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Volunteer spotters help meteorologists track storms
By Bob Miller ~ Southeast Missourian
They're often the difference between a watch and a warning, the difference between keeping alert and taking cover.
And in the most extreme cases, when high-tech equipment can't always give the needed details, weather spotters can be the difference between life and death.
Enter weather spotters Denny Stortz and Bill Doan.
Stortz and Doan represent the two types of weather spotters.
Stortz, a 21-year-old college student from Jackson, Mo., was known in high school as "the weatherman." He has volunteered time at the Cape Girardeau County emergency operations center, keeping an eye on radar, answering telephones and helping with communication. In his high school days, he once walked several blocks at 2 a.m. from his home to the EOC office before a big storm hit, just to help out and be in the middle of the action. Stortz, a weather fanatic who likes the adrenaline rush that a strong storm can provide, is in the minority of weather spotters who are not volunteer firefighters.
Doan is the more traditional weather spotter. A longtime volunteer firefighter working in the Fruitland Fire District, Doan is more interested in public safety than the weather.
"It's all part of the job," he said.
Armed with the two-way radios, specific training and experience in weather spotting, Doan and firefighters like him make up almost all of Cape Girardeau County's 100 or more spotters.
Jim Packett, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Paducah, Ky., said there are more than 3,500 weather spotters in Paducah's warning range, which includes parts of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana.
When asked of a specific case in which a spotter made a difference in getting a warning out sooner, Packet said, "There are too many to name."
"We have a lot of fancy, expensive equipment that does a nice job," he said. "But they don't always see what's going on in the field. The weather spotters are absolutely invaluable to us because they call us with feedback. We rely on them very heavily out of this office."
Perry County emergency director Jack Lakenan said he remembers a hail storm a few years ago when weather spotters helped get the word out and save a lot of property damage.
The weather spotter system is one that has been around for at least 25 years, Packett said, and the system is dependent on cooperation.
"It works across the state," said Jim Bollinger, the Bollinger County emergency director. "These storms track from west to east, so if Wayne County calls in, we'll know what's coming, and when we call in, it gets Cape Girardeau prepared. It needs to be a coordinated effort."
Unfortunately for victims of the tornado that hit Bollinger County just south of Marble Hill around 12:40 a.m. Sunday morning, there was no warning. The tornado, which took the life of 12-year-old Billy Hoover and injured several others, hit unexpectedly before spotters were dispatched, Bollinger said.
But word of the storm quickly passed to counties to the east.
"We try to listen to Bollinger County," said David Hitt, emergency management coordinator in Cape Girardeau County. "What it's doing over there is very important to us."
The reason almost all of the official weather spotters are volunteer firefighters is because of their means of communication.
All firefighters have access to two-way radios that are used in emergencies.
"Weather spotters need some way of talking to me," Bollinger said. "On the other hand, we can't issue radios to everybody and from that standpoint, we don't want just anybody operating on our frequency."
As Doan pointed out, a lot of the training overlaps. Firefighters would be among the first on the damage scene after a tornado.
"It makes sense to use firefighters as weather spotters," he said.
Stortz is an unusual case. He has developed an impressive reputation in recognizing weather and has developed a sound working relationship with Hitt.
Stortz would rather be in the EOC office during storms, but he enjoys tracking the weather from the outside, too.
He doesn't get to do as much of it now that he's a college student and a communications operator at St. Francis Medical Center, where a part of his job is to communicate with management about serious weather situations. He attends Southeast Missouri State University but will eventually transfer to go to a school where he can major in meteorology.
One thing that weather spotters have in common is training.
The National Weather Service puts on classes at least once a year to teach spotters what to look for.
"I guess the thing we're out there to do is try to recognize the situation before it gets to the tornado stage," Doan said. "You're taught to see the wall cloud and say 'This is what we've got out here and this is a possibility.'"
The training gives the spotters credibility.
"First of all, you get a legitimate report from people who have been trained," Bollinger said. "Some people might call and think they see a funnel cloud when it's really not. But these classes teach you what to look for."
Depending on the county, weather spotters may watch the weather from their homes. In Bollinger County, with the numerous valleys and hills, each weather spotter is assigned to a location with long-range visibility.
Many times the volunteers are away from their homes or their assigned locations and will report any severe weather from their current position.
Once the weather spotters report their findings to the EOC in Cape Girardeau or Perry counties, or to the sheriff's office in Bollinger County, those agencies relay the information to the National Weather Service.
If the information initiates a warning, it is announced immediately on weather radios and shortly thereafter on television and radio stations.
In most cases, spotters are put on alert when the National Weather Service issues a watch. Sometimes warnings are based solely on satellite and radar information and in those cases, spotters are put into immediate action to look out for twisters and hail. Other times, a warning is issued based on weather-spotter accounts.
"They're our eyes and our ears out there," Hitt said.
335-6611, extension 127