The ins and outs of St. George Island

The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay at low tide. If you stay on the bay side of the island's east end, where the waters are shallower, low tide will reveal countless hermit crabs.
The lighthouse at St. George Island dates back to 1833. It can be visited today, and there’s a museum adjacent to it.

A few years ago, I wrote an in-depth guide on St. George Island. It was the most popular article ever posted on this blog. Each year, when I post vacation photos on Facebook, people ask for info on St. George Island. That was the inspiration for this rewrite.

Looking for a reclusive vacation, away from the crowds and the hustle-and-bustle of resort towns? Florida has some coastal vacation spots that are well off the beaten path, but they usually don’t include pristine beaches. Then there is St. George Island.

A 28-mile barrier island located off the coast of historic Apalachicola, St. George Island is one-of-a-kind: an inhabited, yet largely unspoiled island. It’s not the Caribbean, and Jimmy Buffet never sang about it, but it still has a lot of the stereotypical island feel to it — where time slows down (island time) and everything is a little more laid back.

When someone asks me about St. George Island, I always start by telling them what SGI isn’t. There is no Walmart or McDonald’s anywhere close; no miniature golf*, no water parks, no movie theaters, no ritzy shopping developments.

The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay, as seen from St. George Island.

All of that is, of course, the allure of St. George Island. But it’s not for everyone. If you’re a 20-something (or an any-something) who loves the night life, you’re probably not going to like SGI. If your family likes to always be on the go, you probably aren’t going to like SGI. If you have to have a Walmart or a Target or a Five Guys burger joint or a shopping mall close at hand, you probably aren’t going to like SGI. If your idea of a beach vacation is more about great food than natural surroundings, you probably aren’t going to like SGI. I can’t imagine being one of those people and stumbling onto SGI expecting a Destin-style vacation. I would be sorely disappointed.

But if you like to go to the beach simply to relax, to get away from the people and traffic, SGI may be exactly what you’re looking for. If you’re a middle-aged or older couple, SGI is perfect. If you have young kids, SGI may or may not be a suitable vacation destination. It’s definitely family-friendly, and lots of families vacation on the island with their kids; families with small children probably make up a majority of the island’s visitors at any given time during the summer tourism season. We’ve been vacationing at SGI since my kids were eight years old, and they’ve always loved it … but, then, they’ve never been accustomed to vacations that include laser tag, mini golf, parasailing, water parks, go karts, and etc.

A large sign welcomes visitors to St. George Island as they come off the 4-mile bridge connecting the island to the mainland at Eastpoint.

I searched out St. George Island when I got tired of the crowds of people at Panama City Beach. I love PCB … and I like Destin and the other beaches of the Florida panhandle and the Alabama coast. But I don’t like the crowds of people that accompany them. A few years ago, I got caught up in a traffic jam during my first night in PCB and angrily swore that I was going somewhere else the next year. The next year, we vacationed on the bay side of St. George Island. A year after that, I stupidly decided to go back to PCB. On Day 1, I was reminded why SGI was worlds better. And I’ve never been back.

So now that we’ve talked about what St. George Island isn’t, let’s talk about what it is.

SGI has low-density zoning and strict building codes, which preserves the low-key, laid-back feel. There are no high-rise hotels or condominium complexes, no chain restaurants or high-profile retail shops. (There isn’t even an Alvin’s Island, if you can believe it!) As a result, the entire island feels like a village instead of a resort town.

St. George Island’s most famous resident is country music star Billy Dean, who resides with his wife in a humble home in the center of the island.

There are “drawbacks,” of course. Without them, SGI would lose its allure. One of the drawbacks is that most of the lodging options are vacation rentals. Some of them are independently owned and managed and available through rental services like VRBO, AirBNB and a regional service, Emerald Coast By Owner. Others are owned or managed by rental companies like Collins Vacation Rentals and Fickling & Co. There are only two exceptions: a small motel on the beach — which is dated and frills-free, to say the least — and a small inn that is located off the beach.

Vacation rentals tend to be pricey. The best approach is to join forces with friends or family and split the cost, especially since many of the homes are larger and luxurious. There are some smaller cottages that are suitable for single family units and will fit more modest budgets, but they’re often located away from the beach.

Not all of the homes at St. George Island are luxurious. There are lots of nondescript homes, lots of homes in various states of disrepair, and million-dollar homes — often located side-by-side, both on the beach and away from the beach.
Not all of the homes at St. George Island are luxurious. There are lots of nondescript homes, lots of homes in various states of disrepair, and million-dollar homes — often located side-by-side, both on the beach and away from the beach.
A new, large home is being built on the beach at St. George Island.

There is no entertainment to speak of on the beach. Instead of parasailing and jet ski rentals, you’ll find bicycle, paddleboard and kayak rentals. There are a handful of the typical beach souvenir shops (we prefer Island Dog, a family-owned and -operated shop that is tucked away off the main street). There is a miniature golf course just across the SGI bridge on the mainland at Eastport, but none on the island. There are no theaters, no water parks, no go-kart tracks.

There are two small grocery stores on the island: a Piggly Wiggly Express and a newer, independently-owned grocery. Both are convenient, but have little in the way of selection. Most people prefer to make the 20-minute drive to the mainland and into Apalachicola to purchase groceries.

The first sight you see upon arriving on the island is a Piggly Wiggly Express. Your first impression of St. George Island may be that it appears run-down and dated. But it’s part of the charm and the allure. Time moves slower and things are laid-back here.

As for restaurants, there are a few — but they’re limited. There’s only one beach-front, open-air-dining restaurant, the Blue Parrot. It’s good, but it’s also hit-or-miss. Otherwise, the quality, prices and atmosphere are about what you’d expect from a typical beach-front restaurant just up the road at PCB. Other popular restaurants on the island include Harry A’s Bar & Grill, Paddy’s Raw Bar and Doc Myers Island Pub & Raw Bar. The latter is probably the closest to a typical beach-town nightlife establishment that you’ll find on SGI. You’ll find live music and crowds of people playing corn hole and enjoying their favorite beverages at Doc Myers on any given night.

Other restaurants on the island include the Beach Pit, which is a BBQ joint, and BJ’s, a pizza and sub place. There’s also a Subway sandwich shop (the only chain restaurant you’ll find on SGI or in either of the neighboring towns of Apalachicola and Eastpoint), an ice cream shop and a donut shop.

To be completely blunt and perfectly honest, I can’t highly recommend any of them. The food is okay at several of them, but none of them will knock your socks off. Our trips to SGI usually include at least a couple of trips to the Blue Parrot, mainly because we like the beachfront, open-air dining style, and a trip or two to Aunt Edy’s (the ice cream shop). They serve Blue Bell, which is a plus. BJ’s is incredibly over-priced for the quality of the pies, but they have an appetizer — crab bites — that will be as good as any crab cakes you can find anywhere on the island or the neighboring mainland.

Restaurants on the mainland include Lynn’s Quality Oysters — a bayfront combination fresh seafood market and seafood restaurant. It looks shabby, but then the best ones usually do, it seems. In any event, it comes well-rated and highly-recommended. There’s the Pesky Pelican Grille (which is okay but not great), the Red Pirate (which always seems to be packed), the Family Coastal Restaurant (bayfront) and Eastpoint Beer Company (a bar/pub) in Eastpoint. Across the bay in Apalachicola, there is Hole in the Wall (a tiny establishment that has a pub feel with decent food), the Owl Cafe (upscale dining), The Station Raw Bar (a popular place with food that is good but not great) and the Up the Creek Raw Bar (bayfront). It’s not an exhaustive list, but you get the point.

