Mike Smith saw the deadly consequences of a tornado as a 5-year old, when a cluster of them tore through his home town in Kansas City, Mo. in 1957, killing 44 people and ripping up the neighborhood.
The clouds were green, the news anchors on television warned everyone to stay away from windows (though he kept looking at what was happening outside) and then his dad came bursting through the door shouting to go into the basement. When the phone rang, it was the police department asking his father — in the car sales business — for a fleet of station wagons to be used as ambulances. The next day, when his mother drove through the wreckage, the kindergarten, library and shopping center were obliterated.
The natural disaster, named the Ruskin Heights Tornado, inspired Smith, now a senior vice president and chief innovation executive at Accuweather, to become a meteorologist. “People were walking around like zombies,” he said. “Even though I was 5, I had an impulse: Anything that could do this — this tornado thing — had to be interesting.”
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Smith announced earlier this month he will be retiring on March 31. He spoke with MarketWatch to talk about how the business of weather forecasting has changed, the numerous ways people consume weather news and what retirement will hold.
MarketWatch: What was the job like when you started?
Smith: I started doing radio in Kansas City while I was still in high school. I organized a weather club and the commercial radio station was kind enough to have the teenagers do the weather for them. I realized I had a talent to do broadcasting but what I really wanted to do was start a weather business that would do tornado warnings and other storm warnings to save people’s lives. When I got to Oklahoma University, one of the TV stations had an opening for a part-time meteorologist and I was audacious enough to see if they would hire this freshman. Amazingly, I got the job. Back then, most TV markets like Kansas City where I grew up did not have meteorologists, they had weather girls and comedians, but this station had a radar — they had the best you could have at that time — but by today’s standards it was not very good.
We had this situation in Ohio Valley on April 3, 1974, where almost 400 people lost their live to a tornado. That day the warning system broke down — there were too many tornadoes to keep up. My professor was asked to be a part of the team to survey the damage and when he came back he sat me down and told me to think about how I’d handle it if there were ever to be a rash of tornadoes going on at the same time. I thought about it and two months later, on June 8, 1974, we looked like we were going to have this rash of tornadoes.
The night before, the main meteorologist was off, and tornado forecasting was still new. I went on the air at 10 the night before we were going to have a major outbreak and I said “you need to be paying attention because there will be tornadoes through Central Oklahoma.” At 3 a.m. the tornadoes were already developing. My wife drove me into the office. By 3 p.m. we had three tornadoes on the ground, Oklahoma was hit by 5 tornadoes in one day. It was the third time a tornado was ever broadcast live. We showed the radar where the thunderstorms were and where the tornadoes were going to go. We put the cameras out the backdoor and showed the tornado live, and everyone realized this was really serious.
It turned out that this rash of tornadoes was more or less evenly divided by Oklahoma and Tulsa viewing areas and in there was no meteorologist in Tulsa, and no radar there. There were 17 fatalities in Tulsa and none in Oklahoma City. Our station got 70 letters from viewers saying “you saved my life.” Reading those letters the next week was one of the most humbling experiences of my entire life.
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MarketWatch: How has the job changed?
Smith: I started a weather company in 1981, WeatherData. It took a few years for the technology but it came along by the mid 1980s, where we could do more precise TV warnings that we weren’t able to do on June 8, 1974. The company I started merged with Accuweather has has 100% of the Class 1 railroads as clients, because we can tell them precisely where flash floods are going to be or where tornadoes will cross the tracks. We routinely save the lives of crews. One morning I was getting ready and I saw an email from the largest railroad in Mexico and he’s telling me that our flash flood warning was the basis for stopping a passenger train that goes through the Copper River Canyon between Vera Cruz and Guatelajara. They sent a guy out on a truck and the track was gone. It was completely washed out through the flash flood and the government had no warning. It would have plunged into the canyon had it not been for our storm warning.
That’s sort of what my whole career has been about. Public service. My career has been about saving lives and saving property. The technology we have today is highly precise, to see if tornadoes lost debris into the air and we know where tornado is and how bad it is. And now the methods of communicating, to an app on your cell phone. With the Accuweather app on your cell, if you are driving to your kid’s soccer game and toward an area flooded, it knows where the flash flood is and will sound if you’re driving toward a danger area.
MarketWatch: How has the way we consume weather news changed?
Smith: In the late 1950s what the TV stations tried to do was heroic and unusual. They didn’t understand where tornadoes were and how they moved, but they did the best they could and I’m sure they saved lives. Storm warnings used to be hard to get and too late to be of use. Ten minutes in the life of a tornado is forever, and there was no way to get timely information. Nowe we can send it directly to your cell phone.
One problem is, sometimes people don’t take storm warnings seriously. This week we had slew of tornadoes in Alabama. This is the kind of outbreak that used to kill tens of people, and there were zero deaths because of the forecast. But a meteorologist in Birmingham, Ala. got an email from a viewer who was upset with the tornado warnings, saying it was ruining his evening watching television. It is still kind of amazing to me that people don’t appreciate the warning system and maybe that is understandable because you’ve got weather in the newspaper, a weather app on your phone in your pocket, and weather just sort of exists. There’s a lack of understanding about how the storm warning system works and how good it is.
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MarketWatch: What would you say are the top lessons you learned while working? And what advice do you have for those just starting out?
Smith: Follow your passion. If you are truly passionate about something, that is what you should go for in your career. I have had so many people come up to me in 47 years of doing this saying “I wanted to be a meteorologist and I became an insurance salesman, and I’ve become miserable.” I can’t tell you how many times people told me that.
Always be ethical, you have to look yourself in the mirror the next day. And go where the science takes you. There were times during early part of my career where I did TV where general managers pressured me to alter a forecast because what some advertiser wanted. I never did that. I never tried to push the science further than it could go, meaning I never tried to forecast tornadoes seven days in advance. It was impossible then and impossible now with any specificity.
MarketWatch: Why did you decide to retire now?
Smith: First of all, I have grandchildren. None of my children live in Wichita, and we love Wichita — it is a great city — but work has taken our children to Dallas and Kansas City and our grandkids live in Kansas City. It’s time to spend more time with them. They won’t be little for long. A couple of health challenges make an 8 – 5 schedule difficult. In the future I want to do management for startups, how to take science and technology and turn it into something useful. I have a third book and an idea for a fourth. And I feel when it comes to weather science, it is time for younger people to take over and make their mark on the profession.
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