When WPSD meteorologist Trent Okerson met his new boss, news director Perry Boxx, for the first time in March 2018, Boxx asked him, “What is your job?
“I forecast the weather,” Okerson recalled.
“No,” Boxx said. “We save lives. We follow the storms.
On the night of December 10, Okerson understood exactly what his boss meant.
For more than three days, he had been telling residents of Mayfield, Princeton and Dawson Springs, Kentucky, that something was brewing as a storm system developed in Arkansas and Missouri and boiled toward Kentucky.
Hours before the storms made their killer landfall, Okerson, who is based in Paducah, calmly gave viewers the exact path the storm would take. He told them the minute he arrived. He said it would be a violent night.
Unfortunately, his predictions were accurate.
What follows is a day-by-day, minute-by-minute breakdown of Okerson’s coverage of a tornado swarm that killed at least 88 people and leveled homes and businesses in the middle of the holiday season.
Tuesday, December 7: “We started noticing what seemed like a signature of a severe weather threat forming in the west,” Okerson told me in a hoarse, overwrought voice. “We drew our prospect map and started telling our viewers to stay in touch. I was concerned.”
Okerson grew up just across the Ohio River from Paducah in Metropolis, Illinois. He joked that while the kids were coming home from school and watching cartoons, he was going home and watching The Weather Channel. WPSD was his favorite local TV channel.
“I was talking about the weather all the time,” Okerson said. “For my sixth birthday, I came to the TV station to meet Cal Sisto, the Channel 6 meteorologist. He gave me a heat image map.
Thursday, December 9: “I told viewers that we were seeing severe weather patterns that we had never seen before here,” Okerson said.
He said his weather computers showed what meteorologists call “significant tornado parameters,” which include wind shear. “On a scale of one to 10,” he said, “one would be significant enough to trigger a tornado. A two would be high potential for a storm. We were already at five or six with the storm still several states West.
That morning, Okerson taught sixth graders at a school in Mayfield. “We talked about tornado safety. I was thinking about those kids on Friday night. I almost lost it thinking of them.
Friday, December 10: “The important tornado parameters are now set at eight or nine,” Okerson said. “We were going to have a disaster and the trail was becoming clearer. We’ve moved to what we call “Weather Authority” coverage, which means constant live updates throughout the day, every newscast with weather and weather gets equal coverage. antenna as the meteorologist wishes.
You’d expect as much from a newsroom decorated with posters of the US Constitution, Bill of Rights, and First Amendment.
6:31 p.m.: Just as Lester Holt was opening the “NBC Nightly News,” Okerson burst onto the lineup with an ominous new warning for the Bootheel, Missouri area, just on the western edge of WPSD coverage.
7:48 p.m.: “This thing looks really really mean,” Okerson told viewers. “I try not to use hyperbole or scare people off, so when I need them to pay attention, they know I mean it.”
As the first images of a growing supercell of storms at the edge of WPSD’s coverage area drew closer, fellow WPSD meteorologist Noah Bergren drew a yellow line on the map stretching from Kennett, Missouri, toward Mayfield, Kentucky. “It’s kind of a long-term path,” Bergren said. “If this thing stays in the trajectory, it will be something like this.”
WPSD’s predictions would turn out to be frighteningly accurate. It was two hours before the storm’s lethal touchdown.
8:44 p.m.: The station had been in constant cover and the storm moved closer and stronger.
Okerson launched the new storm track on the airwaves. Mayfield, he said, could expect a direct hit at 9:27 p.m.
“There’s no reason to think this won’t continue,” he warned. “This is an extremely rare, incredibly dangerous and long-tracked tornado.”
The threat turned into a promise. Workers at a local factory had time to get to safety, but not many others. Families crammed into bathrooms, people living in mobile homes left. A man was sitting in his bathroom tub and praying.
8:54 p.m.: “If you have a bike helmet, if you have a baseball helmet, put it on,” Okerson told viewers on the way to the storm.
8:56 p.m.: “Mayfield, he’s coming for you. There is no reason to believe that will not be the case. »
9:04 p.m.: Okerson said something he never said on TV.
“Guys, this is a life-threatening tornado,” he said. “It’s here, it’s above you right now. You need to be in your place of lodging.
He mentioned the country roads he would cross.
“This is an extremely dangerous and catastrophic tornado we are dealing with.”
He pointed to the signature of the debris, which indicated that the storm was already inhaling trees.
“See that ball right here?” he said. “There is no doubt that we have incredible damage right now with this storm.”
He was still moving through what was mostly sparsely populated rural countryside, but he was heading for larger cities.
Time and again, he implored people to get to safety, to take shelter, to evacuate mobile homes.
“I’ve told people in my 14 years on the air that I’ve never seen anything like it on radar.”
9:08 p.m.: “Mayfield, there is no doubt that this storm is heading our way. It produces a potentially deadly and highly destructive tornado.
“If you live in a mobile home in Mayfield, you have to get out. Go to a neighbour’s, friend’s, family’s, and go to a house and put as many walls as possible between you and the outside.
Robert Lowery lived in a mobile home outside Mayfield.
“When they told me (on TV) exactly where it was going to happen, I was leaving,” he said. “’You have to leave and find a place to go,’ and that’s exactly what we did. Less than 20 minutes after we left, this house was gone.
9:27 p.m.: The storm which had announced its intentions on Tuesday delivered the threat.
For the first time in hours, Okerson stared silently at the screen for a second, then said, “Send prayers to Mayfield now.”
But there was no time to cry or be silent. It zoomed in to show street by street where it would strike. “Guys, this is it,” he said calmly on camera.
“It was surreal. I had to stop a few times,” he told me. “There were a few times I almost broke down. I thought of those sixth graders with who I was the day before. When you see that on the radar, it was a mile wide storm. Of course, people were going to die in two minutes and I can’t do anything about it.
He stopped talking for a moment. Then he said, “At a time like this, you have to compartmentalize and say ‘I’ll deal with my emotions later.’ As bad as it was, as bad as it was going to be, my job right now is to ride the storm. The storm is not over. »
For another hour, WPSD followed the unfolding horror as teams fanned out to begin documenting the death and damage.
10:21 p.m.: Just as he predicted hours earlier, a tornado hit Princeton, Kentucky, and flattened a subdivision.
10:33 p.m.: A tornado pulled a 2-month-old baby and her parents out of the bathroom of their Dawson Springs home and tossed them across the street. The baby was one of 13 people who died in the town of 2,000.
“Thousands of people’s lives changed that night,” Okerson said, looking down at the ground.
No one watching him Friday night knew he had a fever during the marathon coverage he was on. Around 3:15 a.m., he collapsed in bed. He got up a few hours later and sent his boss, Boxx, a message that Okerson allowed me to share.
“I’m so proud of him,” Boxx said. “It’s his city, his people. I wish people knew what our people go through when they cover this stuff. If you want to be a journalist, you don’t become callous and you don’t stop caring.
Lowery sent a video message to Okerson.
“They (WPSD) saved my life, my brother’s life, his wife, my mother, all of them,” he said. “We picked up all the vehicles we had and drove them out of here. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have had cars, we wouldn’t have had life, we wouldn’t be here.
He added: “If it hadn’t been for them, I would have died there.”
As we walked down the WPSD hallway, Boxx looked over his shoulder.
“Hey Trent, what are we doing here?”
The response was calm and quick. “We save lives and track storms.”
“It’s true, it’s true,” Boxx said.
This story has been updated to include a reference to two other WPSD meteorologists.