Inside the 13 Mile Seafood Market in Apalachicola. There, you can watch the fishing boats come in and unload their catch.

The best option? Visit one of the two fresh seafood trucks that set up on the island almost daily, and fix it to your liking. You’ll find Doug’s truck on one side of the lighthouse and Dail’s truck on the other. Their prices are fair and their fish is excellent. If the trucks aren’t there, head across the bridge to the mainland and you’ll find several seafood markets. The nearest option is Lynn’s Oysters. A cheaper option, if you want to drive a bit further into downtown Apalachicola, is the 13 Mile SeaFood Market. There, you can watch the fishing boats come in and unload their catch, then head inside and pick out what you want to take home with you.

St. George Island is a 28-mile barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico. It is separated from the mainland by a 4-mile bridge that crosses the Apalachicola Bay. The island is no wider than a mile, and is usually narrower than that. It was originally settled by the Muscogee, and later the Creek Indians after disease killed off the Muscogee, beginning in the 10th century, before European settlers arrived and eventually took control of the island. Until 1965, the resort town that was developing on the island was accessible only by ferry. Two bridges were constructed that year, connected by a tiny island in the middle of the bay, to reach the island. In 2002, the much larger and current bridge was built after the original buildings were deemed unsafe.

The rising sun shines through the palms and the pines on St. George Island. Forested areas are rare overall, and the island is by no means picturesque with its sea oats and scrub growth. But the sunrises and sunsets are magical.

SGI has a colorful history. It was used as a practice range for Air Force bombers during World War II and a cut was later made between the island and nearby Little St. George to provide access to the Gulf of Mexico from the bayside. Today, that cut is used by fishing fleets from Apalachicola. A lighthouse was constructed on the island in 1833, and was later destroyed by hurricane. It was rebuilt and, except for during the Civil War, when it was decommissioned, it served the island until the 1960s, when it was decommissioned. It was later damaged by two more hurricanes and collapsed, before being rebuilt in the middle of the island several years ago.

St. George Island is not fully inhabited; fewer than 10 miles of the island are inhabited. The eastern end of the island is St. George Island State Park, which includes pristine beaches, protected dunes and a campground. The west end of the island is a large, gated community called The Plantation. Although it is an upscale, gated community, rental homes are available inside. This is the widest part of the island, and also the most forested. Trees become sparser on the east end and central parts of the island, where only palm trees, sea oats and scrub grows along the gulf side of the island and slab pine and other trees grow on the bay side of the island.

The beach at St. George Island at sunset.

When choosing where to stay on SGI, there are generally a few options:

• Gulf-side: The east-end beaches are generally a bit less congested than the west-end beaches. The Plantation is the least congested of all and does include some beach-front homes, but they’re very pricey. Across-the-street beaches still provide beach views for cheaper prices. In the center of the island, there are a number of town houses along the beach. There’s also a large town house community on the beach along the east end, just before the entrance to the state park.

• Bay-side: Staying on the bay provides its own advantages. It’s further from the beach, and you lose the sea breeze (which means it’s going to feel hotter, and be “buggier” — the mosquitoes are merciless). But you are sometimes still close enough to walk to the beach. If not, you can drive to the nearest public beach access (or rent a golf cart of a bicycle). Most bay-front homes have private fishing piers, and many are a bit more secluded than beach-front homes. You’ll encounter more wildlife on the bay side, including pelicans (rarely seen on the beach except for in the surf), lizards, frogs, snakes and scorpions (I’ve learned my lesson the hard way — don’t leave your shoes on the porch if you’re staying on the bay side of the island).

A crab plays in the surf at St. George Island. Crabs are plentiful, both on the bay side and the gulf side. Set a trap and catch some for yourself.

SGI is widely known as a loggerhead turtle nesting area. Locals are strict about beachfront outside lights being left off at night and belongings being removed from the beach in the evenings. It’s also requested that holes not be left on the beach.

You’ll see dolphins on the gulf side just about any day during the summer months, and they’re commonly seen within a hundred yards of the beach. It’s also not uncommon to see them in the bay.

SGI is a dog-friendly beach.

A pelican eats a shrimp from a dock on the bay off St. George Island.

The “worst” part of St. George Island is getting there. It isn’t an easy drive from anywhere. It is an hour-long drive through the aptly-named Tate’s Hell State Forest to reach the coast at Eastpoint. But Apalachicola is quaint and worthy of exploration. PCB is about a two-hour drive along the coast to the west; Alligator Point is an hour drive along the coast to the east. Tallahassee is the nearest major city, about 90 minutes away. The nearest Walmart is about that far away. The nearest McDonald’s is a 30-minute drive.

Because there are no high-rises, the beaches at St. George Island are never crowded. They were a bit more crowded in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has more people seeking vacationing opportunities on the island to avoid the Covid-19 hotspots elsewhere in Florida (there had only been two cases of Covid-19 in all of Franklin County as of June 21, 2020). When the beaches do start to fill up, head to the east end of the island and pay the small fee to enter the state park. The island’s most beautiful beaches are inside the state park, and you’re guaranteed to find a section of beach where you won’t have any neighbors within shouting distance — literally — if you want to walk far enough.

Fishing from a dock on the bay side of St. George Island. Fishing is excellent at SGI, both in the surf and in the Apalachicola Bay. On the bay side, fish with shrimp (live are best, but good luck finding them) or live minnows.

The best thing about SGI besides the beaches and the lack of people is the fishing. The Apalachicola Bay is a rich estuary. The Apalachicola River — formed when the Flint River and Chattahoochee merge — dumps into the sea at Apalachicola, creating a bay that is teeming with life. More than 300 species of birds, 186 species of fish and 57 species of mammals call the Apalachicola Bay home. Sadly, the town of Apalachicola is in decline as the seafood industry diminishes. The Apalachicola Bay once produced 90% of Florida’s oysters, but climate change is causing the oyster populations to diminish rapidly.

The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay at low tide. If you stay on the bay side of the island’s east end, where the waters are shallower, low tide will reveal countless hermit crabs.

The bottom line: The sands at St. George Island aren’t as white as they are at Destin and Panama City Beach, the Florida panhandle’s most famous beaches. And the water at SGI isn’t nearly as clear. But there isn’t a single stoplight on the island; a pair of 3-way stops in the center of the island are the closest you come to it. Most of the streets are not paved and are dirt roads — the main exceptions are Gulf Beach Drive, the main street through the island; Bay Shore Drive, which parallels the bay; and Gorrie Drive, which parallels the gulf. Residents and visitors alike toil about on golf carts, which are permitted on all streets except Bay Shore Drive. If you stay close enough to the center of the island, you can walk to any destination and will not even need your vehicle for a week. And unlike most beach resort towns, the neighborhoods smell of dinner cooking as the sun sets, which underscores the family-friendly and laid-back nature of the island. Things truly do move at a slower pace on St. George Island. And while the island is slowly becoming more commercialized and congested — I’ve noticed a difference just in the past five years — it’s because more and more people are discovering just how magical a place it is.

