On the ready
Ask any of the 57 members of the Christian County Weather Spotters why they’re willing to put themselves in the path of high winds, hail, lightning, even the threat of tornadoes–often at a moment’s notice, in the wee hours of the morning–and they’ll tell you: it’s simple. They love the weather.
Jessica Sargent’s weather fascination began at age 6, when she witnessed her first tornado across from her grandparents’ house.
Spotter J.D. Smith’s mom used to have to pull him inside as a kid whenever the wind picked up.
Even if it’s 2 or 3 in the morning, when David Powell, the group’s weather coordinator and first in charge, puts out a call for volunteers to monitor a storm via the spotters’ dedicated two-way radio frequency, 25 or 30 will reply, ready to go immediately.
“If we think bad weather may be coming, we’re sleeping with our radios on and one eye open,” says Kenneth Buster, who at 72 is the group’s oldest member.
By providing on-the-ground assessments of severe weather as it’s happening, the weather spotters help verify radar observations coming out of the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Paducah, giving residents earlier warning for when to take cover in the event of a storm.
While the NWS Paducah office must monitor weather in 58 counties simultaneously, the Christian County Weather Spotters are able to focus their attention on conditions in Christian and the immediately adjacent counties.
“We know we’ve increased our warning time for tornadic or severe events at least two minutes on the front end and up to 10 minutes on the back end of the storm,” Powell says.
Just knowing the group exists has helped to provide peace of mind to Christian County residents, many of whom had been rattled by the severe tornado that struck the county in 2006, destroying 250 homes and injuring 25 people.
It was that 2006 tornado–and a desire to give residents more advanced storm warning–that prompted the formation of the weather spotters group, in fact.
Since then, Powell has assembled a team of spotters so well-trained and highly organized that they’ve become a model for the rest of the state and nation.
Unlike other amateur weather spotter groups that require training only once or twice a year to join, volunteers with Christian County’s group are required to attend at least 10 training sessions a year.
“It’s lots of clouds, clouds, clouds,” spotter Jeanette Aldridge says of the severe weather training. “We learn to look for rotation. Something that may look like a tornado to someone else really isn’t, unless you see that rotation there.”
All members also complete a course on downed power line safety that Pennyrile Electric Cooperative offers to emergency first responders.
High-tech operations center
Recently, Powell has been working with Brigadier General John W. Heltzel, deputy commander, Joint Forces Headquarters, Kentucky National Guard, and director of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management, to extend the Christian County Weather Spotters concept statewide.
Together with Heltzel, Powell has developed instructional materials to assist other counties in establishing weather spotting networks.
“They’re at the top of the game,” Heltzel says of the Christian County group. “They are setting a model for the nation. They really are. It’s somewhat unusual to find volunteers that are as professional and organized as David has got his crew.”
Heltzel’s right. Walk inside the weather spotters’ Weather Operations Center in Hopkinsville–a converted, former National Guard armory for tanks, which the weather spotters inherited in July 2008–and nothing about the place feels amateurish, despite the fact that itï¿½s been outfitted nearly entirely out of the spotters’ own pockets.
On the walls are six large-screen monitors where the weather spotters’ weather operations personnel–usually Powell and at least one of the team’s three meteorologists–can track storms with a state-of-the-art Doppler radar system called GR-level 3. Sophisticated indicators pop up on the screens whenever there’s a threat of hail or circulation indicative of a possible tornado.
One table is for communications: at the touch of a button on the spotters’ two-way radios, they can contact not only all of their 57 members but also personnel with local law enforcement, fire stations, and other emergency management first-response teams. As a backup, many of the spotters also stay in touch with the operations center via ham radio.
In the event of severe weather, volunteers staffing the operations center know at all times the precise location of every spotter in the field. Spotter chiefs, like Bob Celing, who oversees the southern part of Christian County, help ensure that spotters have chosen safe locations to monitor the storm.
The majority of the group’s members work as stationary or mobile spotters, assigned either to track conditions in a specific site (often their own homes) or to move throughout the county.
A second level of spotters make up the group’s storm intercept teams, whose role is, as Kenneth Buster put it, “to go out and meet this thing (the storm), and get as much information as I can. And then run.”
The most dangerous role, perhaps, belongs to the group’s storm trackers, who not only meet a storm, but then go on to follow it across the county, collecting photos and invaluable data on wind speed and direction, humidity, and temperature as they go.
Currently, the group has 10 spotters qualified to track storms in five personal vehicles outfitted inexpensively with custom-made mobile weather stations. J.D. Smith made his anemometer to measure wind speed, for example, with PVC pipe based on a plan he found online from the National Severe Storm Laboratory.
Representatives at the National Weather Service’s Paducah office have routinely commended the Christian County group for the service they provide–at times specifically requesting that they track a given storm to relay data.
Like an instinct
There’s no question the weather spotters’ efforts have saved lives.
Just ask Christian County Sheriff Livy Leavell Jr.
On the night of February 5, 2008, during the “Super Tuesday” tornado outbreak, Leavell was out patrolling when he ran into some hail. He radioed in to David Powell at the weather spotters’ headquarters to give him his exact location.
From the radar indicators, Powell knew Leavell was in danger. Immediately, Powell told Leavell to get out of there: he was heading into the path of a possible tornado.
The next day, Leavell went back to survey the damage the tornado had caused just 100 yards past the area where he’d turned around.
“If I’d have continued just a few more yards, I’d have run right into it. There’s no question about it. They provide a tremendous public service to the citizens of Hopkinsville and Christian County,” Leavell says.
But it’s not only during thunderstorms and tornadoes that the weather spotters’ services come in handy.
In 2009, a few days in advance of the ice storm in January, Powell’s group alerted Pennyrile Electric to the potential for severe ice accumulation and sponsored a conference call for them with the NWS. The early heads-up allowed Pennyrile to review their disaster preparedness plan and have extra crews on hand and in town ready to restore power the day before the storm hit the county, says Brent Gilkey, manager of member services at Pennyrile Electric.
They are in constant contact with area schools, which depend on their reports to help determine when to cancel classes or send children home early. Recently, they’ve even begun sharing ground observations with nearby Ft. Campbell, to help the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment there better protect their helicopters from inclement weather.
After all the spotters have witnessed the last few years–from ice storms to Hurricane Ike to tornadoes–the camaraderie among them is clear.
“We go through a lot of stuff together,” says Mark Booker, one of the group’s meteorologists and second in command. “It’s like a family.”
And after enough time together out there in the field, they almost get to the point where they know what a storm’s going to do before the storm does it.
“It gets to be like an instinct,” Powell says.
Still, there are always those times when the weather fools them a bit–as it did last August, when that tornado near the Sargents’ location developed unexpectedly from a downburst in the storm.
It’s that chance of the unexpected happening that keeps Powell’s team on the edge of their seats whenever the weather picks up. It gets their adrenaline flowing. And for this dedicated group, it’s what makes weather spotting so fun.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: BECOME A WEATHER SPOTTER
Want to know what it takes to become a spotter? The Christian County Weather Spotters Network provides information and links to basic and advanced spotter field guides, a cloud chart, weather forecast providers, radars and maps, a library of local and national severe weather photos, and more. Go to spotter training.