NWS Huntsville History
The history of weather observing in Huntsville dates back to the some of the city's earliest years of existence. The earliest documented observations began in January of 1831 at an unknown location in the city and continued to be taken until December of 1839. Observations briefly resumed at another unknown location in June of 1871. These lasted only until August 31, 1877.
Steady observations in the Huntsville-Madison County area didn't begin until 1894, when a cooperative observing site was established in Madison. The thermometer at this site was situated on the north side of the porch, so the readings were probably unreliable. However, precipitation data recorded at this station was considered valid, and it is a part of the climatological record. In 1907, the site was moved to the Klish residence. This station was equipped with a Stevenson Screen enclosure for the thermometer. The station moved again several times - in 1911, three times in 1912, in 1916, and in 1917 - all to locations in the same vicinity. Over this time period L.S. Hagar, R.A. Patton, J.B. Stevenson, Edward Humphrey, S. Fletcher Bradley, and James Landers were listed as observers.
On March 19, 1917, Mr. Thomas Carter, who lived on Church Street a quarter mile south of the Madison Post Office, took over official observations. This site continued to operate until observations resumed in the city of Huntsville in 1937. Mr. Carter's nearly continuous daily evening observations spanned some of the hottest months in the history of the state, including the summer of 1925. In September of that year, the high temperature was 100 or greater on 12 days! The hottest day was the 7th, when the temperature reached a balmy 108 degrees. The Carter family continued taking observations in the Madison area until April of 1950.
Observations Begin in Huntsville
On January 1, 1937, observations resumed in Huntsville at the Alabama Power Company building. This station was located less than a mile southwest of the post office on Canal Street. In 1940, utility operations in Huntsville were bought by the city and contracted to the Tennessee Valley Authority. Observations continued at the same location until February 21, 1941. As a part of a significant road renaming project in Huntsville in 1958, Canal Street became part of Lehman Ferry Road, which was later renamed Leeman Ferry Road. Most of former Canal Street no longer exists, but part of it still does and is now known as Woodson Street. The old TVA building still stands there near the intersection of Clinton Avenue.
At this point, the site was moved to a Texaco Station owned by Mr. Joe E. Cambron. The station was near the intersection of US Highway 241 and state highway 38. (Neither of those highway numbers are used today. US 241 followed what is now Meridian Street north out of Huntsville and what is now US 431 over Monte Sano. State Highway 38 followed what is now Whitesburg Drive and U.S. 231 toward the Tennessee River). According to Alabama State Climatologist John Christy, there is now a Taco Bell where the Texaco station used to be. This would place the station near the present-day intersection of Whitesburg Drive and Longwood Drive. This station took 24 hour readings until November 21, 1945, when observing responsibilities were shifted to the Huntsville Municipal Airport.
In 1941, weather observing equipment was installed at the new Huntsville Municipal Airport (now known by many locals as the "old airport"), which was located on the south side of town. A survey of the placement of the equipment was completed by a local engineer named Carl T. Jones (whose namesakes include "Carl T Jones Drive" and "Jones Field" in Huntsville). It wasn't until November of 1945 when this site became the official Huntsville observing site. It was classified at the time as a "Synoptic and Aviation Reports" (SA) station. According to a Weather Bureau Station Record document dated April 15, 1946, airways observations were transmitted via P.C.A. teletype to Chattanooga and 6-hourly observations were called long-distance to the Weather Bureau Airport Station (WBAS) in Chattanooga. Some of the observers at the Huntsville Municipal Airport during this time period were Harold Hudson, James Hudson, and Bud Cramer, Sr., father of the future United States Representative for Alabama's 5th district.
