Eastern Kentucky Weather

Remembering March 2nd, 2012

By: Brandon Robinson
By: Brandon Robinson

Brandon Robinson looks back at the tornado outbreak from March 2nd, 2012.

Hey everyone, Brandon Robinson here hijacking Jim's blog for the day.

I tell people who ask me about March 2nd, 2012 that it was the worst day of my life. To this point, it is the worst day of my life, both professionally and personally.

I'm from the mountains. Born and raised in Harlan County. To watch what transpired that day literally broke my heart. 
 
About a week after the outbreak, after I had visited West Liberty to see the damage myself and to compare it to what I had seen in Alabama in 2011, I sat down one night and wrote down my thoughts and feelings about that fateful day. 
 
For the first time, I'm sharing them outside my family and friends. I hope this gives you an idea into what I was thinking and feeling as everything unfolded.
 
Original writing from March 9th, 2012:
 
I don't typically take the time to write blogs like this anymore, but with the events of one week ago tonight fresh in my mind, I felt compelled to share my thoughts on what happened on March 2nd, 2012.
 
I've been fascinated by weather for a long time. Ever since I was a little boy. I knew that I wanted to be a weatherman when I was 8 years old. It's all I ever really wanted to do.
 
I'm also from Eastern Kentucky. Something I am very proud of. Born and raised here, and with the exception of a few years early in life spent in Michigan, have lived east of I-75 the majority of my 28 years.
 
I've watched disasters unfold in other areas. From tornadoes, to hurricanes, to earthquakes, to floods, you name it, I've probably seen it happen, at least on TV.
 
I've always watched in awe at the power of nature and my heart always goes out to the people who are affected, but with the exception of major flooding and the occasional small tornado along the Laurel/Pulaski/Whitley corridor, I have never seen anything here at home that even comes close to what I saw unfold in front of my eyes on a computer screen and eventually on my TV screen, as I did last Friday evening.
 
I remember early in the week seeing the chance for thunderstorms on Friday. Originally, I wasn't overly concerned. It's March. That's when thunderstorms make their return to our area, with the warmer weather. But we didn't really have a winter this year.
 
Sure, we had a major snow event not three weeks ago, but lets be honest, was this winter really like any of the last several we've had? Not in the least.
 
So, when Wednesday rolled around and we had tornadoes in Morgan and Pulaski counties, my inner threat monitor obviously went on heightened alert. New data came in. We started mentioning the possibility for storms on Wednesday night for Friday.
 
On Thursday, the Storm Prediction Center, basically the severe weather division of the National Weather Service, put the entire area under a moderate risk for severe weather for Friday. That's uncommon to say the least. We are usually under the slight risk area for most events.
 
My nervousness level went up a little more.
 
Friday morning, I was not feeling good. I had went home on Thursday morning from work, not feeling well and I still wasn't back to 100% Friday. My boss even told me, let your backup, Josh Good, do the morning, you go home and rest, I want you ready for afternoon tag team coverage with Jim.
 
I couldn't. I probably should have, but something inside of me told me to go on air and hammer the threat level for the entire two hours. I had a bad feeling. A real bad feeling that something terrible was about to happen. I wanted to warn everyone I could. Prepare them, without scaring them, to be ready for anything and to have a plan ready to find shelter at a moment's notice.
 
7am came and I did go home, to rest and try to take a couple hour nap. I did phone interviews with a couple of radio stations on my way home, hoping to use them as another avenue for getting the word out.
 
At first when I got home, I couldn't get my mind or my stomach to settle enough to sleep. I finally slept about two hours. When I went to bed, the SPC risk level was moderate. When I woke up, 120 minutes later, it had been increased to high.
 
I was back at work at 11:30 that morning, no longer able to sleep with a very anxious feeling. I still wasn't feeling good. I even told Neil, the news director, that if I didn't get to feeling better, I might have to pack it up and head home. But, I decided to try to tough it out, see if some medicine I had took would finally kick in.
 
At around 12:40 that afternoon, the first tornado warning in Kentucky went out for Bell and Harlan. A tornado warning had went up for Campbell County, Tennessee at 11:56am, that was the first in the area. We hit the air, giving out the information. Knox and Whitley were added to the warning a few minutes later. Eventually, Lee and Wise in Southwest Virginia would be added too. The storm finally exited the area a little after 1, about 1:20. We powered down to wait for the next batch.
 
