When the tree came crashing through their bedroom window, Jasper and Ashley Kent had moved to safety only moments before thanks to a live weather broadcast by University of Georgia student, Will O’Neil. The Midwest transplants had seen severe weather before and thought nothing of the storm brewing outside until Ashley Kent came across O’Neil’s broadcast.
"I wasn't really taking it seriously, but I decided to look at local news and see what I could find," said Mrs. Kent. "We don't have cable or anything, so I was looking online when I came across Will. He was explaining exactly where the tornado was and the seriousness of it. What made it real was when he said, 'It's in downtown Newnan, and it is life threatening. If you haven't found cover yet, it's too late.'"
Mrs. Kent immediately grabbed her husband and young son, threw a baby mattress over them, and watched as the wall exploded.
"A huge pine tree fell through the roof and landed right where our heads had been on the pillows," said Mrs. Kent. "I had just been laying there trying to decide whether we should take this seriously. Thanks to Will, we did. He really saved our lives."
“We were starting to get questions in about a different storm system farther north, but I knew I had to stay on the storm with the tornado,” said O’Neil, a junior from Woodstock and atmospheric sciences and geography major in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. O'Neil spent much of the night doing the live broadcasts with Jared Shelton, a senior from Rome also majoring in atmospheric sciences and geography. "Even if there were only a few people watching from the area, they needed to have that information."
What began as two student-led and -run initiatives, the North Georgia Weather Authorityand AthensGaWeatherFacebook pages have now been integrated into the Atmospheric Sciences program in the geography department. AthensGaWeather was started by Matt Daniel (BS, ’09) in 2009 as a side project.
“It really took off because Matt was filling a need here in Athens,” said John Knox, professor in the geography department and undergraduate coordinator for the atmospheric sciences program. “We don’t have a local TV station so we’re in a media void here as far as truly local news and weather coverage goes.”
UGA student Austin Chaney (BS, ’19) began the North Georgia Weather Authority page when he was in middle school and continued it through his time at UGA. When Daniel and Chaney graduated, neither had the time to keep up the pages so Knox, with the agreement of Daniel and later Chaney, decided to integrate them into the curriculum.
The program already had a forecast seminar course, so in 2018 that course shifted from doing a national forecast competition to covering real, local weather. They continued the AthensGaWeather practice of posting weather updates to the Facebook pages while expanding to include the more traditional broadcast meteorologist approach by recording short video segments for the broadcasts.
“I didn’t know if it would succeed or not because it would depend on student interest, but UGA students are so fantastic, and they immediately adopted it as their own,” Knox said.
The course meets four times a week to do prerecorded forecasts that are posted to the Facebook pages. While not required for the course, the students also do live coverage of severe weather events from their studio.
Prior to a generous gift from geography department donor, broadcasts were filmed in a small office that had been cleared out and equipped with a green screen. The program now has a professional studio with mounted monitors, microphones, cameras, and green wall. The program has also received donations of business professional clothing from Atlanta-area broadcast meteorologists so the students can look and feel like professionals during their broadcasts.
“It’s all part of doing good work, having it be recognized, and being recognized for it,” said Knox. “I think that’s important for the students to see and be a part of. It was so satisfying to see their hard work be rewarded.”
For live coverage of severe weather events, there are at least two student volunteers, one in front of the camera and one running the software. For larger events, more students are needed to gather information on rapidly changing conditions, answer questions in real time on their Facebook pages and even translate the broadcast into Spanish to reach a wider audience.
“None of this would have happened without the initiative and the energy of the students in the program. I could have said hey let's do this and it goes nowhere, but the students really embraced it,” said Knox. “Now we’re able to give back to the community. I think that’s a really important thing for a public university to do, to give back to the community we’re a part of and serve the people of the state. This is one way that UGA is giving back, by providing people with information that can help save their lives.”
Image: Will O'Neil in the weather broadcast studio in the department of geography.