Storm spotters keep close watch on the weather to keep you safeBy Chad Steenerson
TERRE HAUTE — It was a dark and stormy night …
And you can thank storm spotters for alerting you.
The warnings on TV or radio might be the first signal for a lot of people that severe weather is heading toward the Wabash Valley. But hundreds of others have been watching intently in the seconds and minutes before the alert to give you the heads-up to keep your head down.
Keith Reedy, coordinator of Illiana Skywarn, a network of amateur radio operators trained to recognize potential storm activity, helps pull together the eyes and ears that keep tabs on severe weather heading our way.
An amateur radio operator since 1961, Reedy joined Skywarn Illiana in 1974 as a message handler.
“I have a deep interest in weather, what it does and the damage it can do,” he said. “We were all inspired about that time … by the tremendous damage done by a tornado in Brandenburg, Kentucky. … Some of us here felt that we could help people get out of the way of those things if we were able to provide early warning to National Weather Service so that they could make their warnings available to radio and television in the area here very quickly.” The twister that hit Brandenburg on April 3, 1974, part of the worst tornado outbreak in U.S. history, killed 31 people, injured 257 and destroyed or severely damaged 300 to 400 homes. According to the Kentucky Climate Center Web site (kccserv1.estb.wku.edu/factsheets/ky_tornadoes/), the Brandenburg tornado was classified as an F5, with estimated wind speeds of 261 to 318 mph.
The April 3-4, 1974, “super outbreak” of 148 tornadoes across 13 states, which left 330 people dead, included an unprecedented seven F5 tornadoes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Web site (www.noaa.gov). There have been fewer than 20 F5 tornadoes recorded in the United States since the 1974 outbreak, the last one in Greensburg, Kan., on May 4, 2007.
Until the Brandenburg tornado, Reedy said, there had been “no concerted effort toward early warning to National Weather Service before that time, that I’m aware of.”
“We just wanted to spare our people here in the Wabash Valley…,” he said. “If we could do anything to provide early warning, that’s what we wanted to do. And it began as sort of an idea and just blossomed over the past 34 years from there.”
While high-tech weather equipment, radar and satellites might give forecasters a bird’s-eye view of what’s happening in the atmosphere, technology has its limits. That’s where storm spotters come in. And WTWO-TV 2 chief meteorologist Jesse Walker said that storm spotters make forecasters’ jobs a lot easier.
“Radar is great for helping us to see inside the storm, see any circulation, the possible early formation of what we call a mesocyclone, which is the whole storm rotating, and then consequently the smaller-scale rotation, which would be the indication of a tornado,” he said. “We look into the storm to see that.
“But the way radar works is, radar beams above the surface of the Earth, and as you gain distance away from the radar site, due to the curvature of the Earth, that radar beam gets higher and higher off the surface of the Earth,” Walker said. “So if you’re beaming from Indianapolis over to Brazil, Indiana, you’re pretty far off the ground at that point. Radar can tell us we have circulation in the storm, but we don’t know with radar if it’s still located in the storm or if it’s actually on the ground.”
But for those of you conjuring up images from the 1996 thriller “Twister,” Reedy said, you’ve got the wrong group of people.
“A ‘storm chaser’ is somebody that goes out for kicks and films a storm. I cannot get into the mind of a storm chaser,” he said incredulously, drawing laughter. “I cannot do that. We know what these things can do, and I’m thinking, I’m in a van with a bunch of equipment and some other people I’m taking on tour and we’re chasing a storm, I don’t wanna do that.
“But a storm spotter is a totally different animal. We’re looking at what this storm is doing, its intensity, whether there’s hail, whether there’s torrential rain, we’re giving wind speed, wind direction, whether the wind is changing direction, because that’s important in telling what a storm is gonna do. We’re trained to do this.”
And being on the western edge of Indiana, weather spotters in the Wabash Valley are on the front lines in reporting possible threats to the rest of the state, Reedy said. The more eyes on the sky and boots on the ground, the better.
“Let’s take, for instance, the last two storms that came through, high-wind events…” Reedy said. “We have about five counties in Illinois that’s sort of a buffer zone for us. Our counties in Illinois begin to report high winds. And at that time, we over here called National Weather Service Indianapolis and said, ‘OK, here’s what is coming into Clark County,’ which is the Marshall area, and they said, ‘OK, let’s keep an eye on it, we’re watching that particular cell on radar. … When a storm is traveling at 60 miles per hour, you don’t have much time. [At] 60 miles per hour, the storm can be from one side of Terre Haute to the other in a short time.”
