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KAIT Chief Meteorologist
Ryan Vaughan:
Saving Lives with Smarter Forecasting

By Audrey Hanes, cover photo by Melissa Donner (Weather Studio photo submitted by KAIT)

Chief Meteorologist Ryan Vaughan has been forecasting the weather for KAIT for nearly two decades, which gave him the experience and knowledge to make a call on March 28 that saved the lives of many and allowed the people of Jonesboro to be as prepared as possible for the EF-3 tornado that tore through the heart of the city that afternoon.

“I have loved weather pretty much my entire life,” said Vaughan. “When you see friends going to college, changing their majors and people not really knowing what they want to do in life, that wasn’t me. I was happy that I knew what I wanted to do. I was always the guy glued to the TV during severe weather and snow forecasts and everything. I’ve always loved it.”

The chief meteorologist was born in Nashville and went to college at Western Kentucky University, graduating with a bachelor’s of science degree in geography/meteorology and minoring in broadcast news. He had never been to Jonesboro before starting with KAIT in 2001 but says he felt at home in the city from the start. He left briefly to work at another Raycom Media station, WSFA, in Montgomery, Ala., before returning to Region 8 for good in 2005 to become the station’s chief meteorologist and to raise his four children in NEA with his wife, Jennifer.

Over the years, Vaughan has truly connected with his viewers. He has a large social media following that he interacts with daily, and he is known for his involvement in the community, particularly with Region 8 schools.

“I like doing school visits, and that’s the start of everything for us,” he said. “I love getting kids excited about math and science, and at the end, you sneak in weather safety. When you have people who are 20 years old come up to you and tell you they remembered to protect their head during severe weather after listening to you in sixth grade, that’s something that stuck with them.

“God has put me in this position, and I shouldn’t take that lightly. Several years ago, we would go to these schools and they would pull a few kids out that couldn’t be in videos. At first, I thought it was parents being protective, which I understand, but over and over again I started seeing it more. One day I asked a teacher, and she explained they were foster kids. The number just kept growing as time went on. That was a big red flag to me that we have a problem here. I feel like God put me in a position to maybe do something good.”

In 2017, Vaughan began A Family for Me, a program that highlights children who need permanent homes and families. He provides information to those who are interested in foster care, as well.

Over the years, advancements in technology have greatly impacted Vaughan’s profession and changed the way he is able to do his job as a meteorologist. Because of the immediate and round-the-clock updates that social media allows, Vaughan says that instead of making an appointment with a viewer, he has to meet them where they are, which is either Twitter, Instagram, their phone and the app or Facebook.

“You’ve got to meet them halfway now,” said Vaughan. “… Digital has changed everything. It used to be we were just a television station. I did a forecast, and you didn’t get it until 5 o’clock. If you didn’t catch it at 5, 6 or 10, you’re not going to get the forecast. Now, that’s different. As soon as you’re done with a forecast, you put it on the app, and you adjust it and change it. If something changes with the forecast, you better tweet it and put it on Facebook.

“We are more of a 24-hour job than what we used to be. I think industry wide, there was a resistance to that. Because I had some people around me who said, more or less, ‘You better embrace this,’ I think that is why I hopped on the social media and digital app bandwagon so much. Weather is a 24-hour thing, even more so than news. You can get weather to change overnight, and it affects everyone. The digital side of things for us has really changed.”

That transparency and involvement, combined with the chief meteorologist’s years of experience in Region 8, led him to make a call on March 28 that potentially saved many lives and kept viewers prepared for the arrival of an EF-3 tornado, even after the weather service downgraded the storm to a thunderstorm warning.

“Technology has changed a ton,” said Vaughan. “For meteorologists, a lot of businesses have continuing education, and we are no different. Something I’ve really enjoyed learning is the advancements that we have in radar. Twenty-five years ago, radar just showed you where it was raining, and then about 18 to 20 years ago, you could look at the wind within a storm. …

“The newest technology in the past few years is called dual polarization. As the name describes, we are now sending out two signals on radar. The way we have started to detect debris is something called correlation coefficient. A raindrop would look different than a snowflake. … With rain or snow, radar (will send) out a beam and (say), “OK, this is pretty uniform.” But when you start getting debris, and you start getting steel beams and 2x4s and things like that, you can tell on the radar.”

Although when dual polarization was developed it was primarily used to tell the difference between raindrops and snowflakes, one of the byproducts was seeing debris signature in tornadoes, which Vaughan says is probably used more now than the precipitation detection.

“We started picking up that debris signature in Jonesboro,” said Vaughan of the March 28 tornado. “… Something we could use with that is how high the debris is going up in the atmosphere. Once the debris hits 15,000 feet, you’re looking at an EF-3. It’s lofting this debris almost three miles high, and we are seeing this on radar, so we knew we had a large tornado from both the weather cameras and the radar. … When we saw debris lifted that high, we knew we were dealing with a very violent tornado. That’s the first time we have really detected a violent tornado like that in Region 8 using that technology.”

Prior to the debris signature, as the storm approached Jonesboro, the K8 StormTeam was prepared.

“The tornado warning comes out for Woodruff County a little after 4 o’clock,” said Vaughan when replaying the day’s events. “Our game plan, because we’re trying to stay separate (as a COVID-19 precaution), was I’m working from home and wasn’t in the studio because it was a Saturday. We’ve changed that now – I will be in-studio for every severe weather event – but we went on air and just looked at the line. Immediately, when you get your first tornado warning, you are not thinking 30 and 40 minutes out, you’ve got to start thinking one and two hours out. You’ve got to think beyond the warning process and ask, ‘Where is it going?’ The one in Woodruff County was moving northeast, so we made a comment pretty early on, ‘Jonesboro, you need to watch this in about an hour.’”