Shells litter the beach at St. George Island. The sand isn’t as white here and the water isn’t as clear as it is at other panhandle beaches like Panama City Beach and Destin. But if you like shelling, you’ll love SGI. Some exceptional shells can be found along the island.
The beach is nearly deserted at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Saturdays are turn day for most vacationers, but the beach is seldom crowded at SGI — and if it is, you can head to the state park, where there are even fewer people.
A 4-way stop on St. George Island, and all the streets are dirt roads. Most of the streets on the island aren’t paved.
A 4-mile bridge separates St. George Island from Eastpoint.
A paved biking and hiking trail runs the length of the length of St. George Island from The Plantation to the state park.
The sun sets behind a vacation rental overlooking the Apalachicola Bay at St. George Island.
A Saharan dust cloud shrouds the sky over the Apalachicola Bay during the Summer of 2020.
A pelican awaits its meal at St. George Island.
A view of the lighthouse at St. George Island, which dates back to 1833.
The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay at St. George Island.
Historic downtown Apalachicola.
You can watch the fishing boats come in and unload their catch at the 13 Mile Seafood Market in Apalachicola.
City hall is in an old warehouse in historic downtown Apalachicola.
Sadly, the seafood industry in Apalachicola is in decline. The Apalachicola Bay provides 90% of Florida’s oysters, but the oysters are being reduced by climate change.
The almost vacant beach at St. George Island State Park.
The almost vacant beach at St. George Island State Park.
The grass flats in the Apalachicola Bay just off the coast at Apalachicola.
The historic cemetery in downtown Apalachicola is worth exploring.
The historic cemetery in downtown Apalachicola is worth exploring.
Human Nature

Here’s why TMZ isn’t to blame for Kobe Bryant news

At 2:24 p.m. EST on Sunday, TMZ broke the news that NBA legend Kobe Bryant was among those killed in a California helicopter crash. The news spread instantly, of course, as the world mourned the former Lakers star, who remained very active in the L.A. basketball community. Nearly everyone — from NBA teams that were playing Sunday afternoon to the President of the United States — paused to reflect on the life and legend of Bryant.

At a news conference later that day, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villaneuva took TMZ to task for breaking the news of Bryant’s death so quickly:

“It would be extremely disrespectful to understand that your loved one … perished and you learn about it from TMZ. That is just wholly inappropriate.”

Villaneuva’s comments were in response to a question from a reporter about why he refused to confirm the identities of the 9 people who were aboard the helicopter when it crashed.

I created a miniature firestorm on Twitter when I tweeted Monday afternoon that the LAC sheriff was wrong for blasting TMZ for the timing of its report. Some of those who were upset at what I tweeted thought I was disrespecting Bryant. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. As I wrote earlier in the day on Monday, those criticizing people from being affected and saddened by Bryant’s death were in the wrong. For millions of Americans, particularly Generation X basketball fans, Bryant was very much a part of their lives for a lot of years. Bryant was a player I loved to hate when he was still active, because I was a Spurs fan and the Lakers were a major nemesis for the Spurs in the Shaq-Kobe years. But I respected him for his lethality, and especially for the way he stepped up to become a true role model for young athletes who looked up to him, especially after his retirement.

Many of those who responded were among those who’ve felt wronged by me for various reasons over the years — some over news stories our newspaper has covered, some because we stopped covering middle school championships, some because of an egregious error our paper made in reporting the death of a local prominent citizen last year, and some for different reasons entirely.

Someone said, “If you can’t take the heat, don’t make the tweet.” I happen to agree with that statement. I’m a big boy and I can stand on my own two feet. I don’t need some sort of public affirmation for my opinion. My closest friends love to call me a pot-stirrer and sometimes I admit that I do my fair share to earn that title. I knew when I posted that tweet that it would be an unpopular opinion — but at the same time, it’s hard to explain your opinion in 280 characters and I think some people probably misinterpreted what I meant. I’m okay with people disagreeing with me — even disagreeing harshly. I’m okay with people saying that’s the dumbest take they have read all day. But I won’t deny that some of the responses hurt — big time — because of what was said and where they were coming from: people I have respected, student-athletes past and present whose accomplishments and accolades I’ve worked to try to cover … responses that weren’t just disagreements but personal in nature. I’m a newspaper guy, and especially in a small town where everyone knows everybody, that creates a certain amount of disdain, because news stories have to be written about sensitive subjects without personal emotions attached. But that doesn’t mean that my skin is as thick as it probably should be, even after nearly 20 years in the industry.

I suppose the most telling part of the day was when my 13-year-old son posted a tweet last night that said: “People are TOXIC.” I suspected I knew what he was referring to, but I asked him about it. He said, “I just felt bad for you today. I read all of that stuff on Twitter and I couldn’t believe what some people were saying and I couldn’t believe who some of those people were who were saying it.” My son loved Kobe Bryant. He was hit hard by the news on Sunday. But, even at 13, he got it. You can disagree without devolving the debate into a sludge of nastiness … even in this era where we’re so quick to lash out at anyone whose opinion differs from our own.

Not everybody disagreed by making it personal, of course. One Scott High student asked, “as a journalist, a husband, and a father, how can you think this is okay?” That’s a perfectly legitimate and reasonable question. And lots of others disagreed similarly. So, for those people, this post is my response — since it obviously won’t fit into a tweet or even a thread of tweets.

So, with that said, you don’t have to agree with me that TMZ was in the right. But here’s why I’m going to argue that they were:

Bryant’s helicopter crashed at about 12:45 p.m. EST Sunday afternoon. TMZ’s report was published at 2:24 p.m. EST, nearly two hours later. That isn’t exactly the speed of light in the news industry. The identities of celebrities and even non-celebrities who are killed in tragic accidents are reported more quickly than that on a regular basis.

The immediate question is how did TMZ obtain its information? How does it always obtain its information? When it comes to the deaths of celebrities, TMZ is almost always first … and incredibly accurate. That means the outlet has well-placed sources … and it almost certainly means that it also has well-paid sources. Sources who are embedded within emergency services in L.A. and New York. Sources who are embedded within the coroners’ offices in those cities.

If someone wanted to question TMZ’s ethics for paying sources, that’s fair game. As a journalistic practice, that’s considered a big no-no in most newsrooms. However, that’s not the issue that was raised by the LAC sheriff. He was addressing the speed at which TMZ reported that Bryant was aboard the helicopter.

So there’s a lot to delve into here, but let’s be clear about one thing on the front end: there is an etiquette to breaking news about fatalities. You do want to give authorities appropriate time to release the identities. No one wants to learn of a loved one’s death by just clicking on a news link by happenstance. That’s a gut-punch that’s far worse than the dreaded knock on the door by a law enforcement officer who is trained to break the news gently and provide support if needed. Reporting the news has to be balanced with human dignity and a respect for people.

On a local level, we often learn the identities of accident victims within minutes — certainly in less than an hour — of an accident’s occurrence. But we don’t report that right away, to give authorities the appropriate time to notify the victims’ next of kin. Our rule is no accident scene photos on social media, if it’s a fatality, until such a time, as well. There’s no rule of thumb on exactly how long to wait, so, for us, it’s simple: almost all fatalities that we will report are traffic accidents that are being investigated by the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Therefore, when an accident occurs, our first step is to contact the THP’s public information officer and submit a request for the preliminary report. THP is very reliable and easy to work with, and will release a preliminary report fairly quickly — but only after next-of-kin has been notified. And we respect that process. If THP dragged its feet and didn’t release information until days later, the process wouldn’t work. Fortunately, it is a process that does work.

Back to L.A., keep in mind that the sheriff’s comments were made hours after the crash occurred, and were in response to a question about why he wasn’t confirming the identities. As of late Monday, the identities of the crash victims still hadn’t been “officially” confirmed the coroner’s office in L.A.

