After Tornado Close Call, Tupelo Meteorologist Finds Self In Spotlight

Matt Laubhan, chief meteorologist at WTVA Tupelo, became an overnight web sensation after commanding his station colleagues to retire to the basement on live TV as a tornado beckoned April 28. Wearing a stern expression while studying radar, Laubhan, working with the Internet down, looked like a general signaling his troops as he yelled out, “Basement…now! Let’s go!” before marching off the set.

One version of the video has been seen nearly 390,000 times on YouTube, making Laubhan, who arrived in Tupelo in 2011, a reluctant viral video star. “I don’t like the spotlight,” he told B&C. “It’s a very visible job, but I’m just a geek who likes to track storms.”

The NBC affiliate in DMA No. 133 continues to struggle to get back to full strength; phone calls were not getting through to the station at presstime. Laubhan says countless calls from curious media April 29 are similarly failing to come through, but his email is buzzing: NPR. CNN. Inside Edition. Yahoo. “My inbox has exploded,” he says. “They just keep coming in.”

Just last week, he says, the station had practiced tornado safety protocol, when it was established that Laubhan, as chief meteorologist, has the final word about when the staff should retire to the safety of the basement. “When I say go, it’s time to go,” he says, regardless of rank in the pecking order.

As he watched the tornado approach April 28, he figured it would either hit the station directly, or veer a few miles south. At the moment when he signaled for the evacuation, he says it was too close to call. “Am I willing to bet my life on it staying south? No,” he says.

The tornado did, in fact, pick a southern track; Laubhan says there was considerable damage around two miles away.

While viewers and users have grown accustomed to meteorological swashbucklers running into the path of severe storms, Laubhan says the image of a clearly agitated chief meteorologist beating it for safer shelter is a good lesson for the public. “I have to set a good example,” he says. “I have to make sure everyone understands that it’s serious.”

Laubhan’s wife Emily Leonard is an anchor at the station. With severe weather in the forecast April 28, she approached him about getting their baby, and their nanny, to a safer place. All of them were in the basement with the rest of the WTVA crew.

It’s not Laubhan’s first taste of viral video popularity. He proposed to Emily on the air when she was with the local ABC affiliate in 2008, which ended up as a segment on Good Morning America.

Tornadoes have killed at least 30 across the south and Midwest this week, and Tupelo is not out of the woods in terms of severe weather. Laubhan says April 29 has the potential to be a trying day, and WTVA continues to fight to get its power sources back online.

Once the tornados move on, Laubhan can reflect on his hectic week. “I’m very good at compartmentalizing it while it’s going on, but I’m sure I’ll be a blubbering mess in three days,” he says. “The whole thing will be ultimately overwhelming at some point, because you’re dealing with real people’s lives and real people’s property.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone is content director at B+C and Multichannel News. He joined B+C in 2005 and has covered network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television, including writing the "Local News Close-Up" market profiles. He also hosted the podcasts "Busted Pilot" and "Series Business." His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The L.A. Times, The Boston Globe and New York magazine.