The storm continued on to Jackson County, where it produced a tornado. Vaughan says he knew at that time that viewers in Jonesboro should stay near a safe place, because when a storm can produce a tornado, he doesn’t trust it again.

“It’s kind of like when a dog bites you, you’re always going to remember that it bit you,” said the KAIT chief meteorologist. “From that moment on, that storm could not be trusted, period. That was the rule that I went by, and the science behind a storm is they cycle and they produce tornadoes again a lot of times. It just so happens, it came into Poinsett County and it pulled up. But, the entire storm is still rotating; there were some signs that pointed to this thing doing it again.

“This is where the weather service comes in. That warning for Poinsett County was set to expire at a certain time, and they extended that warning out as a severe thunderstorm warning. Since 2016, they have started to issue severe thunderstorm warnings and the last line of it will say ‘tornado possible.’ … They went with that. Now, that was a six-minute period that Jonesboro went without a tornado warning before they issued the tornado warning. … I get it, but I do want to go on record, they did issue a warning just prior to it touching down. But during those six minutes, we were on air, and it’s our job to continue the warning process; some of the signs pointed to the storm still producing a tornado, and if it did, it would be right in the heart of Jonesboro.”

Vaughan says that although he and his team at KAIT have been in the same situation before and it didn’t produce a tornado, the March 28 storm did exactly what he was afraid of and tightened up right over the Valley View area.

“That’s how it all unfolded,” he said. “It was that six-minute period where I didn’t trust the dog that had already bitten us. I knew if it bit again, it would be right in the middle of town, so we stayed with it. Thankfully, I have a good group of guys around me, Zach (Holder) and Aaron (Castleberry), who killed it that day. I was fortunate to have them in-studio for quite possibly the biggest storm that any of us will have in our career, at least I hope so.”

He commends Castleberry for his work that day, especially because he had been given the green light to help with severe weather coverage just two weeks prior to the Jonesboro tornado. Holder played an important role, as well.

“I’ve known Zach since he was nine years old,” said Vaughan. “He went to my church, and I remember when he was a little kid coming up to me at church telling me he loved weather. To work with him and see him handling storms like he does has been pretty cool.”

Vaughan credits his team members and their careful preparation with being able to provide thorough coverage to KAIT’s viewers, even in a time where a global pandemic had them practicing social distancing.

“I feel it is my responsibility to make sure we are ready when severe weather hits,” said Vaughan. “Usually, that starts beforehand. We have meetings, we draft emails, we Snapchat each other and we stay in really good communication ahead of time so that when it unfolds, we all know where we are going to be. We know that this person is going to be chasing, this person is going to be helping me in the storm center and Bryan (McCormick) is going to be on standby if it does hit. My job is to make sure we are planned and ready to go. Now, if we screw up, that’s also on me. …

“As far as my job, I feel that it’s my responsibility that we get the job done as best as we can. But, it’s weather; you’re going to screw it up. There aren’t a lot of jobs where you have to predict the future. You can look at all the science you want and then at the end of the day say, ‘That’s not how I thought it would turn out.’ … Having a good team makes it really, really easy.”

The chief meteorologist was working from home that Saturday because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything was running smoothly until the storm hit.

“Everything started going haywire – everything,” said Vaughan. “Part of that is damage to the system, and part of that is everyone making phone calls. A large part of what I do is based on cell phone signals, so you’re losing that because everyone is calling; but I’m the one telling people to call everyone. They’re all uploading videos and photos, but I’m losing power, I’m losing data and I’m losing cell phone signal. I took that generator for granted that we have at the station. I took for granted we have the technology to keep us online there. I have since upgraded my Internet because I’m working from home; I have fiber now. … But, we have changed things so that I will be in the station in the future if we have extreme weather.”

The K8 StormTeam has been widely commended by members of the community for saving lives and keeping Jonesboro prepared for the tornado. Although Vaughan says that the community’s show of gratitude for just doing his job is a bit overwhelming, he and his team truly appreciate positivity, encouragement, ‘thank yous’ and even baked goods.

The day after the storm, Vaughan drove around Jonesboro to see the damage firsthand and see what he could do to help. Knowing the community, he was not surprised to see that countless volunteers had already descended upon the tornado damage.

“I went out that Sunday, and for one, so many people were wanting to help,” said Vaughan. “This area is incredible. You don’t have that everywhere. … In fact, a guy named Tim Marshall, who helped do the EF (Enhanced Fujita) scale, who is a big-time meteorologist, came to town that Sunday to assess the damage. He made a comment that really stuck with me; he said, ‘Man, you guys clean up fast.’ This is a guy who has seen a lot of tornado damage, and for him to make that comment, it really spoke volumes to me. … When I was out Sunday, it was covered in volunteers, so we told the story.”

As severe weather season continues across Region 8, Vaughan encourages his viewers to plan for storms and to take warnings seriously.

“We can sit there and tell people until we are blue in the face that there is a chance of a tornado or that a tornado is there, but if people don’t do anything with that, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “If I tell people to take cover and they run outside to look at it, it doesn’t do any good. We are not saving lives; you have to save your own life. Develop a storm plan with your children. Do they know to cover their heads and have their shoes on? We can do our jobs 100 percent correct, but if you don’t do something with that, it doesn’t do any good.

“Phone calls should not be your warning plan. You should have our app. You should have a weather radio. If people didn’t have a game plan for tornadoes prior to March 28, I hope they do now. When a tornado watch is issued, I hope people put helmets in the bathroom, make sure phones are charged and their weather radio is on. I hope people in this area look at this and make sure they have a plan. I hope that next time we are even more prepared than we were on March 28, because we will see other tornadoes.”

To keep up with KAIT Region 8 Chief Meteorologist Ryan Vaughan, find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter at @ryanvaughan or email him at ryan@kait8.com.