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As Alabama’s ‘high’ hurricane season begins, Coastal Weather Research Center is crucial for forecasts

When hurricanes track toward the central Gulf Coast, preparing to respond quickly is a top priority for Alabama Power. That’s why the company counts on the Coastal Weather Research Center at the University of South Alabama (USA) in Mobile, which is often on the front lines of severe storms.

“Weather forecasts are important to Alabama Power, particularly Mobile Division, when we’re making decisions that impact storm planning, such as bringing in crews, setting up staging areas and arranging for outside resources,” said Dee Anne Odom, systems operations manager in the company’s Power Delivery organization and former Mobile Division Distribution Support manager.

“Although we use several weather services, I feel that meteorologists at a local organization like the Coastal Weather Research Center are paying extra attention to the weather in our area. They live here, and they and their families are personally impacted,” Odom said.

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

The Alabama Power Foundation was a leading 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 USA for nearly three decades. As a testament to this partnership, the facility is named the Alabama Power-USA Coastal Weather Research Center.

“The financial support that we received from the Alabama Power Foundation has allowed us to turn this place into a real showplace,” said Pete McCarty, who recently retired as the center’s director. “That association with Alabama Power provides immediate name recognition and credibility for our facility.”

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

Bill Williams, a 53-year veteran in meteorology, founded the Coastal Weather Research Center in 1988 with five clients. Today, the center provides severe storm warnings and weather forecasts to 150 businesses, governmental agencies and educational institutions across the eastern and southern United States. Shipping, steel, chemical, utility and construction companies are among businesses served by the facility. Small “mom and pop” companies, like homebuilders and nurseries, are also the center’s clients.

“We are not in competition with the National Weather Service, which works for the general public,” said Williams, director emeritus of the center and USA associate professor emeritus. “The National Weather Service provides forecasts to hundreds of thousands of people, so dealing with individuals is impossible. But my idea was to set up an operation on the USA campus that could conduct weather climate research and provide businesses and industries with local weather information.”

The center, which was originally 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 its clients via email or phone, allowing them ample time to prepare.

“It’s important to businesses to know if they need to schedule a shutdown, get their employees to shelter or schedule workers to respond,” said McCarty. “But if they get word from us that the storm has changed direction and is not coming their way, that’s just as important because they can continue their operations. They trust us to give them the weather information they need.”

Williams said many companies along the Mississippi, Alabama and northwest Florida Gulf Coast particularly depend on the center’s web-based hurricane model, which tracks storms, providing an hourly projection of wind direction and speed. The facility’s weather prediction center uses computers to monitor satellite and radar imagery, storm graphics and data that can be provided to clients at a moment’s notice.

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

Coastal Weather Research Center founder Bill Williams talks with Alabama Power’s Dee Anne Odom. (Dan Anderson / Alabama NewsCenter)

Williams had the foresight in 1992 to launch USA’s undergraduate meteorology degree 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 features a  meteorology broadcast center where students develop weather forecasts and take part in internships. The students’ weather forecasts air on the center’s YouTube channel, AtmosCenter USA and JagTV.

Corey Bunn said he was “sold” on USA’s meteorology program as soon as he toured the Coastal Weather Research Center. Bunn graduated from USA with a bachelor’s degree in meteorology 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 already knew I wanted to get into forecasting outside of the TV broadcasting arena,” Bunn said. “To get that operational experience in a facility that mimicked the National Weather Service, there’s no other place like it. It offers a unique setup for students to get hands-on operational experience and knowledge in a real setting.”

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 it at any other large 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 learn meteorology.”

Scott Moore, Alabama Power senior vice president of Power Delivery, said the company and the foundation are proud to support a facility that plays such a vital role.

“We, like so many other companies, depend on the timely weather information we receive from the center. Thanks to those folks, we can keep our employees safe and make better decisions about our operations during times of severe weather,” Moore said. “We are also honored to play a part in helping to educate and prepare the next generation of meteorologists.”