The Weatherman In this episode of Invisibilia, we explore our relationship with uncertainty through the eyes of a chief meteorologist. We wonder: what do you do when you don't know what to do? And how do we handle it when that question has no answer?
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ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:

Hey, everybody. Before we get started, we have a quick favor to ask, which is that if you like INVISIBILIA, please help us to spread the word about the show. One way you can do that is to go to Apple Podcasts and rate and review us. Another way is tell a friend. Seriously, it makes a really big difference to us, and we would really appreciate it. OK, on with the show.

HANNA ROSIN, HOST:

Gary Noesner spent most of his career as an FBI hostage negotiator. In fact, for a while he was the hostage negotiator. He was at Waco and the D.C. sniper attacks.

So I'm going to ask you about this specific incident.

But that's not what we wanted to talk to him about.

GARY NOESNER: We're talking about the Sperryville case again?

ROSIN: Yeah, yeah.

NOESNER: OK.

ROSIN: Sperryville, Va. - or just outside, really. A man had kidnapped his ex and their young son, and he was holding them hostage on the second floor of an empty farmhouse. Gary's job was to engage the guy, Charlie Leaf, somehow win his trust and diffuse the situation. And at times, he felt like he was getting somewhere.

NOESNER: I knew he was someone who had a lot of issues and a lot of behavioral problems. But there's a part of me that also liked him. We talked about having sons the same age. We talked about camping. You know, we formed a little bit of a relationship.

ROSIN: As much of a relationship as you could have when Gary was standing at the bottom of the stairs hollering up to Charlie, a SWAT team of armed FBI agents behind him. At one point, Gary caught a glimpse of the woman being held hostage, Charlie's ex. Her name was Cheryl.

NOESNER: She looked extraordinarily frightened and frail and - and very scared of the situation, wouldn't even make eye contact with me.

ROSIN: And then shortly after sunup, Charlie started to get very angry.

NOESNER: You know, I couldn't see him. But I was almost sensing a - nearly a foaming-at-the-mouth frenzy. It was that bad.

ROSIN: He was cursing out Cheryl, calling her names, telling her she was a horrible wife and mother. And then he called out to little Charlie.

NOESNER: And said, come sit in daddy's lap. And I could hear the little pitter patter of feet as little Charlie apparently complied. Then he, he said, I've got her on her knees on the chair next to me, and I've got the gun in her head. And I'm going to blow her, you know, effing brains out.

ROSIN: The air in the room shifted. The FBI guys got tense. This is it. This is the moment.

NOESNER: The SWAT guys, who were standing next to me, literally began to move me out of the way, anticipating that there was going to be a gunshot.

ROSIN: The FBI guys were sure they knew what was going to happen next up there. Gary was afraid of it too. But he was still desperately trying to figure out how to talk to Charlie, how to change the course of events because until it's over, over, you can never be sure which way things will turn. The only certain thing is uncertainty.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And I'm Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA is a show about all of the invisible forces that shape us. And today we're exploring uncertainty. What do you do in the moments when you're not sure what's about to happen?

ROSIN: Not everyone is negotiating an actual hostage situation. But these days, it can feel like we're all up against terrifying uncertainties. Could my father get deported?

SPIEGEL: Will my daughter ever find steady work?

ROSIN: Will Miami be completely under water in 10 years?

SPIEGEL: When's the next pandemic coming?

ROSIN: The next school shooting?

SPIEGEL: Will the world order hold, or could our democracy...

ROSIN: ...Actually fail?

SPIEGEL: What do we do when we feel like something terrifying might be happening, but we don't 100 percent know what's going on upstairs?

ROSIN: Our story today is about a man whose whole job is to nail down big unknowns. He's a TV weatherman in Birmingham, Ala. And some days his job becomes incredibly important. People's lives depend on him getting it right. And just a heads up, if you've been through a natural disaster, there are parts of this story that might be difficult to hear. Producer Abby Wendle has this story.

