While tornado season brings a time of relentless excitement to severe weather enthusiasts, it also brings an exceptional amount of hard work for meteorology professionals in tornado-prone regions. My friend and undergraduate colleague from Texas A&M, Meteorologist Kyle Roberts of WFAA-Channel 8 (ABC Dallas), has spent several years broadcasting the weather in the heart of Tornado Alley, and he was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions for us about the nature of his business during these outbreak days.
AtmoLife: How long have you been a broadcast meteorologist, and what stations/cities have you worked with?
Kyle Roberts: I’ve been a broadcast meteorologist for over 5 years. Started my career at KETK in Tyler, TX, then spent several years in Oklahoma City at KOKH FOX 25, and now I’m at WFAA in Dallas-Fort Worth, TX. No old-timer by any means, but it sure does seem longer than that.
AL: What’s a typical workday like when there’s an anticipated widespread tornado outbreak for the viewing area?
KR: Busy. Assuming you’re expecting severe weather in the afternoon and evening, everything starts in the morning. Working long before you get into work. Wake up. Check the 12Z models. Put together a plan for when you’re going to get into work. Usually this means earlier than you would on a “normal” day. Get into work. Coordinate with chasers, photographers, reporters, producers etc. Where they are going to chase, get cut in times if needed, and make sure everyone’s streaming equipment is up and running correctly. Then you’re waiting on the event to start. Once it starts and you start wall-to-wall coverage, it’s 100mph from that point on. Talking on air, running the radar, communicating with your chasers, communicating with the NWS, updating social media, communicating with the newsroom, etc. Trying to do all of that at the same time. Then you’re there until the last storm exits the viewing area. Just because a storm moves out of your main city or population center, doesn’t mean you get to go home. Storms could easily remain in other areas of your viewing area hours after they exit out of the largest city or metro area. Once all the storms end, then it’s damage coverage. Sometimes you are a part of that, sometimes you aren’t. Depends on when everything comes to an end, and how many hands you have on deck.
AL: About how many times a year do tornado outbreaks or other severe weather events force you to work overtime?
KR: Even working in the southern plains, tornado outbreaks are still rare. May get one or two “outbreaks” a year. Severe events are much more common with maybe a tornado or two, maybe not. Simply, starting mid to late March through the end of May, you’re pretty much always on-call. Especially when you get into May. Time off during May is highly frowned upon or usually not even allowed depending on the station. When I was in Oklahoma, you just knew you’re going to have a “big day” at some point in May. Hard to come up with an exact number of OT days, but by the end of May heading into June the summer Death Ridge can’t come soon enough.
AL: What’s the most intense day of severe weather coverage you’ve experienced in your career so far?
KR: I remember the longest day was May 6th, 2015. A couple EF-3 tornadoes in and around the OKC Metro with quite a few lesser rated tornadoes across other parts of the state. Not only was that day long because of tornadoes, but the storms slowed down and flash flooding in OKC became a big deal. In fact, I believe in that event NWS Norman issued their first Flash Flood Emergency ever. It’s amazing how quickly coverage can go from a tornado and severe threat to now a lesser tornado and severe threat to a significant flooding threat. If you have time for another, May 9th, 2016 EF-4 tornado near Wynnewood or Katie, Oklahoma. Watching it form to when it dissipated was truly incredible. It was one of those moments where as a meteorologist and someone that loves weather, you are truly in awe of what is occurring. But you can’t just sit there and watch, you have a job to do.
AL: Aside from forecasting, creating weather graphics, airing regularly scheduled broadcasts, and making emergency cut-ins, do you have any additional lesser-known responsibilities during tornado outbreaks?
KR: Social. Social. Social. Posting warnings and updates to social media. Maybe doing a “live” video if you have time. Trying to respond to people if they have questions. Looking for damage or hail photos. Social media is amazing because you can see what is occurring in almost real time. But even though it is amazing, it’s also another job responsibility that you must manage. It’s gotten to the point now where you pretty much need one person purely dedicated to social media during an event.
AL: We’re all familiar with viewers reaching to meteorologists to complain about severe weather cut-ins, but how often do you receive feedback from grateful viewers who feel safer thanks to your warnings and severe weather coverage? Is the positive feedback more frequent than the negative?
KR: I think the negative is a vocal minority situation. I get people being upset and wanting to voice their opinion. But I think those people are just more vocal than those that either are thankful or just understand we have a job to do. We do get nice notes from people that are very appreciative, and those are great to receive. However, I think for the most part, more people are inclined to write a negative comment than a positive one. That’s just my opinion.
AL: Has the building for a station you’ve worked at ever been directly threatened by a tornado? Do you have protocol in place to deliver emergency broadcasts while also taking the necessary safety precautions?
KR: Thankfully, this has never happened to me. I’ve never been in immediate danger during coverage, but we do have a designated safe spot to take shelter. However, we probably would not do that until the last possible second. The broadcast would keep airing the radar along with the crawl displaying warning information while we sought shelter.
AL: If you could change one thing about covering severe weather, what would it be?
KR: From the TV side of things, I think the more live video the better. Viewers can then see what is happening and headed their way. But also, we can see what that storm looks like in real life instead of just a blob on the radar. From the meteorology side, I’d say better radar infrastructure. Radar updates that are much more frequent. More radars for better coverage. Guarantee a radar won’t stop working right before or during an event. We’ve had great improvements in this area, but it can only get better as well.