At 1:08, the first part of the tornado watch was issued. The only Eastern Kentucky counties included were Laurel, Pulaski, Wayne, McCreary, Jackson, Powell, Rockcastle and Rowan. It went until 9pm.
 
At 1:18, I posted this on my work Twitter and Facebook pages:
 
"Folks, this is ONLY the BEGINNING. Do NOT let your guard down. More severe weather rolls through later."
 
We spent the early part of the afternoon watching social media for reports from other locations. Huntsville, Alabama and Chattanooga, Tennessee had been hit by early afternoon. There were reports of widespread destruction and injuries.
 
Then, around 2, the first tornado warnings started going up out west. Owensboro, Evansville, Louisville. A couple near Louisville would eventually spawn two supercells that would nearly level the Southern Indiana community of Henryville.
 
We were all huddled around a computer watching coverage from WAVE-TV in Louisville and basically watched the Henryville tornadoes hit.
 
We watched and we waited. First at Four went on as scheduled. Jim and I were still in the weather center. Jim went on the air for his full weather segment and during that, I had to mouth to him from across the studio, we had just gotten word from NWS Jackson, the watch for the rest of the area was coming. I posted that at 4:16.
 
At 4:21, we were under a tornado watch until midnight.
 
Again, we waited. Waiting for the devastating storms to roll across the state into our area.
 
At 5:12, the first tornado warning in what would be a series of them, went out for Powell County. It looked nasty. We hit the air again.
 
At 5:31, severe thunderstorm warnings started popping up at the other end of the area. Wayne, Laurel, McCreary and Whitley were the first in the southern part of the state to be under any kind of warning from the second wave.
 
At 5:33, the first tornado warning went out for Morgan and Rowan counties.
 
Seven minutes later at 5:40, a funnel cloud had been spotted in Powell County, in the same storm bearing down on Menifee, Morgan and Rowan counties.
 
At 5:45, the first report from NWS: tornado on the ground in Menifee County.
 
We're focused in on that storm on Live PinPoint Doppler radar. It's a beast. Powerful and getting stronger by the minute. At the same time, another storm was getting its act together down south.
 
At 5:50, a tornado warning was issued for Bell, Knox, McCreary and Whitley.
 
As we approached the top of the hour at 6, we were watching the cell moving into Morgan County become textbook perfect on Doppler, at least in the way it looked. It had the familiar hook, indicating a tornado was likely.
 
At 6:06, Josh, who was helping me with my social media accounts, posted this information from NWS, which had just came into them. We had announced it about a minute before. I literally got sick to my stomach.
 
"Law enforcement in West Liberty reports a tornado on the ground as of 6:01PM"
 
Jimmy and I looked at each other. I think we both expected the worst.
 
The tornado warnings came fast and furious. It seemed like we had a new one every one or two minutes.
 
At 6:13, the first reports made it to us from NWS Jackson.
 
"From NWS: significant damage in downtown west liberty. courthouse damaged. people trapped in damaged buildings...with injuries."
 
Around that same time, as we found out a few minutes later, the massive EF-3 tornado had already left West Liberty, it was destroying the small Morgan County of Crockett.
 
At 6:24, this report came in, which nearly left Jimmy and I speechless.
 
"From NWS: Reports from West Liberty-there have been reports of multiple injuries and deaths."
 
Our newsroom, production department and even our sports team, were working feverishly, trying to get information out of Morgan County. Steve Hensley started joining us in the weather center to give live updates with any info they got confirmed. The reports from NWS were true, although we didn't know it at the time, but that was only the beginning.
 
At 6:25, a tornado warning was issued for several counties, including Laurel, until 7:15.
 
The storms were racing across the mountains, some moving as fast at 70 miles an hour. We were bouncing around so much on Doppler just trying to keep track of them all, it almost made you dizzy.
 
At 6:40, the next set of tornado warnings went out, including Magoffin, Johnson and Morgan counties.
 
At 7:07, a funnel cloud had been spotted by a trained spotter in Pulaski County. At 7:16, we got a report that a tornado had been on the ground and spotted at 7:10 near Wood Creek in Laurel County. At the time, I didn't even realize where that was. I now know that was the one heading for East Bernstadt.
 