If you read the reaction to the sheriff’s comments, a lot of people assumed that the sheriff was saying that Bryant’s wife and the rest of his family learned of his death from the TMZ report. But if you re-read the sheriff’s comments, he doesn’t actually say that, and appears to be speaking hypothetically about why he wasn’t confirming the identities at that point, several hours later. Keep in mind that LAC authorities and TMZ have tangoed many times in the past when it comes to the deaths of celebrities — such as Whitney Houston’s death, which TMZ was also the first to report. No doubt, the sheriff is frustrated with TMZ. But that time and that place was not the appropriate setting to go after TMZ. The sheriff could’ve made the same point he was making without calling out TMZ. That’s the broadest reason why the sheriff was wrong.

So was TMZ wrong to report Bryant’s death so quickly? I think the answer is no. It goes back to the original timeline: Nearly an hour and 45 minutes had passed between when the helicopter went down and when TMZ’s report was published. In the meantime, the LAC sheriff’s office had been actively breaking news about the crash on Twitter. At 1:14 p.m. EST — about a half-hour after the crash occurred — the sheriff’s office tweeted that there was a downed aircraft. At 1:34 p.m. EST, the sheriff’s office tweeted that the downed aircraft was a helicopter, that the flames had been extinguished, and included photos from the scene. At 2:25 p.m. EST, which was almost simultaneous with TMZ’s report at 2:24 p.m. EST, the sheriff’s office confirmed that there were five fatalities and no survivors.

It is almost unthinkable that within that timeframe, authorities hadn’t had time to notify Bryant’s family. If it’s published that the family had, in fact, not been notified and that they learned of Bryant’s passing from TMZ’s report, I will eat my words. I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, TMZ founder Harvey Levin said in a Tuesday radio interview that the site had spoken to Kobe Bryant’s reps before publishing its report and confirmed that his wife, Vanessa, had been notified. Could that be a baseless claim? Certainly. But imagine the egg on TMZ’s face if Bryant’s reps stepped forward to contradict Levin’s comments, saying they hadn’t been contacted. So it seems pretty likely that TMZ did, in fact, confirm with Bryant’s reps that Vanessa had been notified of her husband’s death.

Here’s why TMZ, which is owned by the same parent company that owns CNN, wasn’t wrong: just about every media outlet in the world piggy-backed off the original report. Many of the more prominent outlets used their own sources to verify the TMZ report, but those reports were flying very quickly, within minutes (in some cases, within seconds) of the initial report by TMZ. That includes ESPN and many others. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, a highly-respected NBA reporter, was one of the last major journalistic sources to confirm Bryant’s death, and his report came at 2:51 p.m. EST, about 27 minutes after TMZ’s initial report.

If the argument is that authorities theoretically hadn’t had time to notify the families, how much time would’ve been appropriate? Would the two hours and six minutes (the timing of Adrian Wojo’s tweet) have been more appropriate than the hour and 39 minutes that elapsed between the crash and TMZ’s report? That really isn’t a very significant difference.

Some have suggested that TMZ should’ve waited until authorities confirmed the identities. But that process would’ve taken hours, if not days. And there’s no way you can keep a lid on information for that long. If the official news sources, who rely on their readers’ trust, had sat by and waited on the authorities to release the names, bloggers and twitter accounts all over the world would’ve inevitably released that information.

The point is that if TMZ hadn’t published its information when it did, other outlets would’ve quickly followed — and it would’ve been within minutes, not hours.

So if TMZ is going to be condemned, the sheriff should’ve probably condemned the news media in general. Sure, all those other outlets may have been just confirming what TMZ originally reported … but by publishing information from a TMZ report quickly, they’re really no different from TMZ, which published information from a confidential source quickly.

If the sheriff has an ax to grind, it’s with whomever provided that information to TMZ. Clearly, there are leaks somewhere within — if not the sheriff’s own department, then somewhere else within LAC emergency services. (According to Levin, the initial tip came from a law enforcement officer, meaning it was very possibly someone from the sheriff’s department.) It’s very likely that the person providing that information did so with the promise of a paycheck from TMZ — but, as I said above, TMZ’s ethics of paying sources weren’t what the sheriff was questioning at the press conference.

Meanwhile, TMZ’s report — however quickly it may have been published — was accurate. There were plenty of other news outlets, considered more reputable than TMZ, that got it badly wrong — horrifically wrong. And they somehow managed to escape the crosshairs of criticism.

Consider this: Which is worse? TMZ reporting nearly two hours after the crash that Kobe Bryant was on board? Or ABC News reporting on the air that all four of Kobe Bryant’s children were on the helicopter?

And this: A Washington Post reporter tweeted a flashback to the Kobe Bryant rape case by linking a nearly four-year-old story from The Daily Beast. Keep in mind that Bryant was not charged criminally in connection with those allegations. Is it really relevant to dredge up that old story on the day that the world is mourning his death? What purpose does that serve other than an attempt to taint his legacy? (The Washington Post ultimately suspended the reporter, Felicia Sonmez, for the tweet and related tweets, all of which have since been deleted.)

As the misinformation continued to spread, ABC News walked back its reporter’s earlier comment that all four of Kobe Bryant’s daughters were on board the helicopter, but made another mistake in the process by reporting that none of his daughters were on board. The first source to correct that report by confirming that one daughter, Gigi, had perished on the flight was, ironically enough, TMZ.

But because the LAC sheriff, for whatever reason, chose to take issue with the timing of TMZ’s report, it is TMZ alone that is bearing the brunt of the blame. Look, I still think it’s a sleazy news organization. I still won’t follow or read it. But to hang TMZ in effigy for its work in reporting Bryant’s death just simply isn’t right. At the very least, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Basketball, Human Nature

Celebrity deaths grip us as a society, and there’s nothing wrong with that

Obviously the big news on Sunday was the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, who were among those killed in a helicopter crash in California.

Naturally, social media lit up with reactions as people from all walks of life remembered and mourned the death of the former Lakers star.

And, naturally, there were plenty of folks who decried the attention that Bryant’s death was receiving. One story in particular that began making the rounds on Facebook was the account of an American military helicopter that crashed in Afghanistan in 2005, killing all 20 of the special ops service members who were aboard.

I’m going to be honest: it’s a little irritating when folks try to use deaths to score points for an argument that really shouldn’t be an argument in the first place. And something that happened nearly 15 years ago has exactly zero bearing on Sunday’s tragedy.

I understand their sentiment; I really do. A large number of people who were fighting for our freedoms and way of life died, and no one cared. A guy who makes a lot of money to play the game of basketball died, and everyone cares. It hardly seems fair. It hardly is fair, if we’re being honest. And, yet, at the same time, it’s perfectly understandable. (And it should be pointed out that the 2005 helicopter crash gripped the nation because of the number of victims; perhaps not on the same level as Kobe Bryant’s death, but moreso than an incident in which simply one or two servicemen or women are killed.)

There is a reason that the deaths of celebrities grip us, whether they’re sports stars or movie icons or legendary singers. These people are very much a part of our lives. Whether it’s the sports they play, the movies they appear in or the songs they sing, they come into our homes night after night after night, day after day, for years, whether it’s through the television, the radio, our phone, etc. We feel like we know them, even though we’ve never met them. And, in a certain sense, we do. We often know more about them — their spouses’ names, their kids’ names, their political preferences, their likes and dislikes — than we know about many of the people we come into contact with on a daily basis.

For those of us who are a part of Generation X and are basketball fans, Kobe Bryant was one of a select few players who defined the game. I don’t watch NBA games anymore, but there was a time when I was very much attuned to the league. I was a San Antonio Spurs fan, so Kobe Bryant was a player who it was very natural to love to hate. During the era when I kept up with every game, every state line, every transaction during an NBA season, the ‘90s and ‘00s, the Spurs and the Lakers were the undisputed powers of the Western Conference. So I couldn’t stand Kobe Bryant. I couldn’t stand him because he was lethal…and because he was so confident. He was the best player of his day, and he knew it…and he made you accept it. It didn’t matter if the Lakers were playing the Spurs or the Sun or someone else entirely…I was paying attention to see if they got beat.

