Today’s technology helps keep storms from being as deadly as Huntsville’s 1989 tornado

WAAY 31 was the only television station on the air to keep viewers informed when then-chief meteorologist Gary Dobbs delivered this alert: "And now we have a report of a tornado on the ground."

Posted: Nov 15, 2019 6:08 PM
Updated: Nov 15, 2019 6:58 PM

In November 1989, a destructive tornado ripped through Huntsville killing 21 and injuring hundreds of others.

Three decades later, many lessons have been learned that can save lives today. (See our first report here)

On that day, a powerful 200 mile per hour tornado ripped through the city at one of the worst times - busy rush hour. and there was no warning.

WAAY 31 was the only television station on the air to keep viewers informed when then-chief meteorologist Gary Dobbs delivered this alert: "And now we have a report of a tornado on the ground."

That may have given a few life-saving seconds for people at home to take cover. But it did very little to help drivers heading home at night during rush hour.

Most of the injuries and deaths happened on Airport Road, where today a memorial wall honors them.

Greg Talley recently had bought a camcorder, and recorded the tornado that terrifying day.

“(It’s) one of those things I’ll never forget,” he said. “When i got done, I plugged it into my TV and said, ‘There's the tornado.’"

Former WAAY 31 photojournalist Scott Bemish was among the first to arrive at the scene, recording history of the tornado's destruction.

“That day 30 year ago changed Huntsville television for the better," he said.

Today, WAAY 31 immediately informs viewers when severe weather warnings are issued so everyone can stay safe.

WAAY 31 Chief Meteorologist Kate McKenna says today's technology could have had a major impact 30 years ago.

“We had a severe thunderstorm warning issued initially with this particular thunderstorm. The tornado warning didn't come until there were spotters that started to note the circulation - and then it was issued,” McKenna said.

“We're able to see inside the storm these days. We're able to see when that circulation starts to get a little tighter and we’re also able to see when that debris is being lofted. We don't have to wait on visual confirmation.”

And that means we have more time to help save lives.

"You give people 20 minutes of lead time when you start to see those really good circulations on the radar and get that confirmation inside the storm before you get that visual confirmation, that's only going to help with your lead time and help with the warnings and get those people to safety," said McKenna.

Emergency planning by governments has changed as well over the last three decades with more effective drills and warning sirens.

Former WAAY 31 reporter Tim Hall covered the aftermath of the '89 tornado and now is the spokesman for the Madison County school system. He says crisis communication preparation among all government agencies and the media is the key to saving lives.

“I have learned that you communicate your plans effectively on a regular basis,” Hall said. “Tell people what they need to know, when they need to know it, when they need to know it."

Hall said today's technology and communication helps give advanced warning to help keep children and administrators safe.

See more weather resources from WAAY 31 here

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