May 22, 2013

In 42 years of Oklahoma City weathercasting, KWTV’s Gary England estimates he has tracked more than 1,000 tornadoes, and without a doubt, that estimate is “on the low end.” When he started his TV career in 1972, he wrote on his weather map with chalk.  Nine years later, KWTV says “England became the first person in history to use Doppler radar for direct warnings to the public.”  He even appeared in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Twister.” In November he will be inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

England: “There will be time to look at video of destruction later.”

In those years he had developed a mantra that he says he pushes his team of seven meteorologists to follow on days like Monday, when a mile-wide tornado tore through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore. “When the storm is moving, I keep asking myself, ‘where is it, what is it, where is it going, what time will it be there, what will it do when it gets there?’ Our main concern during a storm is to be thinking of the people in front of the storm,” England told me. “There will be time to look at video of destruction later, but our first priority is helping the people who are about to get hit.”

Oklahoma City weathercasters like England and his competitors have earned the respect and accolades of viewers and this week, even the Oklahoma governor.  England says when he is on the air he tries not to use “scary adjectives.” The viewer can look out their windows and see there is a big storm out there. “I don’t have to tell them it is scary,” he said.

Monday afternoon, England and his team of seven meteorologists were tracking five storms on computers at the same time.  “We knew days ago that we were heading for two days of tornadoes. But when you see the live images on the radar and the video we had from our helicopter, you knew somebody was going to die. It is a horrible feeling.”  The timing of Monday’s storm was especially hazardous. “School was still in session, so people see the images on TV and make a run for the school to get the children out and you know they will get caught in the storm.”

Oklahoma City TV stations have the unusual tradition of handing control of what goes on the air to the chief meteorologist when storms are on the ground. You can see what that looks like in this 2009 tornado outbreak when England and his team tracked multiple giant storms as they skipped across the Oklahoma countryside.

Ten years ago this month, England had to take the unusual step of evacuating the studio when a tornado headed straight for the station. Here is video of that day:

Oklahoma City TV stations spend a lot of energy “training” viewers how to react to storm warnings. “We have held community events that attracted thousands of people to train them,” England said. In his four decades of tracking storms, England now thinks of his viewers in terms of “generations.”

Even in Oklahoma, a state that logs 50 tornadoes a year, viewers often complain when TV stations interrupt programming with weather alerts. “After an event like we had this week, the complaints will die down for a while,” England says. “But in about a year, they will start calling when we interrupt their TV programs.” 42 years of experience has taught him that too.

Related: Oklahoma governor thanks media for tornado coverage

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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