Contrast that with soldiers who die in a war zone. They’re just names we don’t know. Certainly, as we learn the stories behind who they were, and their sacrifice, it drives home the tragedy of their death and that becomes real to us. But we don’t need anyone to tell those stories when it’s an icon of popular culture who dies, because they’re actually a part of our lives. 

That doesn’t mean the celebrities’ lives are any more meaningful than the service members’ lives. But, by the same token, the service members’ lives are no more meaningful than the celebrities’ lives. I think most would agree that fighting for our nation’s armed forces is a profession that’s more noble and honorable than being paid to entertain the masses, but at the end of the day we’re all human beings, and we’re all on equal footing. So it’s perfectly natural to feel impacted by the shocking news of a celebrity’s death.

And there’s no shame in that. My son said yesterday that Kobe Bryant’s death had impacted him more than any other celebrity death. I didn’t sit him down for a talk about how he should feel ashamed because he placed more value on some basketball player than on a soldier who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. What he felt was perfectly natural. He is a huge basketball fan; spends a lot of time every day watching basketball videos. He is too young to remember Kobe Bryant when Kobe was in his prime, but he’s seen all the highlight videos and is well aware of who Kobe Bryant was as both a basketball player and as a father and human being after basketball.

There’s another part of the story that causes it to grip us even tighter, of course, and that’s the death of Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, who was on board. Like her father, Gigi was a very talented basketball player — one who was probably set to elevate the game of women’s basketball. That’s a bold statement, perhaps, but she was positioned to become the face of the WNBA in a few years ago. And while Pat Summitt blazed a trail for women in basketball and other pioneers followed as both players and coaches to make that trail easier to follow, the women’s game still isn’t on equal footing with the men’s game. Not even close. Gigi seemed poised to help the women’s game help take that next step if she continued to realize her full potential as she grew up.

It’s okay to be stunned, even saddened, by events like Sunday’s. Kobe Bryant may not have known life as most of us know it — living paycheck to paycheck, deciding whether to go on vacation or replace a failing HVAC unit in our home, struggling with a 9-to-5 job that bores us — but 41 is still much too young to die … he had overcome his transgressions and imperfections as a young adult to become a shining example of a role model for youth who look up to professional athletes … and nobody, regardless of their socioeconomic standing, should be doomed to a fiery death with their 13-year-old child as their failed aircraft plummets to earth. 

Maybe our society does place too much adulation on sports stars and celebrities. Maybe we do tend to tune out the things that are really important a little too much. But there are millions of Americans who will remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Kobe Bryant had died, just as there are still millions who remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Elvis died. 

And there’s nothing wrong with that.


Yes, your cat would like to eat you

How many times has a cat-lover heard from one of their cat-hating friends that their cats would eat them if given half a chance? A hundred thousand times? A million? Well, it turns out that there is new research to back it up. From the Washington Post:

The station is surrounded by a 10-foot-high, wire-topped fence that extends two feet underground to keep out large animals and most burrowing ones. But it is not impervious: Connor said prairie dogs frequently pop up but pay no attention to the bodies, while cats, skunks and snakes slip in through gaps in and under a front gate.

Remote cameras at the facility, which is far from houses but close to a landfill where feral cats live, had previously captured cats wandering among the grasses inside the gates. But during a routine scan of images, student Sara Garcia gasped at the sight of one feline that turned up in late 2017 and at another a few months later. These cats — one black, one striped — weren’t wandering. They were eating.

The “research,” such as it were, comes from a body farm at Colorado Mesa University. And, it turns out, cats have select tastes when it comes to humans:

And although the cats had a buffet of more than 40 bodies from which to choose, each one returned to the corpse it had selected again and again — one almost nightly for 35 nights straight.

Am I the only one who can’t read this without the Purina Meowmix commercial jingle running through my head? (“Meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow…”)

This finding actually isn’t too surprising. You would be hard-pressed to find a coroner or an EMT who doesn’t have a story to tell about someone whose corpse was gnawed on by their cats. But those are usually cases involving someone who had been dead for several days before anyone realized it — usually little old ladies who live alone with their cats. The cats are confined to a home with their owner’s dead body … and when they stop being fed, well, natural instincts proceed. As one reader noted in the WaPo comment section: “I am somewhat socially isolated, and lived alone until the day I rescued my cat, who was lost or abandoned in the middle of a bitterly cold January. He is now my pet, and a very sweet and gentle and slightly timid kitty…. and I have no doubt he’d eat me if I keeled over, because his bags of cat food sit on top of my fridge, where he can’t get to, and he can’t work the can opener, even if he could get to his canned food in the cabinet.”

But this story is different. This story didn’t involve cats who were confined to an area where there was no food options except to scavenge a human body, but feral cats who ignored their predatory instincts to scavenge human flesh … and they climbed a 10-ft. fence to do so.

As a kid, I often heard that cats — the same felines that rub against your pant leg and purr madly — would eat you (alive, no less) if they were big enough to out-muscle you. But I’ve also heard all my life that granddaddy long legs possess enough venom to kill a healthy human if they only had a mouth big enough to properly bite, and I’m 99 percent sure that’s preposterous.

But there was an old cartoon once — it would be considered offensive in modern society — that showed two cats looking at an old woman. And one cat said to the other, “We could eat her now … or we could let her feed us for the next 15 years.”

It kinda takes on new meaning.


Tracking our incredible snow drought…and whether it’ll soon end

It isn’t that snowflakes haven’t flown across the northern Cumberland Plateau this winter, and there have been winters when that was the case.

But what makes Winter 2019-2020 incredible isn’t the lack of snow this winter, but how it’s a continuing theme of recent winters. Simply put, we’re in a snow drought.

So far in 2019-2020, there has been zero snow recorded in Oneida by the National Weather Service. Now, keep in mind that snowfall can be spotty when it’s light, and this is measuring snow only at one location (the Oneida Water Treatment Plant at the intersection of Industrial Lane and West 3rd Avenue, to be specific). There was a light snow in November and two more in December — totaling as much as 2-3 inches in some locations. So the NWS’s numbers aren’t the be-all, end-all … but when it comes to the official record, they’re all that matter.

So, officially, we’ve had no snow in Oneida this year. And, officially, we had only a trace of snow in Oneida last year. We also had no snow in Winter 2016-2017, and only 2 inches of snow in Winter 2017-2018. To find the last winter it really snowed in Oneida, you have to go back to Winter 2015-2016, when we had 10 inches of snow in January. The winter before that, we almost went without measurable snowfall, until a drastic pattern change in mid February that resulted in 7 inches of snow the second half of that month.

What gives? There is more precipitation falling in the Cumberlands now than ever before. The 4 wettest years on record have occurred in the last 6 years, an astounding statistic. Yet only 2 of those 6 years have featured average or above-average snowfall. One key reason why is that we’ve been warmer while we’ve been wetter. But while there’s no denying that our winters today are milder than they once were, the differences aren’t extreme. January 2017 was the third-warmest on record in Oneida, February 2018 was the warmest on record, while February 2017 was the third-warmest on record and February 2019 was the fourth-warmest on record, and December 2015 was the warmest on record. Still, there has been ample cold air…but it has presented in different ways, and mother nature hasn’t threaded the needle for winter weather in this region very often the past several years.

Unfortunately for the snow-lovers, if you’re looking for that to change this winter, you may be disappointed. I posted a few days ago about a coming pattern change, and how it was going to be colder — but also that there were no signs yet of it being snowier. And, so far, that’s still the case.

