The Dayton, Ohio, area continues to clean up in the aftermath of Memorial Day tornadoes that for some brought back memories of the deadly 1974 tornado outbreak that devastated Xenia, about 15 miles away. WHIO Program Director Jeremy Ratliff tells Radio Ink, “Because of Xenia, this community takes this type of weather very seriously.” The difference this time though, according to Ratliff, is that they had plenty of warning before the event unfolded.
Radio Ink: This was definitely not a usual holiday broadcast day for you and your staff. Take us through your Memorial Day.
Ratliff: Our meteorologist began to express concern about the developing tornadic-effect weather that was heading our way out of Indiana. I got in contact with our News Director and Assistant Program Director and started mapping out who to bring in for extra staffing. God forbid something should happen, and of course our worst fears were realized and a very serious situation played out.
Once we get a tornado warning, we go wall to wall with WHIO-TV 7. We are in the same building, just steps away from their studio. We share meterologists and reporters. As the storms were working their way into the Miami Valley our Assistant PD left his home and came into work, I texted one of our hosts and had him come in and I came in. As the hours went by we were seeing more and more e-mails coming in to our Breaking News Team and realized the magnitude of the event.
We also have K99.1 FM and WZLR-FM in this building and if there is a tornado warning they simulcast as well. So with one board op on a holiday evening, that’s a bit tough to pull off, but we did it. We eventually had dozens in the newsroom, so it did not feel like a holiday evening at all.
Radio Ink: Being able to see the tornadoes develop and head your way enabled you to eventually get a larger news and studio staff in-house; but you had some concerns?
Ratliff: Safety is a major concern. I was texting people that it is safety first, family first. We had a few folks who came in later because I didn’t want them to be in harm’s way. Family first is always extremely important in these situations. If you saw this as it was all playing out Monday night, it wasn’t an isolated tornado, this was widespread. Safety is our primary concern.
I played it a little bit safe and stayed home a little longer because I didn’t want to be driving on I-75 with a tornado crossing and not be driving directly through it. It was such a bizarre, eerie feeling driving in. There was constant lightening, people pulled over to the side of the road; all probably scared about a potential tornado crossing the road.
It’s one of those things that we have all covered in news, but this wasn’t like a big snowstorm where you’re hunkered down. This is an event with deadly potential. Life and safety far outweighs getting that extra voicer or picture.
Radio Ink: Forty-five years out from a significant weather event like what happened in Xenia makes a huge difference in preparation and coverage, doesn’t it?
Ratliff: When you have that massive, overwhelming heads-up that dangerous, deadly weather is on the way, it’s that message that just saturates the market. People know that this is very serious business and you prepare for it.
There are so many ways to get out product. In this day and age you can get us on the phone, you can get us on the website and digital platforms. Also simulcasting on AM and FM is great because if one signal is weak, the other could be kicking. Plus you can stream us. These days we have a lot of options in lifesaving situations that we couldn’t offer years ago.
Radio Ink: How important is it to not only cover the event, but stay with it after it’s over?
Ratliff: Right now, as we are talking early Tuesday afternoon, 57,000 Dayton Power and Light customers are still without power. Mulltiple boil-water advisories are in effect throughout the area. Storm clean up and street and road closings are widespread. Having covered severe weather in my last job in Florida, I know that the public safety aspect continues way past the actual event. It’s not like we covered it and we move on…No! There is a public safety element to this that continues and we will serve our communities until the job is done.
Thank you to Jeremy Ratliff, PD WHIO, [email protected]