The Palestine Herald, Palestine, Texas

January 23, 2014

Storm spotters class breaks down formation of tornados

By GRACE GADDY
Palestine Herald-Press

PALESTINE — Palestine resident Richard Keller will never forget the day in 1987 when he stepped outside his friendly little taco establishment to witness a tornado blazing through the area.

It was an “inordinately warm November day,” Kellar recalled. “I was on the phone with my wife and the phone went dead.”

Kellar jumped in the car and drove as fast as he could to his house, which at the time was located in Westwood.

“Of course, I was understandably pretty panicky until I got to the house,” he said.

Local law enforcement had blocked off the area, but Kellar, his family and his home had been spared. Others weren’t so fortunate. The storm — which garnered national news headlines — leveled churches and a school, knocked homes from hills to highway, claimed the life of one person and injured 36 others.

Kellar, who said he has always been fascinated by weather, remembered that day afresh during a storm spotters training class held Tuesday at the Anderson County Courthouse Annex. The program was offered free to the public, hosted jointly by the National Weather Service in Fort Worth and Anderson County Emergency Management.

NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist Mark Fox spoke at the event and broke down for attendants exactly what happens in a tornado. Through vivid slides and illustrations, Fox demonstrated what to look for in the developmental stages of severe weather.

The NWS depends heavily on storm spotters to “spot” what their radars cannot detect, which is anything below 14,500 feet, according to Fox — “from Shreveport, Dallas-Fort Worth or Houston.”

“What we rely on is the extra information of what you’re seeing as a spotter,” Fox said. “So that’s why we’re here, to try to figure out exactly what’s going on.”

Spotters can see and report “one piece of the puzzle,” and the NWS can detect the other, Fox said.

“Then we have to put everything together. Our goal is to help save lives.”

The meteorologist then outlined a thorough list of factors that potentially could cause a tornado. A variety of topics were discussed, including severe weather formation, storm behavior and characteristics, cloud appearances, environmental clues, tornadoes and their devious look-alikes.

Fox underscored four main questions the storm spotter should answer when scanning the skies:

· Is the storm persistent, lasting longer than 30 minutes?

· Is the storm structure organized, dominating the local area?

· Are strong updrafts and downdrafts visible?

· Does the storm appear to be rotating?

If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, the spotter may indeed be spotting a tornado, or its beginnings. However, the the most important question to answer is: Am I safe? Storm spotting should only be carried out if the participant is in a safe location relative to the storm.

Fox then outlined a number of safety points for storm spotters to keep in mind, per the acronym ACES: Awareness, Communication, Escape routes, Safety zones.

· Awareness – Be aware of your surroundings, where you are relative to the storm.

· Communication – Constantly communicate with professional sources and persons beyond you.

· Escape routes – Assess and reassess your location.

· Safety areas – Your escape routes should lead to a safe area if you’re mobile, and point spotters should have easy access to a safe area.

Two people always should be in mobile spotter vehicles, equipment such as radios should be ready to go, only paved roads should be taken and an escape route must be accessible. Typically, the storm spotter takes a position near their community to report wind gusts, hail size, rainfall and cloud formations, which could signal a developing tornado.

Fox also disclosed during the meeting that the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) plans to broaden its days-in-advance warning system for severe weather — which includes “Slight,” “Moderate” and “High” risk levels — after finding that days labeled with a “Slight” risk in certain U.S. regions turned out to be riskier than originally predicted. The new terminology, set possibly to go into effect in April, frames the “Slight Risk” with new levels of “Enhanced” and “Marginal.” Upon confirmation this spring, the new order will go as follows: “Marginal; Slight; Enhanced; Moderate; and High.”

To stay informed as well as to utilize user-friendly reporting platforms, Fox invited attendants to access NWS mobile apps and tune in to social media pages including Twitter and Facebook. Locally, spotters also can plug into Weather Watchers of Anderson County on Facebook.

For more information about storm spotter training, go to www.skywarn.org. For information about severe weather and the National Weather Service, visit the Fort Worth Forecast Office’s website at www.weather.gov/fortworth.