The weather station at the Huntsville Municipal Airport ceased operations on July 15, 1954. At this point, the station became classified as a Supplementary Airways Reporting Station (SAWRS). However, there are many records that indicate the weather equipment was still functional and used for aviation purposes. Also during this "dark period", some of the observing equipment was moved to a newly-constructed tower cabin at the airport. When this move was made on August 16, 1957, the station was reclassified as a Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) station. Because observations from this time period do not exist for Huntsville, data from Mr. Harry R. Taylor's cooperative weather station in Madison (no more than a couple miles from the stations used in the late 1800s and early 1900s) are used as Huntsville's official readings during this time.
Huntsville's First Permanent Office
Prior to the establishment of Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville was only a small textile and farming town. This changed rapidly in the 1940s and 1950s, when the military base came to town. Along with the influx of new jobs came new people and increased air traffic. At this point it was decided that Huntsville would receive its own Weather Bureau office. The office was originally scheduled to open on October 1, 1958, however, the new building had not yet been completed by then. The new office was in a building that was part Weather Bureau office, part hangar. According to a Huntsville Times article from October 1, the office's new staff used the tower of the airport terminal as temporary quarters, where they began limited operations before the official opening of the office by the end of the month. Hubert Bagley (more notoriously known in the Huntsville area as the late H.D. Bagley) was charged with coordinating the construction of the new office and installation of new equipment, such as teletype machines and communication lines. The office's first Meteorologist-In-Charge (MIC) was Baker B. Williams, who transferred from WBAS Okalahoma City. He was accompanied by a staff of seven others including Bagley, Wilburn K. Cobb, James J. Corcoran, Alfred Eisgrau, Lacy B. Padgett, Anthony M. Smith, and John W. Taylor. The office was equipped with a 44 foot tall WSR-3 radar, which had a range of up to 200 miles (though it wouldn't have been very effective at longest distances in that range). The new office's area of responsibility was "Huntsville and a 25-mile-radius including Redstone Arsenal" when it first opened, according to a Times article dated October 31, 1958. At first, forecasts for the Huntsville area originated from the district forecast center at the U.S. Weather Bureau in New Orleans and were refined by the Weather Bureau office in Birmingham. For a short period thereafter, Alabama fell under the district forecast center in Atlanta, but Birmingham still had the responsibility of touching up the local forecast. Surrounding WBAS offices were located in Birmingham, Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, and Atlanta at that time.
The Weather Bureau office continued operations in the 1960s at the Huntsville Municipal Airport, which was renamed the Huntsville-Madison County Airport. On July 13, 1965 Congress passed President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Reorganization Plan No. 2 of 1965," which combined the Weather Bureau, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, and the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory to form the new Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA). The ESSA was still under the Department of Commerce, and the purpose of the U.S. Weather Bureau was not changed.
Same Office, New Location; Then, New Name
As Huntsville continued to grow, so did the need for a larger airport to faciliate the increased amount of air traffic in and out of the city. In 1967, a new Huntsville-Madison County Airport was opened in far southwest Madison County. The Weather Bureau moved along with the airport, and began operations at the new location on October 29, 1967 - almost exactly nine years to the day it began operations in Huntsville. Mr. Williams was still in charge of the office at the time of the move.
In 1969, the Weather Bureau transitioned to the concept of there being a forecasting office for each state, rather than one district office forecasting for several states. Birmingham became the state forecast office for Alabama and portions of the western Florida Panhandle. While the Huntsville office did not produce any forecasts from scratch, the local office did have authorization to make adjustments to the first period of the local forecast as needed.
Only a few years later, a few agency name changes took place. On October 3, 1970, as a part of President Richard Nixon's "Reorganization Plan No. 4 of 1970"," the ESSA was consolidated with the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries to form the new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A few days later on the 9th, the United States Weather Bureau was renamed the National Weather Service (NWS) according to Department of Commerce Organization Order 25-5A. This had no major affect on the local office other than the name change. NOAA, like ESSA, remained under the Department of Commerce.
