Preparedness & Recovery

Weather Spotter Volunteers Relay Key Information to Weather, Emergency Officials

A network of area volunteer storm spotters and storm chasers tries to ensure public safety by supplying key visual information to supplement what NWS sees on its weather radars.

by Kevin Kilbane, The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.) / August 26, 2016

(TNS) -Steve Nardin noticed the weather starting to look "pretty ugly" before 6 p.m. Wednesday.

When the Fort Wayne man turned on his scanner set to ham radio signals and then his own ham radio, they crackled with reports about the storm moving through the Fort Wayne area. Someone asked if anyone could get eyes on the storm near Indiana 37 and Interstate 469. Nardin, who lives nearby, went out to take a look.

"I've never seen such menacing-looking clouds," he said. "They were very black."

Nardin, a ham radio operator, relayed the information to Jay Farlow, a local leader among ham radio operators who are National Weather Service-trained SKYWARN spotters. Farlow quickly sent the information to the National Weather Service (NWS) office in North Webster, which serves the Fort Wayne area, for use in issuing storm warnings and storm tracking.

Nardin and Farlow are part of a network of area volunteer storm spotters and storm chasers who try to ensure public safety by supplying key visual information to supplement what NWS staff and local television meteorologists see on their weather radars.

So far, the NWS has confirmed one tornado touched down in northeast Allen County near Harlan and Woodburn before moving into Ohio. Spotters also reported seeing a number of other tornadoes in the area.

Early Wednesday evening, Farlow's home office became a satellite Storm Central as report after report came in from ham radio operators and storm chasers out in the weather. He quickly typed the reports into the North Webster NWS office's chat system, which works like the old Internet chat rooms but allows NWS staff, county emergency management officials, TV meteorologists and other approved people to see the reports simultaneously.

"There were times I was typing in a report when another one came in that also needed to be relayed to the National Weather Service right away," Farlow said. From about 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, he sent 50 reports to the NWS office.

Farlow, who runs his own public relations consulting business, said this area benefited from the storms moving through about 5 p.m.

"A lot of guys were out spotting on the way home from work," he said.

He received reports from a few storm chasers and six ham radio operators, and 33 ham radio operators were on stand-by in case they were needed, he said.

Spotter Jim Moehring was leaving work about 5 p.m. at Parkview Health's corporate office at Dupont Road and Interstate 69, so he headed straight for Woodburn in northeast Allen County, which was in the path of the storm. Moehring arrived just after the tornado passed through.

He quickly relayed damage reports to Farlow from areas near Woodburn: Most of a chicken barn had been flattened, some homes sustained major damage, several 12-inch diameter trees were snapped in half and a corn field lay on the ground, with the stalks all facing different directions — all potential indicators of the strength of the tornado.

"As they (NWS) issue their warnings, they have a little more information to base their warning on," Moehring said.

Nardin and his wife, Linda, also had gone to that area and reported seeing similar damage.

Then, hearing about a tornado warning for portions of Huntington and Whitley counties, Moehring headed southwest to near Coverdale and Yoder roads south of Fort Wayne International Airport. He saw a wall cloud — a wall-shaped section of cloud that drops down below the main body of a cloud — but didn't see any rotation. He learned later, however, that tornadoes reportedly dropped out of the storm near the airport.

The first storm also attracted the attention of storm chaser Michael Enfield, who lives near Maplecrest and Evard roads.

As Enfield drove north on Stellhorn Road, he saw a very large wall cloud with several fingers dangling from it. A short distance north of Interstate 469, he turned east on Doty Road and saw a tornado drop down near Doty and Ricker roads.

"First it was a little finger, and it grew into a big wedge," he said. "There were a lot of people standing on the side of the road, just watching it," he added.

He followed the storm, but had to get out of his vehicle on Ehle Road and walk after encountering a downed power line across the road. He saw the tops of trees snapped off and the roof damaged on a home, but the people reported having no injuries.

"I love seeing the tornadoes," said Enfield, who uses a smartphone app that turns his phone into a walkie-talkie to communicate with Farlow and other storm chasers. "I never love seeing the damage, though."

Farther south, John Tinney of Warren also was reporting to Farlow with information from chasing two storms that passed through the Kokomo area, which sustained serious damage.

A storm chaser and meteorologist, Tinney saw small tornadoes drop out of the first storm briefly, first near Swayzee, west of Marion, and then near the Grant-Blackford county line. He also saw a tree and power line down, and some damage to farm fields.

Tinney said the weather system fooled forecasters because it didn't match the usual pattern for storms that could produce an outbreak of tornadoes. But he praised NWS offices in North Webster and Indianapolis for issuing storm and tornado warnings in a timely manner, which contributed to the lack of injuries.

"I think it goes to show people took the warnings seriously," he said.


How to help

When the National Weather Service started its SKYWARN program, most of the first volunteer weather spotters were ham radio operators because they had access to a reliable method of mobile communication, said Jay Farlow, a local leader among ham radio operators who are National Weather Service-trained SKYWARN spotters.

Today, use of smartphones makes it possible for almost anyone to go through training and become a SKYWARN spotter, Farlow said.

For more about the spotter program, go to http://www.weather.gov/iwx/iwxskywarn#How.

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©2016 The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.)

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