In such an instance, spotters in the Terre Haute area will be in direct contact with the National Weather Service in Indianapolis, Reedy said. “Somebody is sitting there [in Indianapolis] at the scopes watching the storm and saying, ‘OK, we’ve got this storm approaching West Terre Haute, can you tell us anything about it? Do you have anybody in the area?’ And if we don’t have anybody in the area, we ask somebody to take their vehicle and go to the south or southwest portion of the storm … because if you’re trying to see a storm from the north, you’re gonna get blocked by rain shield…
“We want ’em optimally southeast, south and then southwest of the storm, because southwest of the storm is where a tornado will form most likely if it’s going to form.”
Reedy estimates that about 250 people have volunteered as weather spotters in the Wabash Valley since 1974, with about 125 active volunteers currently and about “35 to 60” who check in during any given severe weather event. But the more people who’d like to become involved, he said, the better.
“Anybody who is an amateur radio operator and wants to be a part of it … you really don’t have to have a whole lot of equipment to be involved in this. And you don’t even have to have a computer. If you just have a radio …” He pauses. “Y’know, I suppose in a perfect world, if we had enough amateur radio volunteers, we wouldn’t have to send anybody out in a vehicle. They could all watch it from their house. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes there are areas that we’re called upon to watch.”
And the alarm could sound — literally — at any time, day or night.
“[Spotters] have a group of pagers that has been modified to listen on the amateur frequencies, and if there is a warning or a watch that comes up at night, those pagers are alerted. Many of us have pagers in severe weather time that we keep beside our bed … and whoever catches it first sounds the alarm, so to speak, and then we begin to kick into action.
“Sometimes you can’t get people out of bed unless the storm is at their back door,” Reedy said. “Sometimes they’ll [think], ‘Well, I can roll over and get 20 more winks,’ but that’s what the people in Evansville thought when 18 of them died [in 2005]. So we feel like the National Weather Service radio system has been one of the greatest lifesavers to date. You can buy a National Weather Service radio for $29, $39 on up, set it in your home, set it to alert you when a storm is coming and it will save your life.”
An F3 tornado, with estimated wind speeds of 158 to 206 mph, killed at least 24 people, most of them in a mobile home park, in the Evansville area on Nov. 6, 2005.
“People must understand that we’re not out doing this for kicks,” Reedy said. “When we tell National Weather Service, ‘OK, we have a storm on the ground over here, we have a tornado,’ when we pass that information, it’s on the air within 60 to 90 seconds. … It’s pumped out through the National Weather Service radio system, it’s broadcast to television stations within 60 to 90 seconds. They are quick.
“We’re on the front lines over here. … We’re the first lines of defense here in Indiana. So when we tell them we’ve got hail, golf-ball-sized hail here, that is on in 60 to 90 seconds. They don’t fool around with it. And we’ve been here long enough that they don’t question us. They don’t say, ‘Are you sure that’s golf-ball-sized hail?’ or they don’t say, ‘Are you sure that’s a tornado?’ They say, ‘Give me the coordinates, tell me where it’s located, tell me what it’s close to, give me a road sign, give me GPS coordinates,’ whatever it is that our people are using. … If we spot it, if we see it, we’re not gonna report hearsay. Our people have to see this.”
And once someone gets hooked on storm spotting, Reedy said, their passion is, um, gone with the wind.
“I remember one afternoon, it’s been a few years ago, one of our guys was out on his tractor, and it was a fairly bright, sunny day …,” he said. “There were some clouds, there was some stuff in the area, and he actually saw a tornado, a funnel on the ground. And it was one of the first ones that was spotted that afternoon in a small outbreak. And he was actually the vanguard. He actually saw this thing and gave us the first report of it. And so, when you’re a storm spotter,” he starts laughing, “you’re a storm spotter for life. You never get over it.”
For more information on how to become a storm spotter, contact Skywarn Illiana coordinator Keith Reedy at (812) 466-3134 or firstname.lastname@example.org; or assistant coordinator Gary Wheeler at (812) 877-4371 or email@example.com.
Chad Steenerson can be reached at (812) 231-4211 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illiana Skywarn Weather Net: 145.230 MHz