LOUISVILLE — If we still have electricity, most of us tune in for the television reports of a local meteorologist when severe weather threatens.
Cool, calm and collected, they broadcast with brevity news of pending thunderstorms, tornadoes and downpours. Amid radars and satellite images, we find some solace in their demeanor, as they seem attached to the situation yet safely separated from its repercussions.
But WLKY-TV Meteorologist Jared Heil knows a different story. While he’s a professional at forecasting the weather, Heil conceded he didn’t know how the day’s events would unfold when he was driving into work from Henryville on March 2, 2012.
Heil, 23, is a Henryville native and still lives on his family’s farm. That March 2 day wasn’t exactly like any other day, as Heil knew of the potential for severe weather in the area. He talked with his parents about the threat that morning, but admitted the conversation had a comfortable layer to it.
“I said, ‘There’s a good chance nothing will happen today’,” Heil said, though he added he warned his parents that the conditions could turn especially violent if severe weather did arrive in Southern Indiana.
“Then I looked at them and said, ‘you know it’s not going to happen here’.”
Heil arrived at the WLKY studio in Louisville for work around noon last March 2. The staff meteorologists immediately began tracking a storm system that would eventually produce tornadoes in the Evansville area. At about 1:45 p.m., WLKY interrupted regular programming and meteorologists began broadcasting the path of the storm system live.
During such live coverage, Heil rotates responsibilities between on-air forecasting and behind-the-scenes storm tracking. As he plotted where the system was likely to travel, he eerily realized Henryville was right in the storm’s path.
“I called Mom and Dad and said ‘this thing is headed right for you’,” Heil said.
It would be an agonizing half an hour before he would be able to reach his parents again. The EF-4 tornado that struck Henryville knocked out cell phone service in the town, and Heil could only imagine what his family was going through, as well as the rest of his hometown.
All the while, Heil remained at his post, broadcasting news about the storm to viewers.
“I’m not that old, but that’s about as tough as it gets,” he said.
Heil has an aunt and uncle that live in Pekin, and they sent him a cell phone picture of the tornado that struck their town. Heil knew the same system was pounding Henryville, and the moments passed by like years until his family finally called to let him know they were alive.
Though their house was still intact, Heil’s parents lost several farm buildings during the storm.
“Even after I knew they were OK, I didn’t know what I was coming home to for quite awhile,” Heil said.
At about 4:45 p.m. that day, pictures taken from the WLKY helicopter arrived back at the station. Heil began to see the ravaged buildings and felled trees the tornado had consumed, as businesses that he had driven by just that morning were now flattened.
Just a few weeks earlier, Heil had spoken to children at Henryville Elementary School about severe weather safety — the same structure that became the victim of the monstrous tornado.
Understandably, Heil said it wasn’t always easy to keep his calm while he was on air that day. There were times that Heil’s voice lost its reassurance, but he pressed on despite the worry and fear that were in his heart. He wasn’t a first responder or emergency medic, but Heil’s contributions to the weather forecasts that day helped alert viewers of the pending danger.
“I felt like I was in the right place,” Heil said. “It was a hell of an opportunity for me to be able to help keep my community safe.”