The extreme warmth that we saw in the first half of January is certainly gone. If the month ended right now, it would be the warmest January on record in Oneida. But the second half is going to be much colder than the first half. But still not that cold. And, with the arrival of colder air, the active storm pattern is also slowing down.

A rare (for this winter) outbreak of arctic air is still headed our way for the first of next week. After we warm up Saturday (so it can rain!), much colder air is going to settle in by the end of the weekend. We will be stuck in the mid 30s on Sunday. On Monday, we likely won’t get out of the 20s, after a low in the teens. And it now looks like we will hit single digits on Tuesday morning before we finally rise (slightly) above freezing Tuesday afternoon.

That’s a pretty impressive cold shot. But it’s still just a transient cold shot. The warm-up will begin quickly, and we’ll be well into the 40s by Wednesday and maybe back into the 50s as soon as Thursday.

After that, the next storm system will impact our area around one week from now: January 24-25. This one could end as a little snow, as cold air comes crashing in on the back side of the departing system, but the level of cold air isn’t nearly as impressive as the cold blast we’re going to see in a couple of days, and the amount of snow we receive — if any — probably won’t be anything to write home about.

From there, it had once appeared that another round of cold air would settle across our region on the last couple of days of January, but that is now looking unlikely, as it looks like average to slightly above-average temperatures will be in store as January ends and February begins. So, for now, there’s only one very slight chance of snow showing up in the next two weeks, and no real threat of a significant winter storm.

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about the threat of going through winter without a pattern change that would lead to wintry weather of any sort. We’ve certainly seen a pattern change, but we’re still not hardly where we need to be if you’re wanting to see sustained cold and snow chances. The major teleconnections (the NAO, the AO and the PNA, which I won’t go into further detail on in this post because we’ve talked about them before) look like they’ll continue to trend slightly more favorable for winter weather in the eastern U.S., though they’re still leaving a lot to be desired. With the MJO continuing to show signs of progression as well, I wouldn’t totally write off February. The pattern needs to evolve some more, but if it does, it could be that this will be a repeat of 2015. Remember, that winter featured no snow, either … until the middle of February. But once Ol’ Man Winter showed up, he did so with a vengeance. We had an ice storm in western Scott County, more than a half-foot of snow spread out across several events, and record cold temperatures for the month of February. I’m not saying that’s going to happen, just that it isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

Even so, we’re now moving quickly out of the heart of winter. The days are getting longer, the sun angle is getting higher in the sky, and the average temperatures are on their way up. We can, and have, recorded serious snowfalls after the calendar has flipped to February and even March. But, from a climatological perspective, the chances of appreciable snowfall begin to decrease dramatically as we move through the month of February.

So, right now, we can say with near certainty that it probably isn’t going to snow (not a lot) in the next 2 weeks. By that time, we’ll be in early February. And if we get there and we can still say with certainty that it’s not going to snow in the 2 weeks after that, it’s going to be getting awfully close to time to stick a fork in this winter, and chalk it up alongside other recent winters as our snow drought continues. In the meantime, we wait and see if the pattern continues to evolve into one that is more favorable for winter weather as we head towards February.


A pattern change is in the works; what will it mean for cold and snow?

Last week, I wrote about how Winter 2019-2020 has been a dud so far, and how we’re going to be at risk of it ending without ever getting started if we don’t start to see signs of a pattern change emerge soon.

Well, as we enter the second half of January, a pattern change is emerging, though it isn’t yet clear what that’s going to mean for sustained cold, or snow chances. Both have been MIA so far this winter.

After very warm temperatures again on Wednesday, January 15, a cold front is going to move through the region and begin to usher in colder air, and it’s going to be much colder by this weekend, after a stronger cold front passes through on Saturday. The high on Sunday looks to be right around the freezing mark, and then it gets even colder. By the first of next week, we could see isolated locations in favored areas of the northern Cumberland Plateau flirt with single-digit temperatures for the first time this winter.

This is probably the most impressive shot of cold air that we’ve seen so far this year. There won’t be a threat of snow accompanying it, but it’s still going to feel a lot different than what we’ve been accustomed to in a January that’s running a whopping 10 degrees above normal so far.

(Regarding January, here are some interesting numbers through the first half of the month: We’re exactly 10.0 degrees above average [54.2 degrees], and we’ve received exactly twice the normal amount of rain [4.10 inches]. The pattern change means we should be somewhat drier the rest of the month, so we aren’t going to flirt with record rainfall. And with temperatures turning much cooler, we should also get back in line in that regard, as well. But if the month ended today, it would be the warmest January on record, beating out 1974.)

The cold wave that is going to settle in on Sunday isn’t going to be sustained, and we’ll be well into a warming trend by the middle of next week. But we aren’t going to return to temps in the 60s and 70s anytime soon.

As for what happens in the extended pattern, only time will tell. The teleconnections are pretty much neutral across the board. I wrote last week about the positive North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), the positive Arctic Oscillation (AO) and the negative Pacific North American (PNA) ridge index, and how all of those lend themselves towards warmer-than-average conditions in our region. Now the NAO, AO and PNA are all trending towards neutral territory. The Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO), which was also briefly touched on in the last post, is moving into more favorable regions but not the regions that correspond to the coldest weather for our region — at least not yet. All of that adds up to a weather pattern that doesn’t really have a driver. At face value, you could say there are equal chances for above-average or below-average temperatures as long as this pattern is in place, with no strong signs for either extreme warmth or extreme cold. In such a pattern, if I had to bet for one or the other, I’d bet for cold over warmth.

Right now, the next storm system looks like it’ll impact us around January 24-26. There have been some winter storm signals with this one; it’s primarily going to depend on the track of the storm, assuming it does develop. However, the cold air that’s going to be in place in advance of the storm will be rapidly eroding, and at first glance there doesn’t appear to be an impressive reinforcing shot of arctic air coming down the pipes, so don’t be surprised if this storm winds up too far north, or without enough cold air, to produce snow for our region.

The next shot of real cold air after the week upcoming looks like it’ll settle in around January 28-31. That may again be a transient shot of cold air without a turn to sustained cold in the Mid-South region.

So the bottom line is that conditions are becoming more favorable for winter weather that actually feels like winter. But if you’re looking for snow, there’s still nothing on the horizon worth talking about as we move rapidly through the heart of winter. Remember, our average daily high is 44 degrees on January 15, but it’s increasing slightly every day. By February 1, it’ll be 46 degrees. By February 10, it’ll be 48 degrees. And by February 18, it’ll be 50 degrees. So if you don’t want cold or snow, take heart. Winter may be finally showing up, but spring is right around the corner.


The diminishing winter of 2019-2020

Because I have a lot of friends who are weather fanatics, finding strange joy in the bitter cold and frozen precipitation that most of the civilized world finds miserable, I see plenty of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments on social media when winter isn’t going as hoped for … and winter 2019-2020 is obviously not going as hoped for. It might’ve seemed like it early, when teachers and students were enjoying a November snow day, before the last of the fall foliage had even turned loose, but things just never materialized from there.

In recent days I’ve seen a couple of well-meaning folks admonishing the complainers, reminding them that winter is only a couple of weeks old. In other words, don’t give up on it just yet.

It’s true that winter isn’t far along on the calendar. Officially, winter doesn’t begin until the winter solstice, which is December 21. But from a meteorological standpoint, winter begins on December 1, ends on February 28, and we’re in the climatological heart of winter. The sun is climbing higher in the sky each day, and the proof is in the setting sun each evening. Sunset today was at 5:38 p.m. Just a couple of weeks ago, as we were preparing to celebrate Christmas, the sun set at 5:25 p.m. As it climbs higher in the sky, our temperature increases and the window for snow — real snow; serious snow that lays around on the days and causes all the chaos that winter-lovers dream of — begins to close.

