Photo Gallery | Al Conklin attends severe storm conference in Alabama
I've been off the air at WBTV the past few days, spending time this week in Birmingham, Alabama, attending the National Weather Association's annual severe storms conference.
Although North-Central Alabama was chosen as the venue for the conference more than a year ago, I can't think of a more fitting place to hold such a meeting.
You may recall, back in April, Alabama was devastated by a record 128 tornadoes, resulting in 251 deaths and more than 2,100 injuries. A month later, 159 souls perished in the single deadliest and most damaging twister on record in Joplin, MO.
Amazingly, with an astounding 546 fatalities and yet three months still to go, in terms of tornadoes, 2011 already stands as the deadliest year in the U. S. since World War II.
What's so striking is that with all of the advancement in science, technology, skill and communication, we've had so devastating a year.
And so a large part of this seminar has been spent looking back, discussing what's working and what's not - and gathering ideas on how to fix the problems, real important stuff.
But after pouring over graphs, charts, radar images and satellite pictures, I needed to get away from the statistics and see for myself what really happened, to real people in real communities.
I snuck away from the conference for two hours Monday and under a cloudless sky, walked through neighborhoods in Concord and Pleasant Grove, AL, just 10 miles from the bustling center of downtown Birmingham.
Hilly places that reminded me of the Carolina Piedmont, these town were battered late in the afternoon of April 27th with winds of nearby 200 mph. Large, mature trees were snapped like toothpicks and what was left standing was stripped of its bark. The ground itself was in places, scoured, as if a farm field plowed for planting. And sadly, the most well built homes stood little chance of surviving. Many were swept from their foundations and nothing exists today but barren, concrete slabs.
I spoke with Richard Larson, Pastor of Concord Highland Baptist Church, whose sanctuary, child care facility and parsonage were completely blown away. Now meeting in a what amounts to a large trailer on the site, he says insurance will build back the church. The money part of the equation is relatively easy, the congregation was prepared. But in matters of faith, it's the people Pastor Larson is most concerned about. Five neighbors perished up on the highland just beyond the church and no insurance policy is going to bring them back.
Back at the conference today, we're hearing about advancements in wind and solar technology and how forecasts are helping to advance green energy. There was a talk given on a new network of road sensors that assist meteorologists in commuter forecasts and we're looking ahead to the upcoming winter season and what can be expected via the long-range model trends.
But the bottom line is this - beyond the science, weather and forecasting boils down to people, and how our forecasts help the human element make a better decision about what to do when they're most vulnerable and how best to protect themselves and their families.
With the above in mind, a town-hall meeting will be held at the hotel tonight, where meteorologists and social scientists will hear directly from the end user, those so directly impacted by the twisters that ravaged this area six months ago, people who are struggling to cope with what was taken from them in a matter of seconds.
I expect this will be a painful time, but one I should be present for, a time to listen and learn, lest I forget that every time I broadcast a warning, some family watching in their living room could be gravely impacted.
WBTV Morning Meteorologist