Tracking Tornadoes, Saving Lives For 40 Years

The meteorologist at Griffin Communications’ KWTV Oklahoma City has seen a lot of changes in weather forecasting since he first joined the CBS affiliate. But while his technology has evolved tremendously from the days of black & white radar, his philosophy and mission haven’t: Do the weather and the warnings, but balance that when you can with a little bit of humor. This is the first of six articles that will appear this week and that collectively constitute a TVNewsCheck Special Report on Severe Weather News.

Many TV stations are considered local institutions, and sometimes so are their meteorologists. Among the latter is Gary England who for the past 39 years has been delivering weather forecasts for Griffin Communications’ KWTV Oklahoma City, (DMA 45), and, more important, providing critical information about tornados and other severe weather whenever they threaten the sprawling market.

Over the years, he has amassed an extraordinary collection of honors and awards, culminating last year with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Lifetime Achievement Award. As if to show that that award was not meant to suggest the near end of his long career, SPJ also gave him first place for weather reporting for the year.

In this interview with TVNewsCheck Contributing Editor Arthur Greenwald, England shares some of this thoughts on the ever-improving forecasting and weather tracking technology, what it takes to make it as a TV meteorologist and why tornadoes are as fascinating as they are dangerous.

An edited transcript:

You have seen the technology change quite a bit and you had a good deal to do with developing it. What do you see as the major changes?

Well, it probably has been the various types of radar. There used to be this old black and white radar thing, then color radar and then the Doppler radar. Now there’s phased radar, and all these types of radars and systems that improve with each bit of progress.


Also, everyone now is becoming a amateur meteorologist because of the availability of the computer or the model results on the Internet. So that’s been a bit of  a change for the audience in that they see the models. But the models are right only about 51% of the time. Basically, the problem with the models [and] the maps you pull up on the Internet is that they look real. I mean they really look real and they’re not.

There is also, of course, a revolution in how people receive news in general — on mobile devices and so forth. Does knowing that some of your audience is instantly receiving your reports affect the reporting?

No. It’s still the same thing, at least here. We sit down, we analyze what’s going on, we take a look at the models, we compare our forecasts with the National Weather Service. If there’s a difference, we go back and we look at it and we ponder it and then we put it out. We know it goes out to everyone almost instantaneously. So that doesn’t affect us at all. In fact, I like the quick communications.

In some areas of the country, weather promotion is humorous and the weatherman is sort of the comic relief on the newscasts. That can’t be the role you play here given the serious nature of your work.

No. It’s serious business. When I first got hired, a long time ago in ’72, the guy that hired me was bright. But I was much younger and I thought, well, what does he know. He said to me, “Gary, let me tell you. “Doing television weather in Oklahoma is like getting up on a fence and walking along the top of that fence. If you fall off the one side with meteorology, or if you fall off to the other side with it all being entertainment, you die.”

You have to do the balance: Do your weather, do your meteorology, take care of the people, make the warnings, but, in other times, you have to balance that with a little bit of humor, a little bit of fun, but nothing corny.

When you go out into the community, what kind of reaction to you get?

When we have a big event like we had back on May 24, you hear a lot of thank yous for saving my life, and mixed in with all that is a lot of “thanks for being here for all these years” because in severe weather they seem to really appreciate experience.

How much further in advance are you able to forecast a tornado event these days than when you started in the ’70s?

Oh my gosh, when I first came here, I could only warn you because it blew your uncle Charlie’s house away up the road a few miles and was coming your way. That’s about how bad it was.

Most of the warnings in the ’70s, not all of them, but most of them were minus two minutes, minus five minutes. I mean the tornado’s already touched down and it’s on its way to someone else’s house. Nowadays, if it’s a good-sized tornado, a minimum of 10 minutes. Many times, it will be more like 20, 30, 40 minutes, sometimes an hour. The warning time now is excellent. People have time to take their safety precautions. It’s quite amazing, the transformation.

So, as much as an hour in advance.

Yeah. That’s on big tornados. That’s becoming more and more common, but on average it’s probably 20, 30 minutes. Now I have to be honest with you. The small ones to this day can still touch down in your front yard and you will be the first one who knows. Tornadoes have to be large and have certain features for us to identify them on radar. You can have one set down really quick and it’s a surprise. So that still happens, but it’s rare. If it’s a big one setting down, we have that rascal nailed.

What was different about the series of tornadoes that hit on May 24?

Tornadoes are always a little bit different. They’re like humans. Each has just a little bit of a different personality or a little different size, a little different shape. Some travel faster, some are really pretty in the sunset and some are really ugly.

On the 24th, we had, at one time, four huge tornadoes. You take eight football fields end to end, that’s how large each one of them was if you can imagine that.

Eight football fields?

Yeah, they were gigantic. We have had lots of tornadoes before, but never huge ones like this. It was actually amazing to watch. They were just goring the earth and spewing houses and such. With the radars nowadays, we can see they’re going through houses and such. It’s called the debris ball. You will be looking at the radar presentation and it will increase in intensity and there are houses and trees and lumber and cars in the air. It’s a pretty interesting event, let me tell you.

It scares you just a little bit every time because they don’t always go in a straight line. The one southwest of Oklahoma City, if it moved to the right or due East, it would come right through the middle of Oklahoma City and it would have been Joplin all over again, even though the warnings were out and the people really heeded the warnings.

Did we do anything differently? Not really. We covered with the helicopter, we have six storm tracker crews, we have the city cam network. So it’s really nothing new. It was business as usual even though it was a different type of storm

I have a feeling that your work keeps you young.

I think the one good thing about it is that it does force me to use my brain because you know it is a challenge and, you know, my competition are younger and so it really forces me to be the best person I can be and make my brain work properly. So it’s good for me and you’re right, it has kept me young. It keeps me on my toes. People normally die in these events and you don’t want to be responsible for anyone’s death.

Comments (2)

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bart meyers says:

August 1, 2011 at 9:20 am

Great article and interview with a legend in weather forecasting in OKC. Not only is Gary the worl’s expert on tornadoes, he’s a really good guy.
Paul Greeley
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Allen Moore says:

August 1, 2011 at 12:14 pm

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