Since the beginning of meteorology, there have constantly been new technologies improving the way things are done. This truth was particularly evident in the Huntsville area in the 1970s. Mr. Williams was succeeded by Douglas Davis as office MIC. Mother nature gave Mr. Davis a quick introduction to the dangerous side of weather in the Huntsville area, as several deadly tornadoes raked the region during the first week of April 1974. The last tornado on the evening of April 3rd came close enough to the Weather Service Office to prompt a staff evacuation, causing a brief transfer of warning responsibilities to NWS Birmingham. The killer storms brought widespread devastation to the Tennessee Valley, but they rallied the community around the local National Weather Service office.
The broadcast of weather information directly from the National Weather Service over a radio station was a fairly new concept in the 1970s. A handful of such stations had been installed since the mid 1960s - mostly at coastal locations. The Huntsville office had lobbied for its own NOAA Weather Radio station for several years, but funding for a station was not available from the federal government. Unsatisfied, the North Alabama community reacted by taking matters into their own hands. According to a Huntsville Times article from January 14, 1976, the following local governments and agencies raised the approximately $30,000 needed for a new station: Huntsville-Madison County Airport Board of Control ($3,000), Limestone County ($2,460), Madison County ($4,392), Morgan County ($3,540), the city of Athens ($1,299), the city of Decatur ($3,429), and the city of Huntsville ($12,420). In addition, concerned citizens donated several hundreds of dollars. Onan Corporation manufactured a 5 kW emergency power generator, worth about $3,000, for the station's transmitter. After many weeks of testing, KIH-20 went on the air on Monday, January 12, 1976. A ceremony was held the following Friday in which local officials handed over the station to the National Weather Service as a gift. It was the second station (following KEC-61 in Mobile) to go on the air in the state of Alabama. The following year, KIH-57 (paid for by the federal government) was installed in Florence on March 4th to serve Northwest Alabama - the 6th station to be installed in the state.
Weather radio wasn't the only upgrade WSO Huntsville saw in the 70s. In 1977, the old WSR-3 radar located at the office was replaced with the newer WSR-74C model - the first modern weather radar to be installed in north Alabama. The radar was more powerful and offered slightly improved resolution of reflectivity data (precipitation intensity), but it did not have Doppler capabilities. WSR-3s were surplus Navy aircraft units modified for meteorological use. WSR-57 radar sites represented a majority of the National Weather Service radar network in the late 70s, but WSR-74 radar was designed to fill in gaps in the coverage of this network, and were referred to as "Local Warning Radar" sites.
Technological upgrades continued into the early 1980s with the installation of AFOS (Automation of Field Operations and Services). Prior to AFOS, fax and teletype machines were used for reception and transmission of maps, statements, and other information. AFOS was a computer system capable of word processing and the display of meteorological data, which allowed forecasters to do things such as interrogate forecast model data and issue products electronically. This system would be used until the airport office was closed.
The WSO continued serving its area of responsibility through the 1980s. Among the office's duties - taking hourly weather observations, providing numerous weather briefings to pilots (by phone and in person - walk-ins were allowed), issuing warnings for a 10 county area, broadcasting weather information via NOAA Weather Radio, and answering phone calls from the public. Forecasts for the Tennessee Valley came from the state forecast office in Birmingham, who also served as the backup warning office for area. WSO Huntsville was not tasked with providing backup warning responsibilities for another office; however, the office did have backup network radar responsibilities for southern Tennessee, which was served by WSO Nashville.
In 1982, MIC Douglas Davis was replaced by Wilton Rodgers, who had already been working in Huntsville for several years. Robert Stalnaker took over the post in 1986, and James Skyrum briefly held the position in 1989. On November 15th of 1989, tragedy struck the Tennessee Valley once again as an F4 tornado plowed through South Huntsville during rush hour on the evening of November 15, 1989, killing 21 people.
