Top of the Morning, March 26, 2014

Top of the Morning, March 26, 2014

Editor's note: The April 3 class has been canceled.

The timing of this year's Severe Weather Spotters Training Class in Tilton packs a punch. It takes place April 3, 40 years to the day that 148 twisters rocked 13 states resulting in 330 deaths and more than 5,000 injuries.

"At the time, I was a sophomore at Hoopeston-East Lynn High School," said Rick Harper, severe weather manager for Vermilion County Emergency Management Agency. "I seem to remember the aftermath more than the actual event. Watching evening news footage of the Xenia, Ohio, twister and seeing the impact it had on the residents there left an impression on me that I still feel today."

Next Thursday's session, which starts at 6:30 p.m. and will be led by a staff meteorologist from the National Weather Service in Lincoln, is an annual event that is growing in popularity. It shows on a stormy spring night. "We have spotters that I call out from Hoopeston to Ridge Farm to Allerton to Rankin," Harper said. "They range from 18 years old to in their 70s."

Here's more from Harper:

What makes a good tornado spotter?

Someone with good observation skills, of course. But also someone that doesn't mind sitting in an auto for a few hours at a time. Many times we get spotters out and into position an hour or so before the storms actually arrive. Other times, you may get a storm system that has individual storms training. Where one storm passes, but another behind it follows the same path. So it does take patience, but also a good sense of your surroundings and familiarity with the area to know when it is time to move and in what direction. You never want to get boxed in by a storm.

How do you train a spotter?

You teach safety first, then technique and what to look for. There are different phases of a storm. When the storm is first forming, when it is strengthening, when it is a full raging storm and when it is dissipating. Spotters need to know the different phases. They need to be keenly aware of their surroundings and be able to communicate accurately what they are seeing.

What equipment do I need?

Dependable transportation is essential. Last thing you want it to have your check engine light flashing when an EF3 tornado is bearing down on you. Cell phones have pretty much replaced hand-held radios in communicating to the authorities. Good spotters will also have binoculars, and many carry personal anemometers to measure wind speeds.

Storm-chasing seems to be trending. Why the surge in popularity?

I think it largely due to the emergence of internet postings on YouTube or social media and the expansion of network television. It seems like after every reported tornado, there are YouTube video postings showing the tornadoes roaring across the countryside or impacting a community. It started out as a few professional chasers but has since grew to near fanatic levels. There are even tour groups established in the central plains that people can pay money to have guides take them out to chase severe weather in hopes of spotting a tornado. There have also been tv shows dedicated to the chasing of tornadoes like Storm Chasers on The Discovery Channel and The Weather Channel has had a number of them as well. While most of these featured trained professionals with years of experience, they gave birth to a thrill seeking throng that seems to be growing yearly.

As clarification, our training is on severe weather spotting, not chasing. We, Emergency Management Agency, and The National Weather Service do not condone nor encourage storm chasing. Our spotters are placed in safe positions to be able to view an approaching storm. For the most part, they are stationary.

Anything else?

Storm chasing is an extremely dangerous activity. That is why we do not encourage it. There has been some high profile case recently of chasers with even 20+ years experience dying in chase related events. But learning how to identify different aspects of a storm and being able to accurately pass that information along to the proper authorities is a plus to Emergency Management and The National Weather Service. That is why we open the class up to everyone, not just the certified spotters that we use in an official capacity.

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