The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stop mocking local weather forecasters. Their antics may be silly, but they save lives.

In the nation’s tornado alley, television meteorologists are much more than just entertainment.

A tornado approaches Moore, Oklahoma, in May, 2013. The monstrous twister tore through the outskirts of Oklahoma City, killing at least 24 people, including nine children (Vincent Deligny/AFP/Getty Images)

The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart called it the “freakiest commercial” he’d ever seen. In it, a family rushes from their home, pummeled by leaves and debris. The camera shakes violently as they race toward an outdoor storm cellar; a CGI twister snakes toward them. Amid the chaos, we hear the reassuring voice of meteorologist Gary England, touted as “the calm during the storm.”

That 2007 ad for KWTV, the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City, was roundly mocked by Stewart and his compatriots. And it’s not the only time. Making fun of overheated weather coverage is practically a national hobby—whether it’s a “Today Show” correspondent caught paddling a canoe in floodwaters barely ankle deep or reporters from The Weather Channel and other major television networks being blown down like toddlers in the gale force winds of a hurricane.

With their fancy radars and camera-toting daredevil storm chasers, it’s just as easy to dismiss local stations’ weather coverage as nothing more than a ratings ploy—especially if you’ve never lived in the middle of the country, where treacherous storms can explode out of nowhere. But television meteorologists in the nation’s tornado alley are more than just entertainment. They actually save lives.

[Record-breaking May rainfall in Texas and Oklahoma, by the numbers]

This is especially true in Oklahoma City, where I grew up. When I was a kid, the war between weather forecasters was one of our major sources of entertainment. Local channels regularly battled it out over who had better radar technology and who could get the first pictures of a storm live on the air—even if that meant putting a life at risk. In 1998, a crew from KOCO, the ABC affiliate, was positioned in the station’s backdoor as a tornado dropped from the sky a few yards away. There was a loud crash, and the screen went black, as it made a direct hit on the station, causing major damage and some injuries. But somehow KOCO stayed on air and kept forecasting—not unusual in Oklahoma where meteorologists view their jobs as more of a public calling to protect people in a state regularly pounded by storms that can very easily kill you.

In fact, just about everything that defines modern-day weather coverage was born in Oklahoma City because of its tempestuous relationship with Mother Nature. Every major station in the country has a Doppler radar these days. But England was the first TV meteorologist to use one to issue a tornado warning on live television, prompting the national media to descend on Oklahoma City to find out who this renegade weatherman was. (In an interview with The Washington Post in 1985, England explained that he loved his new radar so much, “If it had hair, I’d marry it.”) Streaming video of storms over cellphones? That was invented in Oklahoma City, too, using military-style satellite phones decades before the era of the iPhone gave everybody the potential to be a live-action storm chaser.

Some of what happens in Oklahoma City can seem downright dangerous. Every station has what it refers to as its “ground troops”— armies of storm chasers who drive right up to tornadoes, beaming back live video through cameras mounted to their cars. Some are on staff, but many are contractors who have day jobs that they put aside during the spring for the thrill of the chase. The Oklahoma City stations also scramble helicopters to pursue storms from the sky. Tornadoes in Oklahoma are like car chases in Los Angeles. In fact, Jim Gardner, the pilot for KWTV, covered O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco chase before returning home to Oklahoma, hoping for a quieter life. Now he chases tornadoes from the sky, getting close enough for viewers to see cars and other debris swept up sometimes hundreds of feet in the air while trying not to get sucked away himself. Jon Welsh, his counterpart at KFOR, is an Army National Guard pilot who was flying combat missions over Baghdad before he started chasing storms.

[The 2015 hurricane season has begun — storm names, outlook and new products]

It’s easy to see why some say weather coverage is fueled more by entertainment value than safety or science. As in-your-face as Oklahoma’s weather coverage is, the national media often takes it to another extreme. On cable, The Weather Channel packs its airwaves with reality shows about storm chasers who rush toward funnel clouds, hoping to get close-ups of tornadoes. Sometimes, as on-air meteorologists venture deep into the heart of storms, it’s hard to know whether we’re witnessing a current disaster or something that happened years ago. Out there with them are dozens of amateur chasers, thrill-seekers with often no background in meteorology at all, who clog the roads and drive perilously close to tornadoes to film daredevil footage they can then sell to television networks like CNN.

