Stormchasers keep residents safe during bad weather

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 25, 2000


Friday, August 25, 2000

Tornadoes. They’ve become a household word to Midwesterners.

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When the alarm sounds, individuals head for lower ground.

Only when Mother Nature’s wrath is over do residents truly realize the damage suffered.

With this summer’s devastation in Granite Falls, Austinites may be wondering whether there’s any way to be forewarned of such destruction.

If threatening conditions exist, professional stormchasers are sent out to assess the situation and inform residents.

Bob Nelson, Austin’s emergency management coordinator, has been a stormchaser for 13 years.

Nelson explained by phone that spotters, who all have their own equipment, are sent out according to weather conditions; they tell the National Weather Service office in LaCrosse, Wis., about developing patterns so it may issue further warnings.

Lee Smith of Whitewater Communications has been a professional stormchaser since 1977.

Smith said he became involved because he enjoys the advanced warning time in which you’re able to see what’s going on.

He carries an alphanumeric pager so he can assess current conditions at all times.

Smith also has ties with the National Weather Service in LaCrosse; they examine the weather in our area, giving information to Smith with their equipment and spotters.

Smith and his colleagues are then able to plan a timeline of who’s available and who is not.

"It doesn’t matter what time it is, we’re able to carry on information about what’s going on," Smith said.

Law enforcement also is used as a backup; they’re able to give Smith an idea of the situation early on.

This is especially valuable when the skies turn black.

"With an advanced warning, if it comes down to our path, we need to give people information, and treat it seriously," Smith said.

As good as Doppler radar is, Smith says "you still need those eyes to see how conditions are."

Because of their dedication, Smith and his fellow chasers are ranked No. 1 by the National Weather Service office.

"We’re No. 1 in storm preparedness in southeastern Minnesota because of what we’re doing and what we’ve done," Smith said.

If weather is something that piques your curiosity, both Smith and Nelson stress that you can’t just jump in your car and start following the next tornado; there are specific qualifications individuals must possess.

"Anyone can do it, but you have to have the information and be able to disseminate it in a quick manner," Smith said.

Nelson elaborated, stating that you have to qualify to be a spotter.

Annual training sessions are held, many led by Dave Carr of Rochester; this is because, as Nelson said, "A lot of times people assume (funnel clouds) are tornadoes when they’re not. They help you recognize the conditions, not what you’re looking at."

Smith takes pride in his job, recalling the June 28, 1998, storm.

"I feel good about it," he said. "No lives were lost. We were really fortunate, we could’ve been wiped out."

Sheriff Barry Simonson also has a number of suggestions to keep residents safe.

First and foremost, listen to all information available on television and radio, and take the tornado sirens seriously.

Nelson explained that once a year there is a tornado awareness week and that the sirens are tested on the first Wednesday of each month.

"It’s part of the procedure to make sure things work and the public is aware," he said.

If the sky looks menacing, head for the basement or a closet; someplace without windows.

"Stay away from open areas," Simonson said. "If you’re in a car, don’t try and out run it. Get out and get in a ditch."

If you’re thinking of heading to one of the many storm shelters in the area, Simonson discourages this as well.

"Unless you have sufficient warning when the siren goes off, you better head for the basement," he said.

Possessing a flashlight and battery-powered electronics is advisable.

Tornadoes, like hurricanes, fall into several categories, with damage varying according to the severity of the storm.