Eye on the sky

National Weather Service asks citizens for weather spotting help

MANISTEE — While Northern Michigan doesn’t see the same severity in weather as many places around the country, the importance of preparedness can’t be understated.

From blizzards to damaging wind and thunderstorms, the National Weather Service based in Gaylord monitors it all for 25 Northern Michigan counties. And though the station uses state-of-the-art equipment, it continues to rely on eyes in the field to relay breaking weather information.

That’s the thought process behind the NWS’s spotter training courses. Each year, NWS meteorologists tour counties in Northern Michigan to train citizens on severe weather development and how to report it to the agency.

IN TRAINING: A National Weather Service meteorologist trained residents on sever weather development and how to report it during a recent weather spotter training course in Manistee County. Those who complete the course receive a NWS Spotter Card. (Manistee News Advocate photo/Eric Sagonowsky)

IN TRAINING: A National Weather Service meteorologist trained residents on sever weather development and how to report it during a recent weather spotter training course in Manistee County. Those who complete the course receive a NWS Spotter Card. (Manistee News Advocate photo/Eric Sagonowsky)

“We need you,” said Keith Kitchberger, NWS meteorologist. “We need eyes on the ground. You would be amazed at the amount of people who think ‘They know about that, I’m not going to bug them.’ And we’re sitting up there wondering what the heck is going on.”

Kitchberger recently led a spotter training course in Manistee County. He told an audience of about 40 that up to date weather information, even in rural areas, is extremely important in providing accurate weather warnings.

“We want to know everything,” Kitchberger explained. “If it’s important to you, then it’s important to us.

“It really is about public safety and awareness. We have huge tracts of the Huron-Manistee National Forest, and we know there’s a storm there that’s creating damage, and we know that if lives were there, they would be in danger. The last thing we want is to allow it to enter into our heads, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t put out a warning because no one lives there.’ We don’t want that. That’s poison, that kind of thinking. The minute you don’t, there’s going to be someone out there camping with his kids, relying on his weather radio to notify him.”

The NWS Gaylord office consists of 14 full-time operational meteorologists. At least two are on duty at all times. The spotter line at the station is constantly manned and waiting for live weather reports.

A storm watch is issued by the NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., and means that conditions are favorable for creating a storm, not that a storm is present. A storm warning means that severe weather is occurring or imminent and residents should take action now, issued by the NWS Gaylord.

Through monitoring the radar, the meteorologists have an idea what is happening on the ground, but need confirmation from weather spotters to be sure. In some instances, the information can help the professionals decipher information on the radar.

“If we either hear from you that you have seen a tornado or have seen winds in excess of 58 mph or storm damage or hail of one inch diameter or larger, we will issue a warning,” Kitchberger said. “If we don’t, but we see the signatures that we think that one of these things are going to happen and we think it’s worth it to notify you, to keep you and your property safe, we will issue a warning.”

Kitchberger’s class covered severe weather formation, how to report information and safety tips for all weather occasions. He also talked about downburst winds, which hit the Manistee County area in 2008.

“I think everything they taught us is educational,” said weather spotter James Wisniski. “It’s very nice that you can call somebody and give the information, and they will accept it and put out some kind of a weather notice.”

WEATHER SPOTTERS: Through monitoring radar, meteorologists have an idea what is happening on the ground, but they need confirmation from weather spotters. Weather spotter training covers severe weather formation, how to report information and safety tips for all weather occasions. (Manistee News Advocate photo/Eric Sagonowsky)

WEATHER SPOTTERS: Through monitoring radar, meteorologists have an idea what is happening on the ground, but they need confirmation from weather spotters. Weather spotter training covers severe weather formation, how to report information and safety tips for all weather occasions. (Manistee News Advocate photo/Eric Sagonowsky)

Spotter Ross Spencer was also in attendance and said he will give information when severe weather hits.

“It shouldn’t be confused with becoming a weather expert, but it’s a way for people to communicate with the weather service and provide them the real-time information to let them know if their equipment is doing what they want it to do,” he said. “It was a good use of my time (to come) tonight.”

With the amount of boating in Manistee County, Kitchberger told residents that lightning safety is imperative, especially on the water.

“If lightning hits the tallest object and you are on your boat in the water, what is the tallest object?” he questioned. “You. There are more people killed by lightning on the water than in any other circumstance, including golf courses.”

For tornado safety, Kitchberger instructed those in attendance to always move to an interior room or hallway on the lowest floor of a building and stay away from windows. He said to get under sturdy furniture and get out of anything that is mobile. If caught outside, lie flat in a ditch to get below wind flows.

“Preparedness is the main thing,” he said. “We have great emergency management staff in this county and they have resources that are there to take care of people. But, if you ask them who sucks up the most resources, it’s the unprepared people who are the ones that result in the most action and resources being utilized.”

The training was hosted in conjunction with Manistee County emergency coordinator Ken Falk. In the event of a storm, Falk encourages residents to keep three days of food and water and enough medications to last a week.

“Have a plan in case power goes out or we get or a tornado,” he said. “Have a contact from out of state that everybody in your family can contact if you get separated during a disaster. If you have a relative out of state, make sure everybody knows that number. Then if there’s a disaster everybody calls that person in case lines are down locally or phones are misplaced.”

Falk also stressed the importance of not underestimating the weather.

“If you are not prepared, that causes your EMS, fire and law enforcement to come and deal with you, versus going to another emergency could be more important. It’s kind of like going out during the wintertime during an ice storm. Do you have to really go out? You get into a crash, now you are involving fire, EMS and law enforcement to come out on those roads to take care of your incident.

“If you were prepared and didn’t have to go to the store to get a pack of cigarettes or gallon of milk. If you were prepared, you wouldn’t have had to go out in the storm. Same thing for summer weather. If you see storms coming, batten down the hatches and stay home until the storm clears.”

Falk said that residents can prepare in other ways as well. If trees are overgrown near power lines, he stated that if residents call the power company, they will come out and trim the tree.

Weather spotters were each given a card and told to report hail size, wind speed, tornadoes and funnel clouds and snowfall or freezing rain. The card contains a hail estimation ruler and wind speed estimations based on the type of wind damage.

“It doesn’t have to have a number associated with it,” Kitchberger said. “If your shingles are blowing off, or your gutters are blowing off, that’s a wind report.”

In addition to calling, spotters and those interested can research more at www.weather.gov/gaylord. There are daily weather briefings and reports. The station also takes reports on Facebook.

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Posted by Eric Sagonowsky

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