You are reading: The Storm That Changed The World
The Storm That Changed The World
April 26, 2011. Birmingham Alabama.
Twenty-four hours can be a long time to wait, and not enough time to prepare when it looks like the world as you know it is about to come to an end. That was the sobering, soon to be reality Fox 6 Chief Meteorologist J-P Dice http://www.myfoxal.com/story/10550304/j-p-dice, saw developing as he studied the latest National Weather Service models on an unseasonably hot and humid Tuesday afternoon in April.
What he saw, was a menacing low pressure system in the Midwest moving eastward across southern Tennessee and headed directly toward his home state of Alabama. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/srh/ssd/mapping/. Not one to use fear and hyperbole in his delivery, preferring instead to be a voice of calm and reason amid the hysterics of local TV weathercasters, even J-P , by necessity, was adding superlatives as he prepared his show.
He remained calm but serious as he reported the computerized Super Cell index which forecasts the likelihood of a tornado on a scale of 1-10 was literally quote, “off the charts”. That night, as the lead story in the late news, he warned viewers to expect the worst beginning Wednesday afternoon and into the evening. Warnings are helpful when you know what you’re dealing with, but neither J-P nor anyone else could have predicted the extent of the devastation that would sweep across the Crimson Tide in the following twenty-four hours.
April 27, 2011. Alabama.
The day begins with reports from the leading edge of the storm. Images and stories from Arkansas and West Tennessee reveal a monster system picking up steam as it heads east. News Directors, Engineers and Production staff scramble to put pre-storm plans in place. Extra crews are called in, days off are cancelled, overtime is scheduled, generators are checked, hotel rooms are booked.
But you can’t be everywhere all the time.
The size of the storm in terms of geography as well as the extent of the damage it caused will be recorded as the most tornado touch-downs in recorded weather history. A total of 178 nationwide from April 25th to 28th. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/ffc/?n=20110427_svrstorms.
All the cameras, reporters and live trucks at all the stations in the State of Alabama combined could not cover this alone. As viewers lucky to be alive and still have electricity would witness as they watched Emergency Special Report coverage on their television sets, the most dramatic images and videos came not from the professional crews in the field but from ordinary citizens caught in the furry of the storms with nothing more than extraordinary courage and their cell phones.
The nexus of technology, social media and natural disaster produced a vivid example of how User Generated Content had changed the world of television news.
No longer could editors and producers be confident that having the most boots on the ground and satellite birds in the air would result in the best coverage. A rapidly escalating social trend that began with the London Bombing in 2005 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/5181396.stm had come of age. Spiked by Gulf Coast hurricanes in 2007, http://www.mediabistro.com/10000words/how-internet-is-changing-how-natural_b218, fueled by revolutions and main stream media black-outs in Tehran and Egypt, http://journalism.about.com/od/citizenjournalismworld/tp/iranianuprising.htm, propelled by Snow Storms, and Breaking News, the trend and the facts were as clear and powerful as the images being broadcast across the world that fateful spring day in Alabama. Camera-phone carrying citizen journalists had changed forever the way Severe Weather and History are recorded.
The View from here.
Meanwhile the team at Cell Journalist headquarters in Nashville, TN, kept a close on the National Radar loop. With seven stations in Alabama alone and dozens more across the southeast, it was going to be a very busy day. Severe weather always spikes content submissions dramatically, and tornadoes are also especially potent drivers of pages views. The public’s fascination with images and videos of tornados results in extra long time spent on site often watching the same video clip five or more times. The combination of massive content submissions and dramatic increases in video plays would be a good test of our system. Having been through scores of major severe weather events, our developers knew what they were in for. To manage an event like this state of the art cloud based servers are a must. Speed is also critical so the increased horse power we’d put into our processors to make sure things didn’t slow down really paid off.
We watched our clients’ simulcasts live online to monitor their integration of User Generated Content into hours of Extended Special Report. It was uncanny to see the relationship between the Warning Advisors on the NWS Nexrad maps and the increases in content submissions in the same areas. Usually during Tornado events we’ll see several images and maybe one or two good videos, the visits and plays are heavy but not that many people actually get a chance, or take a chance to shoot a twister. That was not the case in Alabama. Hundreds of dramatic cloud shots and actual tornado videos were posted on our sites. Also typical, these stories have legs so the shots of destroyed buildings and clean-up drive submissions for several days after the actual storm.
By Thursday, April 28th, our network of sites had nearly a half-million visits and over 5.3 million pages views. Obviously traffic to these stations homepages was exponentially greater. Content submissions were huge as well with the four day network wide tally just over 30 thousand images and videos.
Because we allow stations to create widgets and send them to their homepages, our network widget traffic exceeded anything we’d ever seen. During the four days from April 25th to 28th, Google Analytics reported 5.2 million visits and over 11 million page views.
At the end of the day, this was not a story about statistics and numbers; it was a story about the power of Nature and the resilience of the human spirit. It was also about our universal desire to record moments in time and the technology that is making it possible for everyone to become part of the historical record.
We welcome your comments and thoughts on this story. And for more information about this event, please visit the links below.
- NWS Event Summary. http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/2011_tornado_information.html
- Mobile/Pensacola NWS Report. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/mob/?n=20110427_tor
- Montgomery NWS Report. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/bmx/?n=event_04272011
- Fox6 Timeline. http://birmingham.myfoxal.com/news/news/aprils-fury-time-line-events/81269
- NWS Tornado Tracks 4/24- 4/28/2011. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/srh/ssd/mapping/