McEWEN, Tenn.—Tammy Shaw and her granddaughter, Hope Collier, were trying to find an escape path when water started spilling under their doors.
It was Aug. 21, a day Middle Tennessee residents will likely never forget; one that left 20 people dead. Nearby, nearly 21 inches of rain fell, shattering the state’s all-time record of 13.6 inches over 24 hours.
Cars, houses and even Collier herself were swept away by the storm. Both Shaw and Collier survived, but not without trauma.
“We were trapped in there, in that water,” Shaw said in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
“It didn’t even take 10 minutes and it was in my house, and then it wasn’t even 15 minutes and it was up to my ceiling,” Collier added.
Tennessee and neighboring Kentucky were hit by the worst of weather extremes in the past year. Before the deadly August downpour that now stands as the largest 24-hour precipitation record in any non-coastal U.S. state, Nashville experienced major flooding that damaged hundreds of homes and businesses, and killed at least six. And in December, tornadoes killed 80 people in Kentucky, the worst death toll from any tornado outbreak in state history.
But there, the similarities end.
As scientists increasingly trace the fingerprints of climate change on extreme weather and national weather experts recommend collecting a lot of localized, ground-level weather data in real time to save lives, Kentucky has built an extensive “mesonet,” while Tennessee leaves local forecasters partly flying blind in the storms.
The Kentucky Climate Center at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green has, over the last 15 years, assembled a network of 76 local weather monitoring stations—the mesonet—and plans to add up to 20 more stations in the next three years.
“The weather service would be lost without the Kentucky Mesonet,” said John Gordon, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Louisville.
Forecasters like Gordon with the weather service use the stations to help track rainfall rates, wind speed, air pressure, temperature, sunlight and soil moisture to help make their forecasts more precise and to assist in issuing warnings.
Equally important, Gordon said, is knowing when not to issue a warning. “You know, dear God, I don’t want to be the boy who cried wolf,” Gordon said.
Tennessee has no statewide network of localized weather monitors. The radar systems they use are very useful, meteorologists say, but Gordon said they track conditions thousands of feet high and can miss what is happening on the ground. So in a state that’s 432 miles long, bordering North Carolina to the east and Arkansas and Missouri to the west, local forecasters are often left to estimate local weather conditions and storm activity where people are at risk.
“I’m sure we’ve missed quite a few high wind, high rain events across the state simply…