In recent years, some meteorologists have started to worry that this over-the-top coverage is desensitizing viewers to the real danger of tornadoes. Maybe, they worry, people will simply turn off their television. While there have been no formal studies, scientists at the National Weather Service openly fret that younger viewers are simply tuning out, relying mainly on phone apps or social media. In response, they’ve expanded real-time warnings to Twitter and Facebook, hoping the public will at least be looking there when skies grow dark.

In April, there was some proof of the shift: Verizon dropped The Weather Channel from its FiOS television service, saying more people were turning to online sources for weather information. It was a decision that sent chills among some local television stations, where they have been battling a decline in viewership for years—especially among young people. According to a Pew Research Center study, regular local TV viewership among people under 30 fell from 42 percent in 2006 to just 28 percent in 2012. It seems unlikely that local meteorologists will ever go away, but their budgets for storm chasers and advanced radar technology could dwindle as they lose their audience. That’s a scary thought for older or poorer residents who still rely on television, not their computers or phones, to warn them of approaching storms.

This is exactly what happened in late March. Mike Morgan, chief meteorologist for KFOR, the NBC television affiliate in Oklahoma City, was on air warning viewers that dangerous thunderstorms were heading towards the city. All of a sudden, over Morgan’s shoulder, a small tornado dropped from the sky, taking everyone by surprise. There was nothing on the radar to indicate a tornado was developing. It formed so quickly the National Weather Service hadn’t issued a warning, and emergency sirens, which usually wail for several minutes ahead of a dangerous storm, were silent. The only way most residents knew what was coming was because they were watching it happen on live television–a large rotating cloud and below it, a sudden stir of debris.

Even Morgan, who has covered hundreds of tornadoes over his three decades on air in Oklahoma City, wasn’t sure at first what it was. “That’s either a weak tornado or a gust-nado,” Morgan said, carefully studying a live picture beamed back from the station’s helicopter, hovering just east of the storm. Then, suddenly, there were visible sparks on the ground as the storm began to slice through electric lines. “Power flashes! Look at that!” Morgan declared, throwing his hands in the air. “That is a tornado, folks.”

The storm hit Moore in almost in the same exact spot as the 2013 twister, a mile-wide tornado that struck in 2013, killing 25. Among the dead were seven third-graders inside a local elementary school that took a direct hit from the storm.

It wasn’t as bad as the previous tornadoes. An elementary school and several homes sustained major damage from winds measured at roughly 100 mph, but thankfully no one died. Though there had been no official warning and the sirens were slow to sound, many residents took shelter when they saw the tornado drop from the sky on television. It was a stark reminder of how important local meteorologists are in places like Oklahoma, Texas and the rural middle section of the country, where they operate like modern-day Paul Reveres warning of potentially deadly storms.

Residents of Fairdale, Ill., also needed their television weatherforecasters to warn them that a half-mile-wide, 200 mph tornado was coming on April 9. This town, not formally located in the area of the United States known as “tornado alley,” didn’t have sirens at all. How did residents know a tornado coming? Bernice Jacobs, a 56-year-old grandmother, told WLS, the ABC affiliate in Chicago, that she’d heard a tornado alert on television, and the local fire department confirmed that many other survivors had been alerted by the media, too.

In the past few weeks, Oklahoma has been rocked by severe weather again, as it often is at this time of year. Perhaps nowhere has this been felt more acutely than in Moore, where residents are still struggling to deal with the trauma of that deadly 2013 storm. A few days ago, my mother was among the many who took cover as the city was threatened by two violent storms that hit within hours of each other. No funnel hit the ground this time, but everyone knows another storm is coming, and when it does, they’ll likely see it approaching on television.