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June 2012
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Severe weather arrives before annual workshop

By JOHN PFEIFER jpfeifer@paducahsun.com

An annual Severe Weather Workshop for about 80 Paducah area "weather partners" is meant to be held before the severe season's start.

But not this year. As National Weather Service meteorologist Rick Shanklin put it, "Hopefully this year the peak is already behind us."

Shanklin told those assembled Friday at the Murray State University-Paducah Regional Campus there have been 19 tornadoes of varying intensities his year across the area covered by the NWS Paducah office, the most ever this early in the year.

The workshop is organized by the NWS mainly for emergency managers, some spotters and media.

"We want people to know how important they are in making the process work," meteorologist Pat Spoden said, "to keep everyone on the same wavelength."

The "process" Spoden mentioned is the Integrated Warning System that involves communication among spotters, emergency management offices, media and the NWS.

"The Integrated Warning System makes sure all key entities are in the loop regarding data interpretation and warning decisions so that no matter what channel the public is using, they're getting the same information, " said Gary Woodall, warning coordinator for the NWS Memphis office.

Because the workshop took place less than three weeks after the EF4 tornado that crossed southeast Missouri and southern Illinois on Feb. 28, that severe weather was used to demonstrate what warning systems are in place and how they operated that evening.

Chris Noles, lead forecaster at Paducah's NWS office, was in the "hot seat" charged with issuing warnings and weather statements the night of Feb. 28.

"For me it was all about the message," Noles said, "about how I could let people know how serious the situation was."

He said that only 6 percent of tornadoes are rated EF3 or stronger, yet they have resulted in 75 percent of tornado deaths.

"Only 1.1 percent of tornadoes are rated EF4 like the one we had on the 28th," Noles explained.

He said that as the storm followed its 50-mile path from west to east, tornado warnings for specific counties were issued an average of 20 minutes before the tornado's arrival.

"The optimal (warning time) is about 15-20 minutes," Spoden said. "Too much advance warning and people who took precautions may come out from shelter just as the storm hits."

Spoden said that the job of the meteorologist sitting in the hot seat during tornadic activity demands focus and an ability to multitask.

"You're looking at over 100, possibly as many as 200, pieces of information in a four-minute period in order to assess the likelihood of severe weather," he said.

Storm spotters and television meteorologists from WPSD, WSIL and KFVS shared their experiences from the night of Feb. 28.

Tony Laubach, of WSIL-TV, said he was tracking the storm on radar when he realized, "If I drive really fast I can get to Ava (Illinois) before the tornado."

While driving to a vantage point three miles east of Ava, he remembered thinking, "I have to focus on my own safety first if I'm going to be useful to anyone."

Laubach said, "I couldn't see it but I could hear it and I kind of panicked when I heard the trees coming down." He said that at one point "lightning illuminated the debris from a house that was being destroyed."

Chris Conley, a NWS-designated "elite spotter," was chasing the storm and said, "It's hard to digest all of the information because it's coming at you so fast."

He showed a video recording of his vehicle driving toward the tornado as it crossed Highway 3 near Rockwood, Illinois, and said, "It's hard to assess the magnitude of a tornado when it's dark out."

Spotter John Humphress said that at one point in the evening he realized "I was no longer the chaser; I was being chased."

Grant Dade, chief meteorologist for KFVS-12, talked about "debris detector" radar technology that allowed them to show viewers actual storm damage. He said it was unfortunate "it takes this for people to realize we have a serious situation," but praised the joint effort of those involved in the Integrated Warning System by saying "We all saved a lot of lives the night of Feb. 28."

He said that before they showed visual evidence that a house in southwest Missouri was airborne, "Our phones were ringing off the hook telling us to get off the air" and return to regular programming.

But he said after the radar view was provided, "We were on the air for another four hours and didn't get another phone call."

Shanklin reiterated his hope that the worst of the season's severe storms was past, but added, "In this part of the country we have to be ready year-round."

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