published Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Some Chattanooga area residents say they’re alive today thanks to TV meteorologists

Meteorologist Paul Barys prepares for Friday's five o'clock report in the WRCB Storm Alert Center studio. Barys works on several computers that keep him updated on local, regional and national conditions.
Meteorologist Paul Barys prepares for Friday's five o'clock report in the WRCB Storm Alert Center studio. Barys works on several computers that keep him updated on local, regional and national conditions.
Photo by Tim Barber.
The storms, rebuilding and recollections

TODAY ON WRCB


Turn to Channel 3 at 6 p.m. today as chief meteorologist Paul Barys shares the emotional memories of first responders who feared for their own lives while saving others.

Before people in the Tennessee Valley told stories of shingles rattling and roofs torn clean in half and children shivering in bathtubs for cover, before the long day of April 27, 2011, Paul Barys didn’t feel too appreciated.

Twenty-five years ago, when he came to Chattanooga to be a weatherman for WRCB Channel 3, people liked to tell him to shut up about tornadoes.

The mountains always protected the valley, people told him. Memphis would often get hit, so would Nashville and Huntsville, Ala. But Chattanooga would go many years without a single touchdown, he said.

He’ll never forget when, in 1981, before stations could run information crawls on the bottom of the TV screen, he broke into a prime-time show about Elvis eight times with warnings. A woman called him, fuming.

“I am tired of seeing your face on the air,” she told him. “A tornado has never hit Ringgold, and it never will hit Ringgold.”

But things changed last April, when a tornado did hit Ringgold — and Red Bank and Apison and Cleveland and Bledsoe County and Rainsville, Ala. It was the biggest cluster of storms the South had ever seen. It chewed through houses and memories and stole life and peace of mind.

And as storm systems and funnel clouds became the big story across the region and the country that day and in the days afterward, weathermen such as Barys stepped into the role of hero.

The fame and thanks have felt nice, Barys said. In fact, when he talks about it he gets a little teary-eyed. But the real take-away is the fact that he knows more people will listen to him now.

“People are finally taking [my job] seriously,” he said.

Maybe more people will take cover in storms. Maybe more people will make emergency plans. Maybe someone will move out of a trailer and into a house or apartment because he has railed about how flimsy they can be, he said.

“The last year or two has had much more severe weather in the U.S. We have set records,” said Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society. “People have come to depend on the television weathercasters. ... They can show what is happening in real time. That ability to do that is just monumentally important.”

HITTING HOME

At Channel 9, chief meteorologist David Glenn stayed on air from 9 a.m. until midnight. The station took only a short break from weather broadcasts in the afternoon. During the evening, a neighbor called the station while Glenn was on air and told someone a tree had sideswiped Glenn’s house and punctured the roof. His wife and children were inside.

“I was like, ‘Oh, boy,’” he said. “I knew 30 minutes before that I had texted my wife to get to the basement now.”

“We are going to be fine,” his wife told him when he got her on the phone. “Keep doing what you are doing.”

But staying focused was difficult, he said.

“When it hits home like that, the sense of urgency gets even higher,” said Glenn. “It was a scary time, but we had to give a calm voice for the people.”

On April 27, Barys stayed on the air for 12 hours straight, taking breaks only to use the restroom. He didn’t eat and barely drank. His voice started to disappear.

The longest he had ever broadcast before that day was an hour and a half, he said.

People had different kinds of comments this time, he said. They called with stories about how they had run for cover, just in time, because they heard Barys’ voice on the radio or television.

“Hi Paul ... you saved lives this week. We cried with you at the end. When you declared it over, the relief was so palpable we could finally sleep. ... You are our hero. ... You deserve a bear hug, a vacation, a raise and a Nobel Prize,” wrote Lydia Boroughs.

“God bless you and thank you,” wrote Gary Callahan.

One woman said her family owed their very lives to Paul for his warning of the oncoming Armageddon near Bridgeport, Ala. “I am sure there are countless others who would say the same,” wrote Alice McCallie.

“What you did was unforgettable,” wrote Marchetta Cannon. “I stayed in front of the television all day. ... I have never heard the type of storm information you gave before. It was this is where it is and in two minutes this is where it will be. ... I don’t know if you realize how many lives you saved.”

“I have never ever been afraid before, but all that has changed now,” wrote Susan Dame. “I will be under my house in the crawlspace next time Paul even hints there is a tornado in the area.”

WRCB’s ratings have jumped since last April, the best numbers in key demographics since 2003, and Barys’ name has been cemented in the public consciousness. Many tuned in to him on March 2 when tornados bludgeoned the area again.

This time, he stayed on air for eight hours. At one point, he sucked on a piece of hail someone brought him from outside to wet his throat.

There is a running joke at the station that weather now is the most important part of the show, said David Karnes, the morning meteorologist at Channel 3.

To Barys “it could be 75 degrees and sunny, but this is the most important weather forecast ever in the history of the world,” Karnes said.

EARLY WARNING

Last April, the National Weather Service and Barys started warning people about the big storm on the Monday before it hit, but few people were as afraid as they should have been.

Even Barys didn’t know what to expect.

When he woke up at his home in Red Bank that Wednesday morning, his power was off. He looked out his window and the trees were being blown sideways. So he rushed to the station to check the radar. On the way there, he could feel that the air was unstable, warm and sticky, as if more storms were coming.

Derrall Stalvey, the news director at Channel 3, said he’ll never forget the look on Barys’ face when he came into the office and looked at the radar. The storms were hightailing at 60 miles an hour, huge, Texas-sized storms sweeping toward the Tennessee Valley.

“I have never seen anything this bad before,” Barys told Stalvey.

Barys started his career as a meteorologist after college in Chicago, translating weather reports for private companies for $3 an hour. When a television station asked him to train a fashion model they hired to present the forecasts, he realized he had a talent for translating meteorology into plain speech.

At the beginning of his career, he used magnets and educated guesses to forecast. But he wasn’t always right. Computer programs and experience studying the patterns have put him more on the mark. He keeps a list of predictions next to the actual temperature. His goal is to get within 3 degrees of the actual temperature. He was wrong only three times last month, he said.

“If I’m confident, [the viewers] will be more confident,” he said. “But nobody is perfect. I try to hit it every time, but if I was that guy, I wouldn’t be working at a television station.”

EYES IN THE SKY

Throughout the day on April 27, 2011, Barys and other meteorologists at the station watched more than a dozen computer screens with color graphics and numbers. On one they could see inside the storm. On another they could see where it was going. Together it told the narrative of the storm, and Barys interpreted.

On air, he gave minute-by-minute updates about when to hide and where. Many people used the information to warn people on Facebook or by cellphone.

Midway through the day, when the station showed a home video of a funnel cloud that had touched down in Ringgold, the community watched Barys cry over the devastation.

“To see something like this around here is amazing. … This was a vicious tornado. I know a lot of people in Ringgold are hurting right now. … Some good people down there,” he said.

Late that night when he sent the crew home, everyone at the station was still moving on adrenaline.

“Get some sleep,” he told them.

The inside of his house was completely dark when he got home. So he used a flashlight to crawl into bed.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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