In Oneida, we reach the coldest part of the year on December 30. That’s when our average daily high temperature drops to 44 degrees. It stays there for a while, but rises to 45 degrees on January 18, and just keeps increasing after that. By January 31 it will be 46 degrees, and then the uphill climb to spring accelerates as the calendar flips to February. By just four days after Valentines Day, our average daily high in Oneida is 50 degrees. The higher sun angle does more than warm the atmosphere and lengthen the daylight hours. Its penetrating rays make it more difficult for snow to accumulate, and melt it more quickly, even behind thick cloud cover. February snowfalls have less staying power than January snowfalls.

That’s not to say that we can’t have significant snowstorms in February and even in March. Obviously we can, and history speaks for itself. February 1998 and March 1993, anyone? But in terms of probability, you wouldn’t want to bet the farm on accumulating late winter or early spring accumulating snows.

So we’re in the heart of winter, and so far Winter 2019-2020 has been a winter that wasn’t … again. There are a variety of reasons why, but it didn’t always look like this was going to be the case. Long-range forecasts in late summer and fall certainly pointed towards a cold and snowy winter. Even the Farmer’s Almanac projected misery. There was a pre-winter buildup of cold air in the arctics — which is our source of cold air in the northern hemisphere, like freon to an air conditioning unit. But conditions simply haven’t lined up for that cold air to spill into the southeastern U.S.

What’s gone wrong? Several things. But perhaps chief among them, the Pacific Ocean simply hasn’t cooperated. With a lack of ridging in the eastern Pacific to help steer the jet stream, modified Pacific air has flooded the continental U.S. The result has been an active storm pattern — hence, the reason it’s been so wet in Tennessee since the latter part of November — but an unfavorable storm track (in a nutshell, we only get snow in this part of the world if storms track to our south and place us in the cold sector; if the storm track is to our north, we’re in the warm sector and will see primarily rain) and lack of cold air has prevented snowstorms from forming. There has been a lack of atmospheric blocking in the northern Atlantic that can cause cold patterns to take hold in the eastern U.S., and the lack of ridging in the eastern Pacific has allowed the available cold air to pool in the western part of the country, leaving much of the eastern U.S. in a milder weather pattern.

It’s not quite that simple, of course, but that’s a broad overview of what has happened.

Back to the admonishers’ point, it is true that the season is young. Winter may have begun in meteorologists’ eyes back on December 1 — meaning we’re about halfway through already — but snowstorms are uncommon in Tennessee in December. Our time to shine, if you like wintry weather, is January and early February. From 1981 through 2010, the rolling 30-year period currently used by the National Weather Service, our average annual snowfall in Oneida was 7.1 inches (which, by the way, is much lower than the average annual snowfall when numbers from 1971 through 2000 were in use). Of that, only 1.3 inches, on average, has fallen by December 31, and 4.2 inches has fallen by January 31. By February 28, the average for the season jumps to 6.4 inches. So, the numbers aren’t difficult to break down: 1.3 inches of snowfall in December, 2.9 inches in January, 2.2 inches in February, and 0.7 inches in March.

However, there is something to keep in mind, and that is the ability of meteorologists and the computerized tools they rely on to project weather patterns beyond the next 3-7 days. The medium-range guidance models most often used by meteorologists, the American-made GFS and the European-made ECMWF, are 15-day operational models and both are quite adept at projecting patterns for up to two weeks at a time. Beyond 15 days, long-range forecasting begins to become more of a crapshoot.

Just before Christmas, when I pointed out in a Facebook post that the next two weeks looked somewhat mild and rainy, I said that if we got through that two-week period and there was no sign of the pattern breaking down, it might be time to start preparing to throw in the towel on Winter 2019-2020.

And here we are. Two weeks have elapsed. We could be reasonably sure there wouldn’t be major winter storms in the Cumberland Plateau region during the Christmas and New Year holiday period, and there wasn’t. Some light snow on January 4 that didn’t amount to anything more than a light dusting in some areas was the extent of our wintry precipitation. So what does the pattern look like now, going forward? In a nutshell: More of the same.

For the next two weeks, the mild and wet pattern looks to persist. The upcoming weekend looks like a virtual washout for our region, and we’ll be talking more about the possibility of severe weather than wintry weather (chances of severe weather are relatively low on Saturday, but strong thunderstorms are possible). After that, there are signals of additional storm systems around January 14-15 and January 20-22. Combined, these next three storms could produce upwards of half a foot of rainfall for the already-saturated region, but virtually no snow. Temperatures are likely to push into or near the 60s with each of the storm systems.

If — and I stress “if” — we get through this next two-week period and a pattern change still isn’t on the horizon, we will be entering the final week of January and looking forward towards the middle of February. And if we get to Valentines Day and a pattern flip to cold and snowy weather still isn’t looking likely, it is almost certainly going to be time to declare the entirety of Winter 2019-2020 a big, fat bust.

So that’s why I say that this winter is dwindling. Chances for it to be a memorable winter in terms of snow and extreme weather are diminishing. With that said, there’s a major caveat that deserves to be highlighted: it only takes one significant snow storm to make any winter memorable. The Winter of 1992-1993 was quite bland before the Blizzard of ’93 that March, and the Winter of 1997-1998 was ho-hum before the devastating dynamic cooling storm that exceeded even the 1993 blizzard in terms of the havoc it created.

There are more recent examples, too. The Winter of 2014-2015 had featured zero — as in 0.0 inches — snow until February 17, three days after Valentines Day. Then we got slammed with a major pattern change, temperatures that bottomed out at -11 (an all-time record for the month of February, and the coldest temps that Oneida had recorded since January 1984), and a total of 7 inches of snowfall in the final two weeks of February. The cold pattern continued into March 2015 with record-low temperatures before spring finally arrived by the middle of that month.

So it’s certainly not time to declare winter over, not by any stretch of the imagination. And there are some signs that a pattern change could be on the horizon. For now, though, those signs continue to be delayed and I wouldn’t put much stock in the idea of a pattern change until it’s actually showing up with a little more consistency on long-range models.

For now, the North Atlantic Oscillation — which has been predominately positive this winter — looks to stay in positive territory through the middle of the month, though it does show signs of dropping back towards neutral territory as we get into the latter stages of January. The NAO is a measure of storminess in the northern Atlantic Ocean, and a negative NAO state is typically desirable for sustained cold and snow chances in the Mid-South. The Arctic Oscillation has spiked to extreme positive territory, and will stay there for the next several days before perhaps trending towards neutral by the latter part of the month. For now, models keep the AO in positive territory, however. The AO is a measure of storminess in the arctics, and a negative AO is generally preferred for cold air to be unleashed into the Lower 48, while a positive AO is viewed as a hindrance for serious wintry weather. Finally, the Pacific North American ridge index is trending into negative territory and will become sharply negative in the days ahead, before beginning to trend back towards neutral in the latter part of the month. For now, models keep the PNA for the foreseeable future. The PNA is a measure of ridging in the eastern Pacific. A lack of ridging, which places the PNA in a negative state, doesn’t force colder air into the eastern U.S. and often leads to a pattern where the West is generally colder than normal and the East is generally warmer than normal. A positive PNA is generally preferred for cold and wintry weather in the Mid-South.

