When disaster strikes, it can help to feel as if you’re not going through it alone. 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. Sunday’s catastrophic tornadoes in Lee County, Ala., were no exception. And that voice was coming from Josh Johnson.
Johnson is the chief meteorologist at WSFA-TV, the NBC affiliate in Montgomery. He has served in that role since 2015, appearing nightly in 230,000 households across the Black Belt and River Region of central Alabama.
Johnson anchored Sunday night’s tornado coverage with meteorologists Eric Snitil, Amanda Curran and Lee Southwick. It was coverage that probably proved lifesaving for many Alabama residents, and it blew away veteran broadcast meteorologists with its clarity, thoroughness and calm-yet-serious tone.
“I had a bad feeling about that storm all along,” Johnson wrote to The Washington Post. “I made the decision to go on the air before any tornado warning was issued for this storm, which isn’t something we do unless we are very concerned.”
He continued: “Rotation quickly intensified as the storm moved out of Macon County and into Lee County. It quickly became apparent that we were dealing with a significant tornado."
Gary Lezak, a longtime chief meteorologist at KSHB in Kansas City, raved about the coverage.
“They did an incredible job of creating no doubt that this was a serious and strong tornado,” Lezak wrote. “The tone was strong and authoritative. You believed the entire team.”
In a clip posted to YouTube, the urgency ramps up as it becomes clear that it’s no run-of-the-mill tornado. “If we have a tornado, it’s in here,” Johnson says, gesturing toward the tip of the hook echo on a radar display of the storm.
In severe-weather situations, clear graphics are key. The color table used to plot intensities of rain and hail made the storm’s structure obvious.
“The graphics were clear and convincing,” wrote Dan Satterfield, chief meteorologist at WBOC-TV in Salisbury, Md.
Paul Gross of WDIV-TV in Detroit agreed, adding: “Anybody watching knew exactly where the tornado was, where it was going, and what they needed to do. This is as good as it gets.”
Tension builds in the video when it’s apparent that a bad tornado is inevitable. “This might be one of the strongest signatures we’ve seen all day,” says Johnson, tossing to Snitil. “Yeah,” Snitil says, “this thing may be on the precipice of producing a strong tornado.”
The camera then locks on Snitil, who warns, “These are the kind of setups that produce the big, bad tornadoes.”
Snitil offers arrival times for the “couplet” of intense rotation, glancing sideways out of the shot every so often and appearing increasingly concerned with what he’s seeing. Finally, he locks eyes with Johnson. “Boy, Josh, I’m just looking out of the corner of my eye at the way Baron has this. Wow.” Baron is a vendor that specializes in preparing National Weather Service weather data for on-air use.
It’s that sort of live reaction and genuine emotion that played a big part in the success of Sunday’s coverage; authenticity and relatability are the best way to convey urgency. If you feel compelled delivering coverage of a tornado, those watching that coverage will feel compelled to act, too.
"Everyone who has done this kind of coverage in a situation like that has a lead weight in their stomach,” Satterfield wrote. “You know that people are about to die. You search for words to convince them to do something and hope you find the right ones.”
Although Sunday’s death toll marked the most from a tornado in nearly six years, it could have been much worse.
“Deep down, I knew that some people were not going to survive this tornado,” Johnson wrote. “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.”
In the coverage, Johnson calls out specific roads, announcing when the circulation would arrive at each. Many viewers can’t locate themselves on a television map — and many broadcasters fail to remember this — but Johnson’s decision to tell viewers when each street/neighborhood would be affected was vital.
Before long, he pulls up a plot of “correlation coefficient,” a radar-derived product that shows the shapes of objects in the atmosphere. “Oh, wow,” says Johnson, explaining what the ominous blue blob means. It’s the eeriest radar signatures you’ll ever see, the product of debris violently being tossed about miles above the ground. That’s when you know it’s as bad as it gets.
“I’ll tell you what, your life may be in danger,” says Johnson, pointing to streets downwind of the monster tornado. “Rather, your life IS in danger."
The radar remains uncluttered, echoing Josh’s tone: This is it. It’s a matter of life and death.
“The data was clear,” Johnson said in hindsight. “The tougher part … was to communicate the danger in a way that motivated people to take cover immediately.”
After 20 minutes of tracking the funnel’s every move, it becomes clear to Johnson and his team that the twister has finally disappeared. But the threat’s not over.
“We have another storm about to move over the exact same areas that were just hit,” Snitil says.
This would go on to produce another large tornado that would churn, at times, only a mile south of the path left by the first.
“I can only imagine how many lives were saved by Josh, Lee, and Eric,” Gross wrote. “This is the moment that all broadcast meteorologists hope they never face, but learn and train their entire careers to excel at.”
Scott Duff, news director at WSFA, was humbled by the outpouring of kindness the community showed in the wake of Sunday’s tragedy.
“The community was very appreciative of our coverage and the accuracy we provided,” he wrote. Once viewers saw the tornado damage, donations began pouring in. “Our generous viewers came together to raise nearly $117,000.” The station teamed up with the Red Cross to produce a “Together for Alabama” relief drive.
“We have earned the community’s trust,” Duff wrote.
The team at WSFA may again find itself covering severe storms over the weekend. The Storm Prediction Center expects a wave of low pressure to spawn severe storms Saturday, concentrated over southwest Tennessee, northern Mississippi and west-central Alabama.
The threat will shift east Sunday, stretching from the Carolinas through Georgia and eventually to hard-hit areas of southern Alabama.
Johnson is prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws his way, ready to draw upon the lessons learned Sunday.
“We can’t bring those people back, but we will make sure they didn’t die in vain,” he wrote. “We will study this event, we will learn what worked and what didn’t work, and we will never stop working to make sure we are better for the next violent tornado that strikes Alabama.
“It’s not if — it’s when. And we will be ready.”