather Outlook off the AP wire, not NWWS, scared Mike Sweeney, News Director, and helped spur the station into a greater weather awareness posture.
From noon to 4 pm, reports of severe weather west of Huntsville seemed to be following a classic track according to the staff. Tornado Watch Number 750 became a part of the forecast which was broadcast 4 to 6 times per hour with the Watch every 2 songs or so. Safety rules received from WSFO Birmingham were very good and useful. They paid off. The station received letters from people who got out of their cars and followed other severe weather safety precautions.
WBHP ran no commercials or music from 4:30 pm Wednesday to 1 pm Thursday. There should have been a heightened awareness of the weather and storms. The difference between a warning and watch was given to listeners.
The comment was made that more emphasis would have been given if a Tornado Warning had been in effect versus a Severe Thunderstorm Warning. People were "in their routine and still drive into storms."
Kevin Mason, News Director, was pleased on how the station, NWS, etc., handled things. The Chief Engineer said the station just needed a radar screen to monitor. WBHP monitors The Weather Channel.