The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A beloved Alabama weatherman learned mid-broadcast that a tornado hit home. He got back on air.

After stepping briefly off air, Birmingham meteorologist James Spann on March 25 said his home sustained some tornado damage. (Video: ABC 33/40)
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Hours into his coverage of the deadly tornadoes striking Alabama on Thursday, James Spann took a moment to check in on family. He hardly missed a beat.

“What I’m doing is texting my wife to be sure she’s in the shelter,” explained the chief meteorologist for ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, where Spann has worked since 1996 — the year the station got started. “So again, if we can go back to that camera …”

A few minutes later, though, a colleague took over as Spann stood in front of giant colored maps. The Emmy-winning weatherman peered at a laptop: “Let me check on some folks real quick.” Rejoining less than 15 minutes afterward, he shared the bad news: His home was hit by the tornadoes and other severe weather that pummeled the state, wrecking buildings and killing at least five people in one county.

“We had major damage at my house,” Spann said. “I had to be sure — My wife is okay, but the tornado came right through there and it’s not good. It’s bad. It’s bad.”

A moment later, he was back to work.

For admirers, the show-must-go-on mentality underscored the dedication of an icon that recently called “Alabama’s most recognizable and influential TV weatherman.” An Alabama native, he has amassed a loyal following across Twitter, TV, radio and a “weekly show for weather nerds” called WeatherBrains.

“The composure he’s managed to maintain is unreal,” Pat Cavlin, a meteorologist in Florida, marveled on Twitter.

Spann tweeted his thanks Thursday evening to “all of you who have reached out to me,” saying his wife was there when the twister hit but went unscathed inside their in-home shelter. The house was “intact” and they would not have to rebuild, he said, adding a plea to help “others across the state who have much more serious damage.”

“Had a scare today,” he wrote above a picture of felled trees. “As I often say, tornadoes happen to real people, at a real place, at a real time.”

Spann showed viewers some of the grim damage Thursday. Minutes after explaining to viewers why he had stepped away, he was scrolling through a blown-up view of his Twitter mentions, where user after user had tagged “@spann” to share what they were seeing.

Spann zoomed in on photos of houses with roofs torn off.

“This is Eagle Point, in northern Shelby County. … And again this is not too far from Lee Branch. And you can see major, major damage.”

Five dead as destructive tornadoes cut across Alabama

Later on, he briefly mentioned his home again.

“I’ll shoot straight with you guys, that’s my backyard,” he said, as his news station showed the tree wreckage. “It’s been a rough day. Very rough day.”

As he noted later, it could have been worse. Deaths were reported Thursday in Calhoun County, officials said.

“They call this tornado alley, you know?” Calhoun County coroner Pat Brown told The Washington Post. “We’re very accustomed to storms, and we know in the springtime that we deal with these, but you never really prepare for them.”

Storms have hit home before for weather broadcasters. Last year, as Hurricane Laura slammed Louisiana, Lake Charles meteorologist Ben Terry tweeted that his house was a “total loss.”

But Spann’s bad news stood out because it unfolded on-air.

“He checked on his family and is still going forward to help inform viewers,” fellow meteorologist Ryan Vaughan tweeted.

Spann had already built up a reputation, earning an Emmy for coverage of the 2000 tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa and all kinds of annual weather anchor and broadcasting awards.

“Today will solidify James Spann’s reputation as the greatest broadcast meteorologist of all time,” said another fan, a student named Andrew Justin.