Storm spotters needed in Winston County, says Spann

Head Librarian Carla Waldrep stands with Meteorologist James Spann amid the audience for Spann's presentation at Haleyville Public Library.

WINSTON COUNTY - Meteorologist James Spann has urged Winston County residents to become volunteer storm spotters through the National Weather Service’s SKYWARN® program.

“We do not have enough storm spotters in Winston County,” Spann told an audience at the Haleyville Public Library recently.

Storm spotters alert the National Weather Service (NWS) to weather hazards, particularly severe thunderstorms.

“There's basic training and advanced training, and it’s online right now,” Spann told the Alabamian. The training takes the form of free two-hour in-person or live online classes. 

“You’ll be certified by the National Weather Service. And you'll never look at a storm the same again,” Spann continued. “Instead of telling me there's a mean lookin’ cloud, they will say, ‘I've got a rotating wall cloud with striations.’ ‘I'm looking at a rear flank downdraft.’ They will know what all this stuff means; they will be able to identify (it)—and it’s all the difference in the world.”

Spann said storm spotters are important because they can see what radar might miss. For example, “there was an unwarned tornado that came right through the middle of (Haleyville on November 24, 2001),” he said, noting that if there had been more spotters in the area, “they would have caught the wall cloud.” A wall cloud is one indication that a tornado might form.

Why was that 2001 tornado not spotted on radar? The radar that covers this area originates from Columbus Air Force Base in Columbus, Miss., roughly 80 miles from downtown Haleyville. As the distance between the radar transmitter and a location increases, the Earth’s curvature means that the radar pulses’ height above ground increases.

“The radar beam is so high up here (in Haleyville),” Spann said. “We’d like the radar beam to be under 5,000 feet. Columbus Air Force Base is probably close to 5,000 feet.” That’s just past the desirable range. “We don't call this a radar gap because of Columbus,” Spann continued. “But even with good low-level radar, you’ve still gotta have spotters.”

Spotters’ on-the-ground reports not only allow the NWS to warn people of tornadoes but can also reduce the issuance of false warnings, which is important because experiencing false warnings makes people less likely to take precautions when a warning is issued, Spann said.

To become a SKYWARN® spotter, visit to see the class schedule and to register for online classes. The classes are offered ahead of tornado season, which is November-May in Alabama. The first class is Oct. 18.

Spann was at the library to talk to area children about weather and weather preparedness.

He explained how weather is monitored and the tools used to do it, including weather balloons, satellites, rain gauges, barometers and hygrometers and anemometers, which measure humidity and wind speed and pressure, respectively.

He explained how radar works and showed the audience how to interpret radar maps and how to identify a tornado on both radar and wind maps.

While on the topic of maps, Spann told the kids, “I gotta tell you guys—I’m sad. Know why? We’re learning most adults cannot find their house on a map. I want you guys to learn how to find your house on a map, OK?”

That is, of course, important knowledge to have when trying to determine from a map if severe weather is headed one’s way.

Contrasting them with tornadoes, Spannsaid thunderstorms are not bad things and assured the kids that they aren’t something of which to be afraid. He explained that most precipitation in our area comes from storms, so we need them to maintain our water supply. “They’re good,” he said of storms. “They’re a blessing.”

He said people just need to remember to go inside during a storm, particularly if there’s lightning or thunder. He said if people can hear thunder, they are close enough to lightning to be in danger of being struck by it.

He also explained what causes thunder and lightning, as well as how to identify different types of clouds, including which carry rain and which don’t.

He said people don’t have to be afraid of tornadoes either, as long as they have a response plan for severe weather and stay alert to the weather when there is a potential for it to turn severe.

When he was in first grade, he said, firemen came to his school and explained what to do in case of a fire—stop, drop and roll. “From that day, I have never been afraid of a fire, and I’m not afraid of a tornado,” Spann said. “You (just) have to know what to do.”

He also explained that Alabama tornadoes are often hidden by rain, darkness, trees or buildings and warned that even if you can’t see a tornado, one might still be approaching.

He urged people not to rely on tornado sirens—which often go unheard amid the noise of a storm or during the night when people are asleep—or on phone alerts because cellular service usually goes out during stormy weather.

Instead, he said, everyone should have a weather radio. He said one saved his wife’s life when a tornado struck their home on March 25, 2021.

He also talked a bit about hurricanes and shared some images of snow, including one from about eight years ago when snow-turned-to-ice stranded many motorists on I-65.

That occurrence, Spann said, is a reminder that “(there are) a lot of things (meteorologists) do not know. And there's a lot of things we cannot do. I need some of you (kids) to get into our science and help us, OK? The science of weather is called meteorology, and I promise with all my heart, by the time you guys get to college, there’s going to be a lot to learn.”

Encouragement to go into meteorology was his final thought for the kids, whom he filmed for the 5 o’clock news before heading back to WBMA to put on his “TV clothes” before going on the air.


See more local news in the Northwest Alabamian.
Subscribe now!