ABBY WENDLE, BYLINE: James Spann lives a very certain life, everything scheduled down to the minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM CLOCK BEEPING)

WENDLE: 4:52 a.m., alarm goes off.

JAMES SPANN: This is cut number two in five, four, three, two, one.

WENDLE: 5 a.m., record radio weather spots from his home office.

SPANN: Mostly clear weather continues tonight, we'll forecast the low at - (clearing throat).

WENDLE: 6 a.m., chat with morning hosts live on TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: Megan, where were you in 2004 on this date?

WENDLE: 6:15, blog - tweet, Facebook, Snapchat.

SPANN: Wow.

WENDLE: Wow, heart that waterspout on Instagram. By 9, James is off to a speaking engagement to preach the gospel of severe weather preparedness.

SPANN: The No. 1 reason people died that day is this, the siren mentality.

WENDLE: Followed by some CrossFit at Godspeed gym.

UNIDENTIFIED COACH: Come on, man, down, right there.

SPANN: Woo.

UNIDENTIFIED COACH: Right there - there we go.

WENDLE: 2:30 p.m., head to the television studios for the 4, 5, 6 and 10 o'clock news. Monday night, geek out with other weathermen and women for weekly podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WEATHERBRAINS!")

SPANN: This is the weekly show all about weather. This is...

WENDLE: James will finally get to bed sometime after midnight, once he's scanned through and answered all the emails and Snapchats and tweets, of course. And at 4:52 the next morning, he'll get up and do it all over again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE, ALARM CLOCK BEEPING)

SPANN: ...Best New Country, 95.3 the Bear. 790, WTSK and Praise 93.3...

UNIDENTIFIED COACH: Thirty seconds, you're almost there.

WENDLE: Wow.

SPANN: James Spann on ABC 33/40 weather center 790...

UNIDENTIFIED COACH: Hit it, hit it, hit it, hit it.

SPANN: In Katrina, there was a little dog they found. And that dog had been in that water for days. And they pulled that little dog out of the water, and it was still dog paddling, just those legs. And they say the dog didn't stop for two days. I think I'd be like that when I retire. I don't know how to slow down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: James' life hasn't always been this regimented. When I was in the car with him, driving from one thing to the next, he told me that life started out pretty chaotic, actually, in rural Alabama in the 1960s, where he was raised only by his mom at a time when single moms were pretty rare.

SPANN: My father just opted out. He left when I was in second grade. But why he left, I don't know to this day.

WENDLE: James was getting ready for school when his mom came in and said that his dad just hadn't come home the night before.

SPANN: She didn't know where he was. She didn't know. And I don't have any specific recollection of that - later that day when I came home or the following days. But it was - clearly we figured out he wasn't coming back, no communication. He was just gone. To this day, I don't know why.

WENDLE: If James were more introspective, a psychological kind of guy, he might see that fundamental unknown, why his dad left, as the reason he's the way he is. But James isn't that kind of guy. For him, the explanation is way more straightforward. The certainty he imposes on his actions, living in a permanent training exercise, it's the best way he knows to fight off the terrifying uncertainty he's up against.

See, weather forecasting is fundamentally uncertain. We know where the climate is headed, that sea levels are rising and that global temperatures are increasing. But local weather, we're not 100 percent sure if and where it will rain until it's just about to fall. Now, an afternoon shower is not a problem most of the time. But when it comes to tornadoes, things can turn deadly fast.

SPANN: The standard person on the street thinks that weather people get paid for getting it wrong 90 percent of the time or whatever. They don't know what it's like to be standing on that wall when you've got lives on the line on a day like that. No - nobody gets it.

WENDLE: Tornadoes are a huge problem in Alabama. The state isn't in Tornado Alley proper. It's not Oklahoma or Kansas. But it's in a part of the country with its own nickname, Dixie Alley, the Southern twin.

