Nashville Severe Weather
Nashville Severe Weather's David Drobny poses in front of the Nashville skyline.

Look to the skies

Nashville Severe Weather founder David Drobny talks supercells, storm lines and Twitter stardom

How’s the weather? It’s a question you can ask anyone because weather happens to all of us.

Songs are written about it. Songs are written about talking about it. But what makes someone go from enthusiast to professional?

For David Drobny, it was Hurricane Katrina.

Drobny attended high school in Gulfport, Mississippi, and was there after the storm wove its destructive path through the area. Seeing what nature can do, and the aftermath and long-term effects on humans, moved him from being someone who watched the weather to someone who reports it.

Drobny’s one of the guys behind Nashville Severe Weather (@NashSevereWx), an indispensable online and social-media presence that’s now followed by hundreds of thousands of Middle Tennessee residents.

When storms loom, he and his team tweet out facts and figures gathered by their own equipment, from local meteorologists and weather services, and even from a growing posse of weather watchers. If the weather’s fine, the posts are more informative and entertaining. (The GIFs alone are worth a daily check-in.) To date, the Twitter handle has roared past 119,000 Twitter followers, all because Drobny is a self-confessed weather nerd.

“Remember when you’re in middle school, and they teach you about how Gutenberg got religion away from church leadership and into the hands of the people? The Gutenberg moment for weather came in 2008 when Mike Gibson released his software Gibson Ridge Software,” Drobny says.

“That was the printing press for weather nerds.”

“It took weather data that had been held only by the weather service and local news and put it in the hands of regular people. Now I had access to data like I was seeing on television.”

From weather watcher to weather reporter

A Hawaii-born Army kid, Drobny spent some of his childhood in Nashville and always wanted to come back. After wrapping up law school at the University of Tennessee, he had his opportunity. Middle Tennessee’s weather is eventful, and he found himself wanting to track it.

Why? Because TV meteorologists and broadcasters must cover a wide service area, but he was mainly interested in what was happening where he works (Nashville) and lives (Williamson County). So he started, and word got out.

“Whenever we’d have a round of supercells or a small line coming through, a few friends would be calling and asking exactly where the storms were, and I’d tell them,” he says. “By 2010, it got to where there were three people always calling me at the same time. They’d call right when storms were on us, and those calls were distracting. This was also during the era of the flip phone, so texting was a huge pain.

“I said, ‘I’m opening a Twitter account and just putting it all out there.’ All I wanted to do was handle the regular calls I was getting. By February 2011 I got my 100th follower and I realized I had something here.”

Hand holding a cell phone with the Nashville Severe Weather Twitter page showing.
The Twitterverse is in love with Nashville Severe Weather. Who knew storms were cool?

This meant that Drobny would be operating as a weather-watcher most all the time, utilizing both his Williamson County home and his downtown office. An attorney with Manier & Herod, he benefits from a lofty perch with commanding views, so he can see what’s coming while also following modeling charts and radar software.

The Twitter account was repurposed from a private handle to NashSevereWx, and following coverage of a big thunderstorm that rumbled through, some well-known Twitter users retweeted some posts.

The numbers continued to climb. And then came the photos.

A flood of interest

“People began sending me photos of storms,” he says.

“On July 7, 2011, we had a summertime pop-up storm over by the Cool Springs Galleria. It poured and poured, and people following on Twitter sent me a photo of a car underwater at 2:51 in the afternoon. Then another one at 2:59 PM. Then another one at 3:06 PM. The flash-flood warning didn’t come out for almost 40 minutes after the first photo.”

David Drobny reviewing weather patterns at his computer.
Powerful software allows even casual weather-watchers to keep up with storms and other threats that media and government meteorologists are eyeing as well.

“I was seeing social media evidence of a flood the National Weather Service (NWS) didn’t know about, because they were watching the radar — which doesn’t tell you how much water has fallen and whether there is flooding. I called them and told them that people following me on Twitter were sending info, but they had no way for me to get that information to them.”

That’s a big deal, because the further away a weather incident is from the radar, the less the radar can really “see.”

It could be a downpour, heavy hail or any combination thereof. If a report of hail comes in, for instance, complete with photographic evidence, that’s data Drobny can report back out to media and agencies.

Drobny is hardly the first well-meaning citizen to blow up a television newsroom tip line, so he knew some credentialing would be in order to be taken seriously. He got in touch with Tom Johnstone, then the Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Nashville office, and an agreement was hammered out.

“He would treat me as media, and I would have access to their internal chat stream,” Drobny explains. “NWS Chat is how the weather service communicates with emergency management agencies, which then in turn communicates with local media. When I would get these posts from the public, I’d put those into the chat so that the TV folks, emergency managers and NWS personnel could see them.”

Although local television stations are hyper-competitive when it comes to who’s first and most accurate about the weather, it’s all happy families when it comes to Drobny and his team.

“Our approach is that we’re not competing with anybody,” he says. “We’ve talked to everybody at every channel, and when they want to put anything we’ve sent over on the air, we always tell them to go right ahead.”

That means sending along not only their own information, but also information and photos and that come in through social media. Twitter followers can post using the hashtag #tSpotter in a tweet and the team will see it and investigate.

