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Encore: The Weatherman

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The tornadoes that hit the central and southern U.S. more than a week ago, killing more than 90 people in Kentucky and other states, were a reminder of the unpredictability of weather. We're taking a moment now to look at the impact these kinds of disasters can have on the people whose job it is to predict them. In 2011, a series of tornadoes tore through more than a dozen states, hitting Alabama the hardest. Abby Wendle of NPR's Invisibilia explains how that 2011 outbreak changed one of Alabama's top weathermen.

ABBY WENDLE, BYLINE: Weather forecasting is tough, and tornadoes are perhaps the trickiest to predict. There's no way to know exactly when one will touch down or where or what direction it'll go - towards trees or people. Up against all these unknowns, James Spann, one of Alabama's top TV weathermen, lives in a permanent training exercise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM CLOCK BEEPING)

WENDLE: 4:52 a.m., alarm goes off.

JAMES SPANN: This is cut number two in five, four, three, two, one.

WENDLE: 5 a.m., record radio weather spots.

J SPANN: Mostly clear weather continues tonight. We'll forecast the low at - (clearing throat).

WENDLE: By 9, James is off to teach severe weather preparedness.

J SPANN: The No. 1 reason people died that day is this, the siren mentality.

WENDLE: 2:30 p.m., head to the television studios for the 4, 5, 6 and 10 o'clock news. You can find James Spann bobbleheads and T-shirts. In Alabama, he's basically beloved. And the feeling is mutual.

J SPANN: These are my people. And I just feel a responsibility to take care of them.

WENDLE: Now, he's also gotten his fair share of criticism, especially about one thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J SPANN: My position is this. The climate is changing. The climate has always changed. The climate always will change.

WENDLE: This is James in a 2018 VICE interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J SPANN: The question is, what is man's role?

WENDLE: That paints him outside something scientists in this century have been most sure of - man's starring role in climate change. But when it comes to Alabama weather, he mostly gets it right. So in the last week of April 2011, when he started seeing signs that the weather could turn really bad...

J SPANN: This could be a very significant tornado day.

WENDLE: ...James did what he does - prepared. First, the TV station...

J SPANN: Number one, we had to get our weather staff straight.

WENDLE: ...And then the public, warning them over and over again for two days straight.

J SPANN: Be around a radio. Be around the television. Be around a radio. Be around the television - radio, television, radio, television, radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J SPANN: We got reports of debris falling out of the sky.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, goodness.

WENDLE: At the TV studio, James was live.

J SPANN: The radar was lighting up like a Christmas tree.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J SPANN: Tornado number one, tornado number two, tornado number three.

WENDLE: Some were huge, with winds whipping faster than a racecar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J SPANN: Get into a safe place right now.

WENDLE: And then one was on top of the city of Tuscaloosa, ripping apart schools and churches and houses.

J SPANN: You were looking at pure, raw, graphic violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER RUMBLING)

J SPANN: Goodness gracious.

WENDLE: James, the master of uncertainty, found himself struggling to keep it together.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J SPANN: This will be a day that will go down in state history. And all you can do is pray for those people.

WENDLE: April 27, 2011, 62 tornadoes touched down in Alabama on that day. Numbers vary, but about 250 people died.

KAREN SPANN: He dealt with it for a year.

WENDLE: This is James's wife, Karen.

K SPANN: He didn't really want to talk about it at all. Did you?

J SPANN: It was about six months.

K SPANN: Six months - I just remember that one morning at the kitchen table that he broke down and cried. That has never happened in our marriage. He does not cry. And it really gravely concerned me.

WENDLE: Nobody was supposed to die on his watch.

J SPANN: This is insane. We've got to find out what happened and fix it.

WENDLE: James grew obsessive, certain there had to be an answer. So he holed up in his office and watched the tapes of his live coverage from that day over and over and over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J SPANN: Goodness gracious.

What happened here? What just happened?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J SPANN: This is a very serious situation.

What went wrong?

WENDLE: But it's not just James. This need for the answer is a problem for all of us.

JAMIE HOLMES: We have this need for closure, a need for answers, a need for order.

WENDLE: This is science writer Jamie Holmes, author of "Nonsense: The Power Of Not Knowing." He interviewed dozens of psychologists who told him that when we face an uncertainty that's threatening, we become desperate to end the uncertainty. In his book, Jamie catalogues a series of experiments by psychologists Travis Proulx and Daniel Randles. In one experiment, three searchers had people read Kafka.

HOLMES: I love Kafka.

WENDLE: Then Proulx and Randles showed them long strings of letters.

Like A, B, C, D or, like...

HOLMES: Exactly.

WENDLE: ...Z, F, G, D.

HOLMES: Exactly.

WENDLE: In one letter subset, there were patterns. In another subset, there weren't. But...

HOLMES: In either case, those who read this surreal story from Kafka identified more patterns when there weren't patterns and even when there were patterns.

WENDLE: Reading the surreal story kicked people's need for things to make sense into overdrive.

HOLMES: It's sort of like, do you see Jesus in the burnt toast, right?

WENDLE: In multiple experiments, researchers have found that when we are exposed to an unexpected dose of uncertainty or an uncertainty that is particularly threatening, we become desperate to end the uncertainty, which can lead us to jump to conclusions instead of making rational decisions.

HOLMES: Sometimes the solution to uncertainty is knowing that you can't control it. You can't predict it completely, ever. And so you have to stay in it and stay in it without panicking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J SPANN: OK, and again, I want to be sure people listening and watching understand. You are watching a large tornado that is approaching...

I'd be back in the closet back there and kind of shut the door and just let it run.

WENDLE: Day after day, James sat with his footage, sat in the discomfort of not understanding, the hunger for certainty tugging at him to figure it out, find an answer. Any explanation will do. But the more he searched through the footage...

J SPANN: You know, I just went through it and listened to what I said...

WENDLE: ...And watched...

J SPANN: ...Watched the video elements we had...

WENDLE: ...And looked and listened...

J SPANN: ...Trying to sort out in my mind what was good and what was bad.

WENDLE: ...The more James began to realize...

J SPANN: It was very confusing. I didn't have a good answer for that. I don't know.

WENDLE: The most certain man in the world embraced uncertainty, let go.

J SPANN: You're brought down to your knees. Maybe everything that we've thought was right is wrong. Maybe we're living life upside down. I don't know.

WENDLE: And when he did, the answer he had expected to find, the, it was me; I failed in front of the green screen - seemed too small to hold the tragedy of April 27.

J SPANN: You don't have the time or the energy or the brainpower to save everybody. It doesn't work that way. You're not some superhero. You're just a stinking weather guy on television.

WENDLE: James didn't have firm answers. But for the first time since the storms that hit, he had something maybe even more valuable - a mind open to new information. Abby Wendle, NPR.

SHAPIRO: This story was reported by Abby Wendle and the Invisibilia team in 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.