SPANN: You know, I don't know if it's necessarily good publicity advertising that you got big tornadoes. But you ask anybody in this state, do we have tornadoes? Yeah.

WENDLE: And Alabama tornadoes are often more lethal than the ones that spin up over the Great Plains. For lots of reasons, they're practically invisible. Sometimes you don't see or hear them until they're right on top of you, which is why James feels the need to prepare, prepare, prepare. And people in Alabama are grateful to James for it. It's comforting.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Everybody trusts James Spann, the weatherman.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Lord Spann? Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: People know weathermen. But, like, it's an exception, right? I mean, he's, like, a rock star in Alabama.

WENDLE: There's James Spann swag - posters and bobbleheads. He's a popular Halloween costume, bald white guy with red suspenders. There's even a Pinterest page of cakes made in James' image. And at least one Alabamian bears a James Spann tattoo, the permanent kind. And there's this thing James does when he's standing in front of the green screen, forecasting severe storms. The more violent and dangerous they get, the more layers of clothing he strips off. The meme goes, when James Spann is naked, we're all about to die.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Taking off the coat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Takes off that jacket and rolls up his sleeves.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Tie comes off. We're like, woo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The minute that you see the sleeves being rolled up, you know that it's pretty severe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Then you know we're in trouble. (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Hightail it to your place of safety. (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The James Spann weatherman is really concerned about what - what might happen. And you know it's serious business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: This James Spann meme is downright sacred in Alabama. It's a secret handshake he shares with each individual member of his audience, like they depend on him, and he's there for them. And together, they've got this. Everything's going to be just fine.

SPANN: These are my people. And I just feel a responsibility to take care of them. And I can't help them in any situation except when there are tornadoes flying around here.

WENDLE: Why do you, like - what is it about your soul, do you think, that, like, feels this need to save lives? You know -

SPANN: Well, I think everybody's born to do something. Everybody has a destiny. And when you're born to do something, then you feel like that's your mission in life. You need to do it. And you need to do it right.

WENDLE: James is beloved for this in Alabama. But he's also gotten his fair share of criticism for doing one big thing wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICE NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: What exactly is your position on climate change?

SPANN: My position is this. The climate is changing. The climate has always changed. The climate always will change.

WENDLE: This is James in a 2018 VICE interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICE NEWS BROADCAST)

SPANN: The question is, what is man's role?

WENDLE: That paints him outside something scientists in this century have been most sure of - man's starring role in climate change. But when it comes to Alabama weather, for the most part, James does do it right. For example, on April 15, 2011, there were 29 tornadoes that touched down in a single day in Alabama. That's a lot. And yet, only four people died. Four is not zero. It's still four people gone. But you could argue that without James, many more people could have died. And then less than a week after that, James started seeing signs that the weather could turn even worse.

SPANN: This could be a very significant tornado day - potential for violent, long-track tornadoes. This is scary stuff. Even if you've lived here, where this stuff happens on a regular basis, you don't hear me saying that that often.

WENDLE: So James did what he always does - prepared. He alerted station management.

SPANN: Number one, we had to get our weather staff straight.

WENDLE: Ordered around all the engineers.

SPANN: Every generator's got to be topped off with fuel - diesel fuel.

WENDLE: He blogged, appeared live on local radio shows, did a WeatherBrains podcast about it. He tweeted, Instagrammed, Facebooked.

SPANN: This is serious business.

WENDLE: And on the nightly news, James hit his main message hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: No matter what you're doing, if you're in your car, if you are - wherever, you've got to be able to hear these warnings. Be around a radio. Be around the television.

WENDLE: He warned people over and over again for two days straight. And then the night before James predicted the storms to arrive, he couldn't sleep.

ROSIN: INVISIBILIA will be back in a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: On the eve of the storms, James was lying in bed, awake. Here's Abby.

WENDLE: James was worried...

SPANN: What had we not done?

WENDLE: ...His mind running through lists, obsessing over things he may have missed.