A few minutes later, which was posted on my accounts at 7:24, we got this report:
 
"At 7:10 Law Enforcement reported a tornado in Salyersville."
 
I looked at Jim Caldwell as I read the information off my screen. That is his hometown. You couldn't see it at home, but he was torn. He knew the place he grew up in was likely being torn apart. But he never flinched. Neither one of us did. Because we couldn't afford to give in to our own fear and hurt. Too many lives were at stake. Too many
 
people were depending on us. We had to keep going. We were no where close to being out of the woods.
 
A few minutes later, we got our first video in of the tornado from West Liberty. To say it was incredible would be an understatement. Steve, Jim and I were all standing in the weather center when it played. I remember at the time thinking "that looks like an EF-4". Steve even asked Jim what he thought and he said probably a 2 or 3. He ended up being right.
 
We continued our coverage until about 8:30, when the last warning had expired. We had reporters trying to get to several areas. West Liberty, Salyersville, Hager Hill/Van Lear, East Bernstadt, which we had all heard had taken direct hits. Those were just the larger communities. There were so many more we didn't even know about yet.
 
I went into the newsroom and sat down at my computer there to start seeing what I could dig up to send out.
 
We took another horrible phone call in the newsroom about 9:20. Here is my post from 9:23:
 
"PAO from St. Joe London tells Mountain News that there are at least 3 people dead in Laurel County and their ER is swamped with injured."
 
The death toll was climbing.
 
Our reporters in the field were calling in the same reports from each county. Buildings are destroyed. They've got the communities blocked off. We can't get in. We finally saw our first video from downtown West Liberty at 11pm. I couldn't speak. A town, that was once so quaint and embodied the spirit of every small American town in the mountains was devastated. We wouldn't see video from the other areas until the next morning.
 
Shelters started to open. Crews in other areas started to mobilize. The Lexington Fire Department sent a search and rescue team THAT NIGHT to West Liberty. Help was already pouring in from everywhere that wasn't affected to help their neighbors. Their families. Their friends.
 
We heard later that Martin County had also been hit. One of our sales folks called in and said he was seeing two story homes that were now one story. Power was out to most of the county.
 
A short time later, we found out the community of Ewing in Lee County, Virginia, just across from Harlan County, could have possibility been hit. Then the reports started coming out of East Tennessee. Harrogate, just across the border from Middlesboro, had damage.
 
The 11pm news went hit air on time. We crammed as much information in as we could, as much as we knew. At the very end, Steve Hensley had an emotional sign off, showing the toll the day had started to take on all of us.
 
I posted this not long after. My last post of the night:
 
"@stevewymt just showed on air how we all feel behind the scenes here @WYMT, on the verge of tears. God, take care of our neighbors tonight."
 
I finally left the station to come home about 12:30 in the morning. We were planning to do a joint newscast the next morning with our sister station WKYT and do our own expanded 6 & 11 news on Saturday.
 
When I got home and finally started to get ready for bed. I sat down in my desk chair and did something I don't do very often.
 
I cried.
 
The days after that have almost seemed like a blur to me. I finally got to go to West Liberty myself on Wednesday, to compare what I saw there to the destruction I saw in Alabama following the April 27th tornadoes of last year. When I crossed the hill into town, I was floored.
 
The downtown I drove through so many times on my way to Morehead State was gone. Wiped out for the most part. I looked for certain landmarks as I walked down Main Street. I was hard pressed to find anything left of some of them.
 
It looked like a war zone.
 
I'm planning to visit all of the tornado sites in the coming weeks. I'll probably try to go to Salyersville this coming week.
 
But I know one thing for sure. These communities will rebuild. They will come back. There is no other option. We are mountain people. Strong, determined, always overcoming adversity. It might take a while, but we'll be back. Stronger than ever.
 
More than two dozen people were killed in Kentucky alone, most of those right here in the mountains.
 
As weather forecasters in Eastern Kentucky, we continuously fight the myth from an older generation that tornadoes can't happen in the mountains. They pass that down to their children, who pass that down to their children.
 
I DARE someone to say that to me again.
 
I've got 7 counties in Kentucky, 1 in Tennessee, 1 in Virginia and 2 in West Virginia to use as proof that they are horribly wrong.
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