Again spurred to take action following a major weather disaster, the North Alabama community pushed for an upgrade to the Huntsville radar. The proposal was to add Doppler capabilities to the radar, which could would allow meteorologists to monitor wind velocity toward and away from the radar. The upgrade equipment and installation had a price tag of $350,000. The state of Alabama paid $250,000 of the cost, Madison County committed $37,500, the Huntsville International Airport Authority offered $37,500, and the city of Huntsville paid $25,000. In July of 1991, the Doppler upgrade was completed, and meteorologists were able to use the data operationally. Local officials hoped the new equipment would enhance tornado detection capabilities, leading to better and faster severe weather warnings. They also hoped the upgrade would save Huntsville's office from closure as a part of the looming modernization process.
In the mid to late 1980s, planning began for the NWS's National Modernization and Associated Restructuring program during which the new WSR-88D (also called NEXRAD) radar network would be deployed across the country and AFOS would be replaced with a newer, faster computer system named AWIPS (Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System). As a part of the $4.4 billion upgrade process, staffing would be increased at existing Weather Service Forecast Offices (WSFOs) and select Weather Service Offices (WSOs). All of these offices would become Weather Forecast Offices (WFOs) responsible for both warning and forecast responsibilities in their respective areas. There would be around 120 total forecast offices across the country. The other WSOs - around 135 nationwide - would close, and warning responsibilities would be transferred to surrounding WFOs. WSO Huntsville was among the offices slated for closure, along with surrounding offices in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Tupelo, Mississippi. Along with the offices, several WSR-57 and WSR-74 radar sites, including Huntsville's, would cease operations. Surrounding WSR-88D sites in Shelby County, AL, near Columbus, MS, and Nashville, TN would cover north Alabama.
With the tornado events of 1974 and 1989 fresh in their minds, many Tennessee Valley residents were not comfortable with the idea of losing their local weather office, much less losing the local radar as well. In the years following this announcement, Huntsville area citizens would submit numerous letters of complaint to the Department of Commerce. Out of the nearly 1,700 letters submitted from about 30 different areas around the country, the majority came from the Huntsville area and the Key West, FL area. Also outspoken on saving the Huntsville radar and office were several local, state, and national political leaders, NASA and University of Alabama-Huntsville scientists, and members of the local news media. Drafts of the modernization plan in late 1992 indicated the weather office was slated to close in 1997, with a staff decrease set to occur prior to that in June 1995. The Huntsville WSR-74C radar was scheduled to be decommissioned in March 1995.
Meanwhile, in late March 1994, a severe weather outbreak struck the Southeastern United States. Hardest hit was the Piedmont area in northeast Alabama, where twenty people died in a tornado. Warnings were issued well in advance for the area, but many were unaware of the threat until the storm hit. After surveying the tornado damage, former Vice President Al Gore announced an initiative to expand NOAA Weather Radio to cover 95% of the American population. One of the first transmitters installed as a result of this expansion was WWF-44 in Fort Payne. That station, which also covers the Piedmont area, went on air on December 16, 1994. In 1996, stations were installed near Lawrenceburg, TN, serving much of Southern Middle Tennessee (including Lincoln County), and in the city of Cullman.
At the center of the radar debate was concern that radar sites near Birmingham, Columbus, and Nashville wouldn't be able to see below 10,000 feet over the Huntsville area, leaving lower-level storms and rotation undetected. Initial National Weather Service studies indicated the Tennessee valley could be sufficiently covered under the new plan. However, following a series of Congressional hearings on the matter, a new National Research Council study was commissioned. This study, released in June of 1995, revealed that parts of North Alabama and Southeastern Tennessee were indeed in a radar coverage gap. In October 1995, the Commerce Department announced that North Alabama would receive one of three WSR-88D radar sites being added to the modernization plan. The other two sites scheduled to receive a new radar would be North Webster, Indiana and Fort Smith, Arkansas. The North Alabama radar would be placed in Jackson County to account for coverage gaps both in the Huntsville area and in the Chattanooga, Tennessee area. The fate of the Huntsville weather office was still yet to be determined.