SPANN: What do I need to do? What - again, my mind is always, what can go wrong? What did I not do to prepare for this? I can't remember when I drifted to sleep, but it was pretty late.

MARY JEAN JOHNSON: My husband looked at me. And he says, let's go to the basement. And then all of a sudden...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: We got reports of debris falling out of the sky.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Oh, goodness.

WENDLE: James expected the day to be bad, but this was turning into a nightmare. There were tornadoes touching down all over Alabama.

SPANN: The radar was lighting up like a Christmas tree.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: Tornado number one, tornado number two, tornado number three.

WENDLE: One minute he was on his tiptoes in front of the green screen. The next, he was down on his knees.

SPANN: You had to bounce between this one and this one and this one and this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: We've been through this rodeo before.

WENDLE: Some of the tornadoes were wide as a small town with winds whipping faster than a race car - monsters that literally rip the hides off cattle, launch tractor trailers into the sky and carry feathers and guns and mail across state lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Wow. Look at that.

SPANN: Are you kidding me?

WENDLE: Then suddenly, a tornado tore onto the green screen. They caught one live on camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: That is a large wedge tornado.

WENDLE: Over a half-mile-wide chunk of thunderstorm ripped out of the sky and gnawing on the Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: Look at the debris. Look at the debris in that. Zoom in tighter, Jason, if we can go in...

JIM JOHNSON: Power goes off.

JIM RAINEY: Power went out.

LISA RALEY: The phone went dead. The lights went out. The TV went off. And I heard what sounded like a train. And it was like (imitating tornado). I went to the door, and I saw it. You know, it was like a thunderstorm that was on the ground. And I could see things in it.

RAINEY: The glass beside me started shaking. The rubber ceiling had given way.

RALEY: I said, Tyler, you know, get down here.

RAINEY: And I looked out the window and saw a tree go by.

RALEY: He dove down the stairs, and we got in the basement fast.

J. JOHNSON: The only thing we could really hear was slap, slap, slap, which was boards flying through the house.

M. JOHNSON: I could feel the vibrations downstairs.

RALEY: Vibrating - you know, like, you could just feel energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER)

SPANN: You were looking at pure, raw, graphic violence on television - nothing but graphic violence. I would say in my 40 years, that was the scariest moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: Look at that - goodness gracious. This will be a day that will go down in state history. And all you can do is pray for those people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

J. JOHNSON: I did not know where I was. Everything that was supposed to be there was gone. Everything is a pile of rubble.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: When Jim and Mary Jean Johnson came up from their basement, they looked through blown-out windows and saw that their pecan trees in the backyard had been ripped up by the roots and tossed. And there were piles of wood where houses used to be.

J. JOHNSON: And you just kind of walk around thinking, what am I going to do? What the hell am I going to do?

WENDLE: Lisa Raley's son, Tyler, and husband went out into the woods looking for people.

RALEY: And they found some people. And my son actually had to pull out some people that were dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAINEY: What many people don't realize is that it did not go on for a day or two. It went on for weeks like that.

WENDLE: Jim Rainey was a local publisher. His newspaper covered stories about the missing for weeks, wrote about the last body found.

RAINEY: And he was found on top of what became an abandoned strip mall and had stayed there for quite some time before they found him.

WENDLE: When the count was done, 62 tornadoes had touched down in Alabama on a single day - April 27, 2011. It was one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in recorded history. Accounts vary, but around 250 people died.

J. JOHNSON: And she and the two dogs were just right here. What we found really strange was the fact that the two dogs were - I mean, they were there. And Rick was out first. And his dog was a big German shepherd. And his dog just came over and sat down beside her and the two other dogs.

WENDLE: And just waited.

J. JOHNSON: They just sat down and waited.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: The following Monday after the storms, only five days later, James opened his podcast like a church service.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")

LEANN RIMES: (Singing) Amazing grace...

