As I sat down to write this article, I picked up my cell phone and had an “amber alert.” What a great age of technology, that we can instantly get early notices such as emergency bulletins and severe storm/tornado warnings. Two hours ago, I watched another powerful tornadic cell form just west of Brewster, Nebraska, luckily that storm moved south of town. (See slide show). This year, 2013 is sizing up to be a dangerous tornado season, and this week looks to be no exception for the high planes in tornado alley.
Storm spotting is a long standing public and private partnership between government, first responders (such as fire rescue and police), and trained private-civilian storm spotters within the community. One storm spotter, who has been doing this for more than 30 years told me why he does this every single year, and is risking his life, at times, to provide an immediate first identification of a tornado, and then calling-it in to the NWS (National Weather Service), once he has properly verified the nature of threat. He said, “I was a little boy, about 5 years old, living in a small town in Oklahoma. One night a tornado hit our town. I remember the sound, remember going to our storm shelter, and then the quiet. Water was pouring down the stairs, so we went up to the house, and all the windows were blown out and stuff was everywhere. It was dark; we had to light candles and use a flashlight all night. The next morning we went outside after storms passed and in the morning light we could see- my whole neighborhood was gone, destroyed, even our garage was gone. Everything around me was rubble. I was suddenly very, very scared, and that fear turned to anger. I was mad at the storm. I didn’t want to let that happen ever again without people knowing, so I started tracking storms, got a meteorology degree, and went out to study these fearsome monsters, collect data and report tornadoes. It gave me strength and hope for the future, a future when people would know when such storms would form, before they killed people.” The person I interviewed for this wishes to remain anonymous.
Where do such tornado warnings start? The majority of the time, significant threats to the public, and warnings start from a single person, at the scene, who notices an event taking place, and then calls police (911), or the local NWS office.
Calling-in dangerous violent tornadoes by trained storm spotters gives ‘essential minutes’ of lead time, so officials can alert the public, at large. For example, on the powerful Joplin, EF5 tornado, trained storm spotters who had been on that storm for hours as it evolved and devolved, were there the very moment the Joplin tornado touched down, and they called-in the warning to 911, immediately. That warning time was critical, because the deadly Joplin EF5 tornado formed in under a minute, and became a mile-wide tornado in two minutes, and then the tornado made a fatal turn moving directly for the town of Joplin, Missouri. That EF5 was only on the ground for approximately 10 minutes, but had just enough time to destroy the heart of Joplin. The recent Moore EF5 tornado was no exception, as the now famous 16 minutes warning made by David Andra, at National Weather Service (NWS) surely saved countless lives, and initial warnings resulted from numerous trained storm spotters and meteorologists who reported the tornado as soon as it touched down. The Basehunters storm tracking team called in the tornado around 2:46pm along with many others, and then the Moore EF5 tornado strengthened and widened into a 1.3 mile-wide killer wedge. Storm spotter notification on Spotternet, and call-ins to NWS, made all the difference in the world for David to have supreme confidence in issuing his now famous tornado emergency alert. Kudos to all!
Now the other side of violent storm tracking. Tornado shows became quite popular, and with that popularity came curious observers intent on following vehicles equipped to track these violent deadly storms. “Several years ago it got pretty congested, with people in pickups following us, while we were on the job collecting scientific data and reporting severe storms. What followed next was law enforcement, who are also sometimes storm spotters, but who generally do not have onboard radar systems and are usually not currently trained and certified Spotternet, SkyWarn, or university educated meteorologists having to spot tornadoes, but law enforcement also have to deal with traffic problems and hazardous storm events that certified tracker also follow. In some cases, law enforcement would arrest casual observers following storm trackers who may have been interfering with official police business. Now this number of untrained storm tracker followers has diminished, a bit, as the public is becoming aware of the need for real trained storm trackers, and tends to discourage people loading family members in their cars to chase professional storm trackers who are reporting on storm events.” One comment from a highly trained and certified storm tracker who invested foundation money into severe storm research indicated, “If you are not a trained meteorologist or certified tracker, ‘DO NOT FOLLOW MY CAR’ it can get you killed. ” This professional meteorologist means this in all sincerity. He has many computerized strategies to collect data, to report on tornadoes, and also advanced ways to exit dangerous storms that casual observers do not have access to such information. Where does this leave law enforcement? They too, at times, perform the job as a storm spotter but without the eyes, computers, and training to spot and track such storms over large distances. In many cases, police and first responders have strong cooperative relationships with certified storm spotters, and are more than happy to work hand-in-hand with their trained certified civilian counterparts. Others have a different philosophy. One storm spotter recently reported the following, “I was on my phone literally reporting a dangerous likely-tornado and was pulled over while evacuating the area. While reporting on the phone to 911, I was issued a ticket while evacuating. I carefully mentioned to the officer that I was trained and certified storm spotter reporting a tornado and told him to look behind. The officer looked back, saw the probable tornado, gave me the ticket anyway, and ran back to his car. That tornadic storm moved right over his home town, and then crossed a federal highway!” Another spotter told me during an interview, “while people were evacuating from a tornado, after it touched down and was heading in their direction, “I heard a couple of police later at a coffee shop who were laughing and one guy said, “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel, I got my quota this afternoon, I’m taking the week off.” Gladly, most first responders, fire rescue, and the majority of police are considerably more professional when it comes to performance of duty during dangerous severe weather outbreaks, but they too have a tough time discerning their job during a disaster. This is not easy for anyone.
Why do we need storm spotters really? I was on the Goldsby EF4 tornado damage survey along with NWS and FEMA engineering damage surveyors. What amazed me was that ‘3 minutes’ made the difference between life and death. Here is why. A man had recently built a new home, with all the upgrades to withstand a moderate tornado, but his house in Goldsby, Oklahoma was hit by and EF4 tornado, and the entire house was cleaned off it’s foundation only leaving the new home’s footer and chucking cars, end over end, for hundreds of yards. The husband had made a call (just three minutes before the tornado hit his home) to his wife at home, and told her that a tornado was spotted and an alert was issued on his smart phone, and that she should go to the shelter immediately. She told me she had some neighbors over that afternoon, so all eleven of them quickly went into the new underground shelter when the tornado struck the house. The wife told me at the scene, while looking into my eyes, “it took all the strength of me and two other women to pull the hatch down and lock it when that tornado hit, but we are all alive and that is such a gift, we will rebuild, and help our neighbors recover.” Three minutes warning saved 11 people’s lives!
Surely, the future holds the solution, but the answer is in the hands of public officials and public policy makers. The ‘criteria’ and guidelines for protecting the public may include law enforcement identifying trained and certified members of the public, who are clearly working in a combined effort to report dangerous storms to weather service and police, and somehow differentiating from those who ‘unknowingly’ and maybe curiously are following professional storm spotters on the job. One storm spotter interviewed for this article said, “I do not think law enforcement wants to necessarily get meteorology degrees and updated advanced spotter training, while adding mobile Doppler radar scanning equipment to their vehicles and to stick with such dangerous storms, when they have other duties to perform, but some may, so good for them. However, officials do need to somehow differentiate, as one group of dedicated storm spotters serve an important public need to protect us all, including public servants, and should be recognized for their life saving efforts, personal commitment, and the personal risk they take to inform us when a deadly storm strikes.”