Budget problems in late 1995 and early 1996 delayed the selection of a radar site, and consequently, installation of the radar equipment. Finally, it was decided the radar would be located along Alabama Highway 79 in the northern Jackson County community of Hytop. Work to install the radar got underway in late 1996. A dedication ceremony was held on April 25, 1997, the day the dome was raised on the radar. The radar became operational on July 1, 1997 after completing a 72-hour stability test. It was subsequently commissioned on December 4, 1997. Staff at WSO Huntsville did not have access to data from the Hytop radar.
Dearl Huff had served as MIC at Huntsville through much of the modernization buzz. Following his departure in 1996, Jim Dugan came on board to supervise at the end of 1996. Jim had transferred from the just-closed WSO Pensacola in November 1996. Despite the excitement surrounding the new radar, the situation still seemed bleak for the local weather office. It was still slated to close, pending review of WFO Birmingham's performance following the transfer of responsibilities. At the very least, WFO Birmingham would take over for a short trial period.
A Short Break
On December 2, 1997 at 10 AM, WSO Huntsville transferred warning responsibility for its 10 north Alabama counties to the forecast office in Birmingham. The Birmingham office had already been issuing forecasts for the area for almost 30 years, so the transfer required no changes to forecast responsibilites. Along with the new warning responsibilities, Birmingham also assumed responsibilities of NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts from Huntsville and Florence. The Birmingham office was one of a few across the country which were testing the new Console Replacement System (CRS), which utilized a computer voice synthesizer to broadcast weather information. The new system updated information and transmitted warnings much more quickly, because it didn't require meterologists to record information to tapes before adding it to the broadcast cycle. However, the computer voice was not very human-like in its earliest days, so it required considerable adjustment for many NOAA Weather Radio listeners.
At this point, the office was to remained staffed around the clock for an indefinite period of time. However, the staff has no official operational duties. They did monitor the WSR-74C radar and weather radio broadcasts from Huntsville to insure things were working smoothly. Until contract FAA observers began taking observations at Huntsville International Airport, they also had the responsibility of augmenting the observations being transmitted from the Huntsville ASOS (Automated Surface Observing System). Mr. Dugan served as the Official-in-Charge (OIC) until March of 1998, then retired in March 1998. Lary Burgett, who had worked at the Huntsville office since 1978, took over as OIC the following month. He was also designated as Huntsville's special liason officer to the Birmingham office.
It was the responsibility of the Modernization Transition Committee, an independent panel of meteorologists appointed by Congress, to recommend whether or not public weather services were degraded as a result of responsibility transfers around the country. A few WSOs around the country which were originally slated for closure were instead left open and upgraded to WFOs, such as the offices in Caribou, Maine and Key West, Florida. In addition, a new office was placed in Northern Indiana. However, at the last meeting held for the Huntsville office in December 1999, the committee recommended closure. Further protest by local politicians, emergency managers, and the public kept WSO Huntsville open, but still with no official responsibilites.
Huntsville's First Forecast Office
Since the National Weather Service no longer had plans to keep an office open in Huntsville, Congressman Bud Cramer sought Congressional legislation to do this. After a decade of uncertainty, $3 million in startup money was budgeted in the Fiscal Year 2002 Commerce, Justice, and State appropriations bill for a new full service Weather Forecast Office (WFO) in Huntsville. It was decided the office would be located in the National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC) building on the campus of the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) and would serve 11 counties in North Alabama. This would include the ten counties originally covered by WSO Huntsville and Cullman County.
