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Storm Spotters Outpace Radar

By Adam Kealoha Causey
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
03/18/2006

Storm spotter Joe Edwards was wide awake early Monday when a tornado ripped through northwest Lincoln County. He figures almost everyone else was asleep.

Edwards stayed up chattering on his ham radio so he could help other spotters "talk through" a tornado that destroyed homes along its 20-mile path, starting near Olney and heading to near the intersection of Highways 61 and F.

"I never even got to bed," said Edwards, whose day job is as a mechanic for the Lincoln County Public Works Department.

Storm spotters are trained volunteers who assist the National Weather Service in issuing severe storm warnings. Many of the 266 certified spotters in St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties tried to provide information during the recent severe weather.

Storm spotters take a weather service course to learn what different types of clouds do, how to properly measure the size of hail and how to distinguish funnel clouds from tornadoes, among other weather facts. After completing training, spotters receive identification numbers that make them official sources for storm information.

When Edwards and other spotters "talk through" storms, they are informing one another, the weather service and county emergency officials of what they see because, as their names suggest, they are on the spots where bad weather occurs.

"The important thing the weather service wants to hear about is wind speed and hail size," Edwards said.

Spotters determine wind speed using gauges known as anemometers or based on what objects the wind is moving. Sometimes the wind rips shingles from roofs or breaks limbs off healthy trees. Hail is often measured in coin sizes. The weather service then uses this information to inform the public.

Since the weather service started using storm spotters in the 1950s, they have been the service's eyes, said James Kramper, a meteorologist with the St. Louis office of the National Weather Service. Technology such as Doppler radar is helpful but not always specific, Kramper said.

"I can see a big storm out there on the radar, and I can say, 'Hey, I bet that storm's going to dump hail,'" Kramper said. "But I don't know for sure until somebody tells me."

At a recent training meeting in St. Peters, Kramper said storm spotters should forget about the 1996 movie "Twister." In the film, a team of tornado enthusiasts gets dangerously close to tornadoes to videotape them and do experiments.

"Chasing storms is glamorous, but that's not what it's all about," Kramper said, adding that spotters should not risk their own safety to get information. Most spotters simply call or radio in information from their homes.

Sue Peggs, 49, a nurse from Wentzville, signed up to be a storm spotter after seeing images in the media of last year's hurricane damage along the Gulf Coast. She said part of her reason for joining was selfish - to help protect her family.

"If something happens, you can't really rely on anybody but yourself," Peggs said.

Keith Little, a member of the St. Charles Amateur Radio Club, said his ham radio allows him to communicate quickly and over long distances without having to worry about failure of phone lines and cell phones.

"I think most of the people in our club who congregate together outside the club meetings are driven by their desire to do storm spotting or CERT (Community Emergency Response) training," Little said.

Kramper said that although storm spotter classes are informative, they don't make spotters meteorologists. He said most area spotters rely on their telephones to communicate.

In meteorology, "there's a lot more involved," he said, including several years of university-level math, physics and computer classes.