Taken together, a +NAO, +AO and -PNA isn’t a death knell for wintry weather in Tennessee, but it’s definitely not an ideal setup. On top of this, the Madden-Julian Oscillation — a measure of omnipresent and eastward-moving storminess in the tropics — looks to remain in unfavorable position for the time being. The current forecast has the MJO progressing through Phases 4-6 for the next couple of weeks. Generally speaking, Phases 7, 8, 1 and 2 are where cold weather outbreaks occur in the eastern U.S., while Phases 5 and 6 tend to be where warm-weather extremes occur. Not surprisingly, with the MJO stuck in Phases 4-6, the next couple of weeks look mild.

If, over the next couple of weeks, the MJO begins to show signs of progressing into Phases 7 and 8, and if there are signs of increased ridging along the Pacific Coast, and if there are signs of the AO flipping to negative, those will be pretty good indicators that a pattern change is brewing. And I’ll add that brand-new guidance for February 2020 from the long-range CFSV2 model is showing cold air flooding much of the eastern half of the country in February. Previous guidance from this model was showing cold air only in the New England region for February. However, the model doesn’t have a good track record thus far this winter. It did not lock on to the mild January pattern in the eastern U.S. until late in the game.

The bottom line: It’s far too early to stick a fork in Winter 2019-2020, but we’re further along in the game than it might appear at first sight. For now, a mild and wet pattern is in command and will continue its death grip on the Mid-South region for at least the next 10 days or so. After that, it may be time to re-evaluate the broader atmospheric setup … and if there are no serious signs of pattern change, the ol’ fat lady may be starting to warm up her vocal cords.

Newspaper Columns

The simple symbolism of the nativity

As we enter the Christmas season, most of us know the nativity scene by heart: The baby Jesus, lying in a manger in the cold stable after Mary was denied entry to the inn, the shepherds and wise men gathered round, along with the barnyard animals.

Of course, many also know that much of the traditional nativity, as we observe it at Christmas, may be less than accurate. We don’t know that Christ was born in a barn; he may just as well have been born in a home — probably was, theologians tell us. We don’t know that Joseph and a very pregnant Mary were necessarily turned away from an inn. And the wise men didn’t show up on the scene until Jesus was a toddler, long after that first Christmas night in Bethlehem.

But the symbolism of the nativity is remarkable, even now — more than 2,000 years later.

I’m still a child at heart when it comes to Christmas. I never stop getting caught up in the wonderment of it all — of how it’s the one time each year when all of us still seem to have a little extra place in our heart for the wellbeing of our Fellow Man. And the older I get, the more I marvel at the spectacular lessons woven into the fabric of the nativity’s simplicities.

Perhaps most spectacular is the fact that the most influential man the world has ever known made such a humble entrance. As Christians, we celebrate Christmas as the birth of God himself, stepped out of eternity and into time to save a fallen human race. But even if you observe Christmas as a secular holiday, you cannot deny the existence of a man named Jesus — born the son of a Jewish carpenter from Galilee, in the lineage of King David. This man Jesus had the audacity to claim that he was God in the flesh. For that, he was ultimately executed. You might not believe the deity of Jesus, but you cannot deny that he lived. Only a handful of mainstream historians have tried, and they have failed spectacularly. You might not believe that he was virgin-born, but you cannot deny that his teachings and ideas — centered on simple things like love and mercy and forgiveness — have influenced every society that has come after him.

So whether you believe Jesus was the messiah or that he was just a man who commanded a great following, the fact remains that history’s most influential figure was born without pomp or circumstance. They may not have had People magazine or cable television in Bethlehem, but the birth of royalty was just as big a deal then as it is today. Yet in Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus went virtually unnoticed.

The Jewish people had been awaiting a messiah. Their prophets had been foretelling it for hundreds of years. But they never saw him coming when he actually arrived. They expected a mighty warrior, an emperor — not the meekness of a newborn. Even though the prophet Isaiah had written generations before that the messiah would arrive as a baby in Bethlehem, no one was looking for him as the kingdom crowded into Bethlehem for the Roman census. 

I think about that, and I think about how even now, many of us — including Christians who should know better — look for God to show up in mighty ways, and we overlook the smallest of blessings that are bestowed upon us every single day — blessings that are just as much undeserved as they are unappreciated. The Jews of Jesus’s day were looking for their messiah to show up with a thunderous entrance; they hardly expected him to show up so quietly and humbly, yet there he was, with only Joseph and Mary and the livestock witnessing his birth. And the same remains true today.

The traditional image of Joseph and Mary as more or less outcasts who were turned away when seeking lodging, forced to sleep in the cold, is probably among the inaccuracies of the nativity’s traditional observance. Yet their arrival in Bethlehem was hardly a celebrated one. Mary didn’t arrive on a stallion or a camel but on a lowly donkey — just as, decades later, Jesus would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a horse as a symbol that he came in peace rather than to seek war.

Because the Greek word for “inn,” kataluma, is also used to describe the reception room in a private home, it is widely speculated that Mary and Joseph weren’t turned away from an inn in the way most of us imagine, but that they were instead relegated to the lower level of a family home that was overcrowded due to the census being taken. The animals were brought into the lower level of the home at night for warmth and protection, so the manger aspect of the nativity still fits. Either way you interpret it, Jesus was born amongst the animals and laid into a feeding trough after being swaddled. It’s hard to imagine a more humbling entrance for a king. 

Years later, Jesus would say, “No man comes to the father except through me.” And through his humble birth, an everlasting example was set for how man should approach God: with humility and obedience. If the later teachings of Paul the Apostle taught Christians anything, wasn’t it that a fallen man cannot approach God without putting aside his pride? In fact, the humble birth of Jesus seems to line up with Paul’s first epistle to the church at Corinth, when he said: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”

It’s remarkable that the first people the angels appeared before to herald the birth of Christ were the shepherds. Like so much of the nativity, tradition has probably colored the truth of the shepherds. They’re traditionally viewed as society’s outcasts, and certainly there were eras and cultures in which they were just that (research Aristotle’s writings on the shepherds of Greece), but in the day of Jesus, they were likely more highly regarded than that. Still, it was hardly a celebrated profession, and certainly not what anyone of stature would be doing. The shepherds were the poorest of the poor, putting in long hours and often sharing their huts with their sheep. 

Yet, it was the shepherds — not the wise men — who were summoned to the manger by the angels. It was the clearest illustration of just who Jesus came to redeem. In those ancient societies, favor was curried upon the esteemed — royalty, landowners, the eldest sons. But with the arrival of Jesus, the angels bypassed the esteemed for the downtrodden. It was symbolic of the way Jesus would live his life: shunning the company of the esteemed for the company of people who were just like those shepherds — the very people the sanctimonious Pharisees and other self-righteous people of his day spent their entire lives thumbing their noses at (and how about the symbolism within that aspect of it all, driving home the point that religion cannot save anybody). 

Of course, the wise men did eventually show up, because Jesus did come to save everybody, not just a certain class of people. But isn’t it fascinating that when the Magi did arrive, they came bearing expensive gifts — while the shepherds, who had been first on the scene at least several months earlier, came with nothing; they had nothing to offer but their presence. It had long been a practice of the Hebrew people to offer sacrifices; Joseph and Mary themselves went to offer a sacrifice soon after Jesus’ birth. But the shepherds’ arrival with nothing to offer was the first indication that in this new age of grace, there would be nothing that man could offer to merit God’s grace.

There is so much about salvation and the new age of grace that dawned that first Christmas morning in Bethlehem that Christians wouldn’t understand until the later teachings of the Apostle Paul. And, yet, so much of it was illustrated in the symbolism of the nativity. Merry Christmas!