John Gordon, previously a Lead Forecaster at WFO Nashville, was selected as MIC of the new Huntsville office. It was his responsibility to assemble the office's staff of 18 and see through the installation and configuration of entirely new equipment. By August of 2002, all 18 positions had been filled, and training began to gear up the new staff for full time operation. The new staff consisted of meteorologists from all over the United States - as far north as Boston, and as far west as Salt Lake City. Many employees came from surrounding offices in Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham, and Peachtree City, and two had been working at the Huntsville WSO. The additional founding members of WFO Huntsville included Tim Troutman, Tom Bradshaw, Jason Burks, Brian Burgess, Lloyd Hill, Pearline McCauley, Lary Burgett, Bill Schaub, Chris Darden, Matt Zika, Steve Shumway, Robert Boyd, Priscilla Bridenstine, Jason Elliott, Michael Richter, Beth Carroll, and Kurt Weber. In the spirit of fulfilling the wants and needs of those who lobbied for a forecast office in Huntsville, the new office was founded with the mission of focusing operations on the needs of the end users. Close relationships were quickly established with local government officials and the news media. In order to become familiar with the people and geography of their new area of responsibility, each forecaster was taken on familiarization trips through each county in the area.
The new office's co-location with the NASA and the UAH Atmospheric Science department presented a rare opportunity to bring together both research and operational meteorologists. Considerable research in the field of meteorology had been ongoing in Huntsville long before the new forecast office came along. Immediately, opportunities for testing experimental forecasting techniques in a real-life setting came about. Of particular interest was NASA's work with modeling, lightning, and satellite data. A liason was designated to work with NASA to coordinate collaboration opportunities, and a room adjacent to the operations floor in the new office was set aside exclusively for collaborative research work.
The new forecast office was equipped with much more modern equipment than the old airport office. AWIPS replaced AFOS as the computer system used to look at weather data and issue products. AWIPS was much faster, more flexible, and more user-friendly than AFOS. It also allowed several meteorologists to interrigate radar data at the same time on different computers, which wasn't possible at the old office. CRS equipment was installed to operate four area weather radio broadcasts. The office assumed responsibility for NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts originating from Huntsville, Florence, Fort Payne, and Cullman. Also, an RPG (Radar Product Generator) and a dedicated line were installed, which would give Huntsville forecasters control over the WSR-88D radar in Hytop.
Early plans called for the new office to open on February 4, 2003, but quick work by several people allowed the office to open on January 14th - the fastest spinup of a modern forecast office in National Weather Service history. The official switchover happened at 10 AM when lead forecaster Chris Darden sent out Huntsville's first product - an Area Forecast Discussion, which was shortly followed by Huntsville's first zone forecast. At the same time, weather radio broadcasts began from Huntsville and other routine duties began at the new office. A short ceremony was held marking the first day of operations. At the end of the month, an official dedication ceremony was held.
Over the next few years, even more changes were on the horizon for the office. In April 2003, an additonal NOAA Weather Radio transmitter was installed near Arab to cover parts of Sand Mountain, bringing the total number of weather radio stations in the Huntsville CWA to five. On November 5th, WFO Huntsville assumed responsibility for three Tennessee counties that border Alabama - Lincoln, Moore, and Franklin, making for a total of 14 counties covered by the office. In doing so, the office also took over programming for the recently-installed NOAA Weather Radio transmitter in Franklin County. In 2004, two new cooperative observer sites were established at Anderson and Owens Cross Roads - adding to the 21 sites inherited by the office in 2003.
After almost three years of building Huntsville's forecast office from the ground up, John Gordon was promoted to a similar position in Louisville, Kentucky in early 2005. He was replaced by Mike Coyne, who had been working at the National Weather Service's Southern Region headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. Mike Coyne was promoted to Deputy Director of Performance and Resources of the Southern Region of the NWS and left NWS Huntsville in February 2011. Chris Darden, pictured above, was officially promoted to MIC of the Huntsville office in early May 2011, but was acting MIC for some of the interim period between February and May 2011, and also during the infamous April 27th, 2011 super tornado outbreak.
Written by Daniel Lamb. Special thanks go to Lary Burgett and Brian Carcione of the National Weather Service, J.B. Elliott and Jay Shelly formerly of the National Weather Service, Alabama State Climatologist John Christy, and the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library for their tremendous help in the process of gathering information for this station history.