That means running some quality control, making sure they’re not being pranked with an old photo from elsewhere online. A little research, a little comparison with radar to see if it’s likely, and into the feed it goes.

Getting by with a little help from his friends

Two years into Nashville Severe Weather, Drobny was managing a website, Twitter feed and relationships with the area’s professional weather community. By late 2011, he knew he needed help.

A full-time attorney with a wife and two children, his time was eaten up with his first priorities: family, work, coaching soccer and baseball, and other commitments.

A Galileo thermometer is a colorful way to tell the indoor temperature.
While not scientifically accurate, a Galileo thermometer makes for some nice, weather-oriented desk ornamentation.

He met up with Will Minkoff, another weather watcher who’d been using a local scanner and Twitter to relay reports, and the two teamed up. The combined efforts of David and Will grew the audience. Four years later, the two met Andrew Leeper and he became the third team member.

“They’ve helped me stay sane and meet my primary obligations,” Drobny says. “Every time a big storm came in we’d get more Twitter followers and were getting noticed by local media.

“At the same time, the website content was getting more difficult to do every day, even for the three of us. That’s when we began looking for interns, and found the meteorology program at Mississippi State University. We’re now on our fourth generation of interns — they write the web copy six days a week, then we review, edit and approve.”

The team has survived website crashes (a recent outage brought howls of dismay throughout the region, and led to a more robust platform and a professional service provider), serious storms and near-misses.

They know what they want and what they don’t, the latter of which includes straying from their Davidson/Williamson coverage area, which might in turn spur the kind of burnout that would cause them to walk away. Instead, they want to make what they’re doing better.

Nashville Severe Weather’s Twitter feed is equally enthusiastic about blending local weather info with related news and commentary.

“I’ve never thought about quitting, because I love it,” Drobny says. “I have fun doing it; it’s my hobby. It’s incredible that so many people follow it.

“I’m just repackaging weather info for a very small area, and doing it the way I want to do it. My kids are 12 and 9 years old now, and they get that it’s not good to bother Dad when a storm is coming. Mostly, I credit my wife, who sees a storm coming and knows I have to go and do my thing. I can’t not do it.”

So on they go, this intrepid band of weather watchers, determined to remain open-source and accessible. And not starve.

“We are in the process of figuring out how not to operate at a huge loss, and still grow and do new things,” Drobny says. “But we all love our jobs. Nobody’s going to quit their job to tweet the weather.”

Their first idea: Patreon, a platform which allows people to voluntarily donate a small amount on a monthly basis.

“We care about it. I’ve stood in hurricane damage in places where I have lived,” he says. “You’re different after that.

“You experience not just empathy, but wanting to find a way to help somebody through a weather event. If we can keep this going, we’re going to do it.”

Meet the team: Will Minkus, Andrew Leeper and David Drobny, back; Mississippi State University interns Caroline MacDonald and Brendan Shaper.

A Tennessee internship, by way of Mississippi

So, how does a college student a few hundred miles from Nashville cover Middle Tennessee weather? Pretty accurately, it turns out.

Meet Brendan Schaper, an operational meteorology major (with a minor on geospatial information systems) at Mississippi State University.

He first heard of Nashville Severe Weather as a freshman, and soon he was on board. He’s now in his second year as an intern, and once he graduates he’ll pass the baton.

During any given week, Brendan and other interns write website copy, both serious and humorous, as well as pull together images and other artwork. It’s great writing practice, as well as terrific exposure, he says.

“It’s been a fantastic experience,” Brendan says. “David began this with the intention to make the public more aware of the weather, and when I came on board I saw the impact the he, Will and Andrew had already made — and will continue to make.

“I got into meteorology not only because I love science, but also so I could understand and act on it to save lives.”

The rest of the team

Three minds act as one when it comes to operating Nashville Severe Weather. In addition to Drobny, there’s Will Minkoff, a Continuity and Preparedness Professional, and Andrew Leeper, a worship minister at Brentwood Hills Church of Christ in Oak Hill.

Like Drobny, each can point to the moment that weather became more than a casual interest — and it happens to be the same: the April 1998 tornado that roared through Nashville.

“I remember after the 1998 tornado, when Channel 5 was knocked off the air, Chris Clark and some of their team drove to their transmitter off Brick Church Pike,” Leeper recalls.

“The broadcast from under an awning, holding up a sign that said they didn’t have audio, it would be coming soon — and that they were OK. On a day like that, it means a lot to people to find out any kind of news like that.”

Click the photo to read more about the team from the Nashville Scene.

That was as springtime storm, but Leeper also remember how the ice storm of 1994 affected Nashville.

“I was in seventh grade, and sat in the window of our home,” he recalls. “I remember watching the power flashes and all the infrastructure just falling apart.”

That led to a saying he’s kept in his mind: No matter what it takes, the people who don’t know what’s coming deserve to know. Although he flirted with a career in meteorology, his life path wound in a different direction.

“Being a part of the Nashville Severe Weather team scratches that itch,” he says, “and it lets me play a tiny part in fulfilling my goal of letting people what’s coming.”

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