WENDLE: For a man who took four deaths personally, hundreds was unbearable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: I cannot thank the nation and the world enough for their outpouring of love and compassion. And I'm telling you - you know, JB, this is going to be real hard for me. I will warn you.

WENDLE: But aside from this one show, for months, James refused to talk about what happened that day.

KAREN SPANN: He dealt with it for a year, I think.

WENDLE: This is James' wife, Karen.

SPANN: He didn't really want to talk about it at all. Did you?

SPANN: It was about six months.

SPANN: Six months - I just remember that one morning at the kitchen table that he broke down and cried. And that was - that has never happened in our marriage, that he has cried about something like that. He does not cry. And it really gravely concerned me. I knew he was dealing with a lot. And I just thought, maybe he can just get it out. You know, he's got to get it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: It worried Karen the way he was carrying around so much guilt and shame. But for James, nobody was supposed to die on his watch.

SPANN: This is insane. With the state of the science and the state of the understanding - the warning process we have, it's inexcusable for anybody - anybody. You, the weather enterprise - I mean, that's what we've got to find out - what happened - and fix it.

WENDLE: And in the months after the storm, James continued to turn inward. He got stuck, became obsessed with finding the answer, figuring out what he did wrong.

SPANN: Find out what happened, why all these people died, and fix it.

WENDLE: And so he began searching for answers in the place he knows - his green screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: Approaching...

WENDLE: James got the footage of his live coverage from that day - more than 10 hours of it. And every free moment he had, he holed up in his office and watched himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: Goodness gracious.

WENDLE: He'd start it and stop it...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: Goodness gracious.

WENDLE: ...And rewind it and watch it over and over again...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: I'll tell you what. Take...

WENDLE: ...Looking for his mistake - the thing he did wrong that would explain the why. He was certain that the answer was there. He just had to find it.

SPANN: What did we do wrong here?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: And, again, this is a very serious situation.

Trying to sort out in my mind what was good and what was bad...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: Tornado number three. Goodness gracious. All right. This is...

What went wrong?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: Goodness gracious. All right.

What happened here? What just happened?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: This is going to be one of these red-letter days.

WENDLE: Finding a sense in the noise of uncertainty became an obsession for James but not just James. This need is a problem for all of us.

ROSIN: When we come back - how not knowing can make us see things that aren't even there.

WENDLE: What happens to us when we're caught in a moment like James was in, where we're desperate for an answer, an explanation?

JAMIE HOLMES: We have this desire to find structure. We have our - a need for closure, a need for answers, a need for order.

WENDLE: This is science writer Jamie Holmes. Jamie wrote a book in 2015 called "Nonsense: The Power Of Not Knowing," about how humans handle uncertainty and how, sometimes, it handles us. He interviewed dozens of psychologists for his book. And they told him that unless it's in a low-stakes situation - something like a crossword puzzle or a comedy sketch or a football game - we're all naturally repelled by uncertainty. We desire answers. And that desire is fueled by a psychological mechanism that often makes not knowing or being uncertain really uncomfortable.

HOLMES: We have to have a way of ending deliberation. If we're deciding between two things and there was no mechanism to decide, we would deliberate forever. There has to be something that is pushing us towards resolution, something that makes uncertainty slightly uncomfortable.

WENDLE: So that we - we want to make a decision and move on.

HOLMES: So that we act.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: We make a decision, any decision, more or less effortlessly, which is a good thing until it's not. In multiple experiments, researchers have found that when we are exposed to an unexpected dose of uncertainty or an uncertainty that is particularly threatening, our discomfort with it starts to grow and expand and become unbearable until we become desperate to stop the discomfort, just end the uncertainty, which can lead us to jump to conclusions instead of making rational decisions. We might ignore ambiguous information...

HOLMES: Stick to a preconceived notion.

WENDLE: ...Or new information, or become...

HOLMES: ...More dogmatic.

WENDLE: We might double down on what we already know or believe.

HOLMES: Block out new information that might be different.

