As Alabama’s “high” hurricane season begins, the Coastal Weather Research Center is critical for forecasting

With hurricanes heading toward the central Gulf Coast, preparing for a rapid response is a top priority for Alabama Power. That’s why the company relies on the Coastal Weather Research Center of the University of South Alabama (USA) in Mobile, which is often at the forefront of severe storms.

“Forecasts are important to Alabama Power, particularly Mobile Division, as we make decisions that affect storm planning, such as the company’s power delivery organization and former Mobile Division sales support manager.

“Even though we use multiple weather services, I feel like meteorologists from a local organization like the Coastal Weather Research Center pay special attention to the weather in our area. They live here and they and their families are personally affected,” Odom said.

Alabama Power has a long, well-established relationship with the center, which provides weather information to businesses and industries and helps train future meteorologists. The information it provides to the company is especially important in late summer and early fall, typically the most active weeks of the hurricane season.

The Alabama Power Foundation was a lead sponsor of the new state-of-the-art facility when the center moved to the university’s Science Laboratory Building in 2019. The foundation helped fund the project with a grant and has supported the United States for nearly three decades. As evidence of this partnership, the facility is named Alabama Power-USA Coastal Weather Research Center.

“The financial support we have received from the Alabama Power Foundation has enabled us to transform this place into a real arena,” said Pete McCarty, who recently retired as the center’s director. “This association with Alabama Power brings instant recognition and credibility to our facility.”

Pete McCarty recently retired as Director of the Coastal Weather Research Center. (Dan Anderson/Alabama NewsCenter)

Bill Williams, a 53-year-old meteorologist, founded the Coastal Weather Research Center in 1988 with five clients. Today, the center provides severe storm warnings and weather forecasts to 150 businesses, government agencies, and educational institutions in the eastern and southern United States. Shipping, steel, chemical, utility and construction companies are among the businesses served by the facility. The center’s customers also include small “mom and pop” businesses such as builders and tree nurseries.

“We’re not in competition with the National Weather Service, which works for the general public,” said Williams, the center’s director emeritus and US associate professor emeritus. “The National Weather Service makes forecasts available to hundreds of thousands of people, making dealing with individuals impossible. But my idea was to set up a facility on the US campus that could do weather-climate research and provide local weather information to businesses and industries.”

The center, originally located in the Life Sciences Building on campus, has been providing valuable weather information since that day.

When hurricanes, tornadoes, or severe thunderstorms threaten an area, the center notifies clients by email or phone, giving them ample time to prepare.

“It’s important for businesses to know whether they need to plan a shutdown, have their employees take shelter, or schedule workers to respond,” McCarty said. “But if they hear from us that the storm has changed direction and isn’t coming towards them, that’s just as important because they can continue with their operations.” They trust us to give them the weather information they need.”

Williams said many businesses along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Alabama and Northwest Florida particularly rely on the center’s web-based hurricane model, which tracks storms and provides an hourly projection of wind direction and speed. The facility’s weather forecasting center uses computers to monitor satellite and radar imagery, storm charts and data that can be made available to clients at any time.

“We are here to save lives and avoid injuries if possible. But at the same time, we’re trying to help companies save money and avoid downtime and damage,” Williams said.

Bill Williams, founder of the Coastal Weather Research Center, speaks to Dee Anne Odom of Alabama Power. (Dan Anderson/Alabama NewsCenter)

In 1992, Williams had the foresight to start the bachelor’s degree in meteorology in the United States to educate students and provide them with hands-on training in weather forecasting. It remains the only program of its kind in Alabama.

The facility has a meteorological broadcasting center where students develop weather forecasts and take part in internships. Students’ weather forecasts are broadcast on the center’s YouTube channel, AtmosCenter USA, and JagTV.

Corey Bunn said he was “sold” to the US meteorology program as soon as he toured the Coastal Weather Research Center. Bunn received his bachelor’s degree in meteorology from the United States in 2011 and has worked as an operational meteorologist at the center for the past decade.

“When I first toured the Coastal Weather Research Center in 2008, I knew I wanted to get into forecasting outside of the TV broadcast arena,” Bunn said. “There is nowhere quite like this operational experience in a facility modeled after the National Weather Service. It offers a unique facility for students to gain hands-on operational experience and knowledge in a real-world environment.”

McCarty said when meteorology students come to campus, the Coastal Weather Research Center is first on their list of places to visit.

“You won’t find a weather forecasting center like this at any other major university,” he said. “We are in a prime location here in Mobile because we have the right mix of tropical weather, tornadoes and winter weather to make it interesting for students to come here to study meteorology.”

Scott Moore, Alabama Power’s senior vice president of power delivery, said the company and foundation are proud to support a facility that plays such an important role.

“Like so many other companies, we depend on the timely weather information that we receive from the headquarters. These people allow us to protect our employees and make better decisions about our operations in times of severe weather,” Moore said. “We are also honored to contribute to the education and preparation of the next generation of meteorologists.”

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