"We Have a Tornado on the Ground..."
Behind the scenes at a NWS Forecast Office during wild weather

Geoff Haines-Stiles
- P2K   12/02/99

Project Director

   Dennis and another staffer by now were working 2 or 3 ham radio mikes at once, asking spotters for the latest, checking maps showing where they were calling in from, telling that them conditions were now so severe that only winds above 60 miles per hour, large hail, rotating wall clouds, and twisters were worth taking up valuable air time. The TV was now on one of the trusted local stations, whose forecaster and chase teams had proved invaluable last May 3rd: TV graphics began to show maps and then, there it was, twister on the ground.

   Joey and another intern, and the met. tech. who launched the balloon, staying after his shift was over, were now frantically calling emergency managers to alert them, and members of the general public along the projected route of the storm, inviting them to provide input about what size hail they were seeing and what kind of winds they were hearing. I'd thought, researching how the Weather Service worked, that everything was now pretty much automated, that machines provided all the data. This night showed just how wrong that was: "when the vortex hits the voters", as someone memorably said at the National Hurricane Center, it's humans who have to interpret and make the call. What was also very apparent was that the NWS was just one player--albeit the key and lead actor--in a vast network of weather-related organizations, including the media, local emergency services, and more.

   As those 2 rare December tornadoes touched down it felt more like being inside "E.R." in the middle of a particularly frenetic episode than anything else. And the men and women of the National Weather Service whom I saw at work that night were as heroic as the leads in any primetime drama, all those fictional hours hours of "make-believe" excitement that had been pre-empted that stormy night in Norman. Here they were, applying all the science of tornado genesis, the workings of up and down drafts--all the principles we hope students will be exposed to in LIVE FROM THE STORM. They were deciphering data with new algorithms and colorful displays, putting computers and the tools of the Information Age to work, just as we hope students will do with our online resources. But this was for real. And this was impressive. And I felt very lucky to see such dedication and skill in action. Dennis in his understated way, commented that these storms had turned out to be very "productive", and this scouting trip too had been productive. I'd seen in real life with real people and real challenges how NOAA puts its mission statement to work--applying weather and climate science to serve and protect the public.

Ed note: To see more of what this evening was like in text and images, check out the FIELD CAMPAIGN section of the LIVE FROM THE STORM web site later in February. And read more comments from Doug Speheger and Dennis online under FIELD JOURNALS.)

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