WENDLE: Even if the original source of uncertainty has literally nothing to do with those thoughts or beliefs or notions, like natural disasters and love. Researchers saw this when looking at what people did after an earthquake or a hurricane.

HOLMES: Marriages will spike or divorces will spike because either of those decisions are about certainty. I'm done with this person, or I'm seriously committing to this person. But...

WENDLE: Like, we're either going to get married, or we're going to get divorced.

HOLMES: Exactly.

WENDLE: We're not going to just, like, keep dating...

HOLMES: We're not - we're not going to figure it out.

WENDLE: ...And see how this goes (laughter).

HOLMES: We're not going to figure it out. This is going to be a final decision. And you're going to make me happy for the rest of my life or not. And that's it.

WENDLE: And when something has no answer, it's just nonsense, madness, chaos. We don't just live with not understanding it. We make an answer up. In his book, Jamie catalogues a series of experiments by research psychologists Travis Proulx and Daniel Randles in which they purposely unsettled people and watched them skitter around for solid ground.

HOLMES: Proulx had a number of ways in which he made people feel uncertain.

WENDLE: He'd flash word combinations at them that didn't quite add up.

HOLMES: Like blue frog.

WENDLE: Or playing cards that were the wrong color.

HOLMES: So the spades would be red, and the diamonds would be black.

WENDLE: Or have them read a little Kafka.

HOLMES: I love Kafka, yes.

WENDLE: Then Proulx showed them long strings of letters, like A, B, C, D...

HOLMES: Exactly.

WENDLE: Or, like, Z, F, G, D...

HOLMES: Exactly.

WENDLE: In one subset of the letters, there were patterns.

HOLMES: And in another subset, there weren't.

WENDLE: Any patterns at all.

HOLMES: Exactly. And in either case, those who read the surreal story from Kafka identified more patterns when there weren't patterns and even when there were patterns.

WENDLE: Reading the surreal story kicked people's need for order, for things to make sense, into overdrive.

HOLMES: It's sort of like, do you see Jesus in the burnt toast, right?

WENDLE: (Laughter) Yeah.

They searched for sense in some completely unrelated area. And then the researchers took things a step further. In another experiment, instead of identifying patterns afterwards, they asked people about their beliefs.

HOLMES: Their nationalistic beliefs.

WENDLE: One group read the Kafka story that gave them that extra dose of uncertainty. The other read a nice and easy Aesop's fable. And then researchers had them write how important their birth country, first language and nationality was to their cultural identity.

HOLMES: And it turned out that no matter what you believe, you're more likely to be more fervent after you've been made to feel a little uncertain.

WENDLE: Digging into our beliefs can help us stay committed to the fight when things get bleak, which can be a good thing. But Jamie says it can also make us worse at clearly seeing problems and solving them.

HOLMES: Sometimes the solution to uncertainty is knowing that you can't control it. You can't predict it completely, ever. And so you have to stay in it and stay in it without panicking.

WENDLE: Some people are unbelievably good at this, even in the most high-pressure situations - like that hostage negotiator, Gary Noesner, who we heard from at the beginning of our story. He's one of the prime examples in Jamie's book of what can happen when you tolerate the most uncomfortable uncertainty.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: When we left off, the hostage-taker, Charlie, had his son in his lap and his ex at gunpoint.

NOESNER: The SWAT guys who were standing next to me literally began to move me out of the way, anticipating that there was going to be a gunshot.

WENDLE: But Gary was still trying to stall.

NOESNER: And I finally played my final desperation trump card. I said, Charlie, is there anything I can say or do to keep you from doing this? And instead of him answering, she said, can you get us out of here?

WENDLE: Cheryl, the ex he was holding hostage - they'd never considered Cheryl as one of the options. She hadn't said a word the whole time. Or the idea of a getaway car - there'd been no mention of escape. So that question...

NOESNER: Can you get us out of here?

WENDLE: ...Gary never saw it coming. And it created an opening.

