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'Storm spotter' seminar teaches safety first

March 19, 2008
"Keep your eyes open and your weather radios on" was the advice given by Michael Callahan from the National Weather Service last Wednesday at a "storm spotter" seminar sponsored by the Crawford County Emergency Management Agency.

Michael Callahan of the National Weather Service explains the types of clouds that storm spotters should be familiar with at a seminar last week in English. (Photo by Lee Cable)
The event, held at the Crawford County Judicial Complex in English, drew a sizable crowd from the area interested in assisting with dangerous weather sightings, which helps the NWS with forecasts and warnings.

"In Kentucky and Indiana, April, May and June are the peak tornado months," Callahan said, "but in recent years, we have seen them during other times, as well.

"Every home and office should have a NOAA weather radio. They are much like, and just as important as, a smoke alarm," he added. "They are the only thing that will wake you during the night with tornado information. As soon as we decide to put out a severe weather report, we will put it on weather radio — even before the television stations get it."

Callahan said the NWS has the most advanced weather radar available, but there are still limitations on what it can see from its monitoring station in Louisville.

"Our radar can see a lot of what's happening up high," Callahan said, "but it can't see what's happening on the ground. Our newest and most advanced radar with a four-dimensional display still can't see anything close to the ground. That's why we need eyes on the ground that can show us things that radar can't."

Volunteer weather spotters can call the NWS when they see threatening weather, but usually the NWS will contact them when its radar indicates that there may be dangerous weather in the area where spotters are located.

"We don't want our weather spotters to be storm chasers," Callahan said. "In this area, with the topography we have here, storm chasing is extremely dangerous. Our spotters can instead be our eyes.

"If we need information about a storm in a certain area, we can call our nearest storm spotter and ask them what they see. And we encourage what we call 'situation awareness' — the more you know about a situation, the more likely you'll be able to make good decisions. We don't ask our spotters to take chances," he continued.

"When bad weather approaches, take cover in a safe place. Prepare, monitor, action. That's what we encourage at all times. You should know the safest place in your home ahead of time. When a severe storm hits, there may be glass breaking and stuff flying through the air. That's not the time to decide where you need to go. If you hear a roar, you have about 20 seconds to get to cover. Preparations should have already been done. And one thing we can't emphasize enough — mobile homes can not hold up in strong storms and tornados. Get out and go to a more secure shelter."

Callahan also recommended having a disaster kit readily available. The kit should contain a working flashlight, a battery radio and a small first-aid kit.

"Everyone should also identify flash flood-prone areas near their homes," Callahan said. "Then, stay away from those areas during heavy rains. Never drive in standing water, and determine an alternate route beforehand. Flash floods kill more people on average than any other storm element. It only takes running water less two feet deep to wash away a pick-up truck. About six inches can float a Volkswagen. And about two to three feet will float a school bus."

Callahan also described the difference between a severe storm watch and a severe storm warning.

"A watch means conditions are right for a thunderstorm to happen and that it could produce severe weather or even a tornado," he said. "A warning means that severe weather has been reported or radar indicates a storm is, or will soon become, severe.

"If there is a watch, turn on your TV or radio, maintain awareness and, when possible, keep an eye on the sky. You can also go to weather.gov on the Internet and it's like having your own personal weather radar. This area is really lucky because the meteorologists at the Louisville TV stations do a tremendous job. They help us, and we help them."

Callahan indicated that most storms move from the southwest to the northeast and that, if possible, radios should be tuned to areas to the southwest to get the best information on weather conditions that may be coming.

"And every thunderstorm has lightning," he added. "If there's lightning in the area, go inside a steady structure and stay away from water and metal.

"Or, if you're in your car, stay there. Lightning will nail a car, but it won't go inside it. But that's only true for a car made of metal. You don't want to be in a Corvette or a convertible, but most other cars are OK.

"And stay off corded phones. You should have one for emergencies, but don't use it during a severe storm."

Callahan also stressed that when any bad weather approaches, go to a safe area.

"I just can't say enough about how important it is to evacuate mobile homes," he said. "And believe it or not, you should wear a bicycle helmet. They really protect you quite well. You can find them at Wal-Mart, and they're cheap. But they can make a big difference. Make yourself a small target, and cover yourself with something like a blanket, which will really help when a lot of debris is flying around. Once you're out of harm's way, then call us. We have two phone lines, and we're always there. We never close."

In Crawford County, if a severe storm approaches, EMA Director Kent Barrow and two volunteer radio operators go to the command center in the health department building where they monitor weather radars and ham and amateur radios and stay in contact with the NWS.

"We don't want people to call in weather information to the 911 dispatchers," Barrow said. "We want that information here. Then, we'll send it on the National Weather Service. If there's an emergency, by all means, call 911, but to report weather conditions, call us at 338-4340."

There are now seven emergency sirens located in Crawford County that will sound in intervals of three minutes if severe weather approaches. They are tested every Saturday at noon for one minute.

"And everyone should have a weather radio," Barrow said. "We have bought some in the past from donations, but have given them to every licensed day care in the county, the Head Start programs and the Youth Service Bureau.

"The schools already have them. We sell them for $30, which is what they cost us with shipping, so if anyone wants one, they can bring us the money and we'll place an order once we get several requests.

"We want Crawford County to be a storm-ready community."

The Crawford County EMA will sponsor a training program in April for amateur radio operators. The test for a radio operator's license will then be given in May.

Anyone interested should contact the EMA office.

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Barbara Shaw
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