NOESNER: And before I could respond to her, he said, yes, we want to get to that helicopter. There was a FBI helicopter parked out on this field next to the farmhouse that had been flown in earlier in the day. And as soon as I heard him say that, I immediately knew that, you know, I had bought some time.

WENDLE: Gary cued the FBI guys to fall back. And then he started talking with Charlie again, engaging him in a whole new line of negotiations. As they talked, the FBI team backed down the stairs and resumed their position behind Gary. From the sound of Charlie's voice, they could tell he was calming down. And Gary was relieved they hadn't taken action, hadn't charged up the stairs.

NOESNER: You have to be open to the unexpected, keep your mind open for that potential.

WENDLE: This is Gary's whole creed. He writes about it in his book "Stalling For Time."

NOESNER: It's like in some hostage situations, what ultimately saved the day is the hostage-taker falls asleep, and the hostage walks out the back door, you know? Can you plan for that? No, but you always got to guess that, well, maybe something like that'll happen. You know, you've got to be open for things that come up that you can't dictate or control. And you just got to go with the flow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: After several hours of negotiations inside the farmhouse, Gary was able to convince Charlie to trust him that he'd actually be able to leave on the helicopter, make an escape. Gary and the FBI team exited first, leaving through the back door. Then Charlie walked out the front, holding Cheryl close against him, the barrel of his gun pressed into her and their son strapped to his back. They walked like that across the yard, making their way to the helicopter.

NOESNER: As Charlie and Cheryl and little Charlie got within 50 feet of the helicopter, the pilot - as was planned - just very abruptly took off. At the same time, the FBI threw some what they call flashbang grenades, which is like a loud firecracker. It's a diversionary device. And an FBI marksman shot him in the head.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDLE: Cheryl and little Charlie survived.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPANN: OK, and again, I want to be sure people listening and watching understand. You are watching a large tornado that is approaching...

I'd be back in my little closet back there and kind of shut the door and just let it run.

WENDLE: At the TV station, in between his weather segments on air, James would hole up in his small office and watch the footage from April 27. Day after day, he sat with it, sat in that discomfort we feel when we don't understand.

SPANN: You know, you build yourself as this guy that's a severe weather expert. And you understand the state and the geography and the people. And this is not supposed to happen on your watch.

WENDLE: And he felt his desperation rising, the hunger for certainty tugging at him to figure it out already, find an answer. Any explanation will do. But the more he searched for the answer in the footage...

SPANN: You know, I just went through it and listened to what I said and...

WENDLE: ...And watched...

SPANN: ...Watched the video elements we had...

WENDLE: ...And looked and listened...

SPANN: ...Trying to sort out in my mind what was good and what was bad.

WENDLE: ...The more James began to realize...

SPANN: It was very confusing. I didn't have a good answer for that. I don't know.

WENDLE: The most certain man in the world embraced uncertainty, let go.

SPANN: You're brought down to your knees. Maybe everything that we've thought was right is wrong. Maybe we're living life upside down. I don't know.

WENDLE: And when he did, the answer he had expected to find, the, it was me; I failed in front of the green screen - seemed too small to hold the tragedy of April 27.

SPANN: You just can't play that game with your mind. You don't have the time or the energy or the brainpower to play these mental gymnastics to where you're trying to think of a way you can save everybody. It doesn't work that way. You're not some superhero. You're just a stinking weather guy on television.

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WENDLE: And new possibilities came into view.

SPANN: It started to dawn on us that our expert is in physical science and not social science. We don't understand human behavior.

WENDLE: James reached out to some social scientists, and this complicated picture emerged of how people behave inside their own home during a storm, like that people tired of hearing warning after warning after warning dismiss how serious or real the warnings are or that they expect to hear a big siren. And without hearing that, it's just not coming. And these responses are compounded by this basic impulse people have.

SPANN: They just say it's human nature. And I totally agree with him. It is human nature.

WENDLE: When James is warning them that a tornado is headed their way...

SPANN: The first thing they're going to do - what do you think the first thing they're going to do is? Walk out in the front yard and look to see if they can see it, which is not that good of an idea because you can't see most tornadoes in Alabama.

WENDLE: But it's a struggle not to. They have this desire for certainty, this need to see for themselves.

SPANN: I thought they were just glued to our coverage. I mean, that - maybe I'm just naive, thinking, how could you leave this intense TV coverage and go look out the stinking window? What's the matter with you?

WENDLE: And that powerful and very human urge to be certain, it's just another one of the many variables James has realized is out of his control. There's a lot he's had to reconsider - how he communicates with the public, how people actually behave in weather emergencies. Though, he's yet to reconsider his views on climate change. Still, the way he used to tour around with his certainty - now he preaches the gospel of uncertainty.

SPANN: Let me tell you all something. There is no book. There is no manual. There is no academic text on how to handle 62 tornadoes in one day. And I come to you today with a spirit of humility.

WENDLE: Chances are, somewhere out there right now, he's talking to a group of people about what he doesn't know.

SPANN: The last thing I want to be is some old man that claims to be a know-it-all and teach you young people what you're supposed to be doing. I come to you today totally broken - OK? - that something went wrong here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: That's Abby Wendle.

It's tornado season in Alabama right now as we're airing this story. And earlier this month, you might have heard that a big storm hit Lee County, killing 23 people. If you'd like to make a donation to that community, WBHM, the NPR affiliate in Birmingham, Ala., has information on how best to do that. Visit wbhm.org and search five ways to help Lee County tornado victims. That's wbhm.org. Stick around for a preview of next week's INVISIBILIA.

SPIEGEL: Next week on INVISIBILIA, we track a woman who participates in a new medical trial, where a metal device covered in electrodes is inserted deep into her brain. And with that device, researchers can instantly reset her mood.

What is that experience like?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Part of me is like, this is kind of creepy. This - I should be kind of creeped out that I went from feeling suicidal to not because someone's fiddling with a button and controlling electrodes in my brain. Like, but at the same time I'm like, well, thank God I live in this day and age. That was the best day.

SPIEGEL: What this trial means to this woman and what it might ultimately mean for the rest of us. Next week on INVISIBILIA.

INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And me, Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: Our show is edited by Anne Gudenkauf. Our executive producer is Cara Tallo. INVISIBILIA is produced by Yowei Shaw and Abby Wendle. Our project manager is Liana Simstrom. We had help from Jake Arlow, Julie Carli, David Guthertz, Taylor Haney, B.A. Parker, Leena Sanzgiri, and Liza Yeager. Fact checking by Sarah Knight and Jamison Pfeifer. Our technical director is Andy Huether, and our vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

ROSIN: Special thanks to Mark Memmott, Michael Ratner (ph), Emily Bogle and to Jamie Holmes. His book, "Nonsense," was so helpful in working on the story. To Jay Siz (ph), Denise Donohoo, Beatriz Guimaraes, Nate Johnson, Susan Joslyn, Mariya Karimjee, Sarah Azoubel Lima, Dr. Laura Myers, Justin Morgan, Justin Nobel and Clare Schneider, also Godspeed gym for kicking our butts - by which I mean Abby's butt - and the staff of WBHM for lending their voices and feeding us Birmingham's best barbecue.

Also to Liz de Lise for her song, "Slow Carnival" (ph). Additional music for this episode provided by Ramtin Arablouei and Blue Dot Sessions. Original art for this season by Christina Chung at npr.org/invisibilia. And now for our moment of non-zen.

SPANN: (Imitating morse code). That's my name.

WENDLE: Wait, really?

SPANN: Yes.

WENDLE: Do it again.

SPANN: (Imitating morse code). It's my second language.

SPIEGEL: Tune in next week for more...

(SOUNDBITE OF MORSE CODE BEEPING)

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