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Spotters, chasers key in storm warning, prediction process

by David Fleet

June 05, 2013

While radar played a large role in predicting the six tornadoes that touched down in southeast Michigan on May 28, including the F2 with winds of 130 mph in Atlas Township —meteorologists also depend on a network of spotters that keep an eye on the sky during threatening weather.

Dan Thompson, meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said local storm spotters were vital in keeping the community aware of the progress of the weather.

"This storm had a very big radar footprint in the area as it moved east out of Shiawassee County," he said. "We had the warning issued, but the storm spotters confirmed the tornado on the ground. As a result we enhanced the warning to indicate the tornado was observed."

Each year the National Weather Service holds free classes statewide to teach citizens how to be storm spotters.

"Even with our radar we just can't see everywhere—the curvature of the Earth as the signal of the radar goes out can make us miss a storm," added Thompson. "That's where storm spotters step in and contact us. However, remember storm spotters are not storm chasers. We emphasize that to be safe."

When storms like the May 28 tornado hit, Robert Forry often hits the road rather than taking cover.

Forry is a storm chaser—and has been pursuing wicked weather accross eastern Michigan, including Brandon, Groveland and Atlas townships, for more than 15 years.

"Northern Oakland County is very difficult terrain to chase a storm," he said. "Most of the roads are unpaved, there's also lots of dead ends and there's plenty of trees that get in the way of visually spotting a storm."

Armed with a video web cam, a media access camera, laptop computer, GPS, and a variety of radios to keep in contact with the National Weather Service, Forry analyzes weather data and forecasts to anticipate future action.

"My focus is the safety of the public," he said. "There are lots of storm spotters out there. We use Ham radio, we communicate with the national Skywarn and the National Weather Service. The data we gather helps future weather predictions."

A Garden City native, Forry and his family moved to Manistique where he attended high school. He received an engineering degree from Ferris State University before serving five years of active duty in the U.S. Air Force. He was stationed with the Royal Air Force in Mildenhall in Suffolk, England as a mechanic.

"About 16-18 tornadoes hit Michigan each year," he said. "There's some adrenaline in the chase, but I'm not in it for the thrill. It's about saving lives. People get complacent with regard to storms—they just don't think it's going to happen to them or their community. For example, back in 2011 in Morristown Tenn., people were outside when that storm hit that resulted in deaths. Some were outside their homes when that happened."

According to news sources, Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras, and fellow storm chaser Carl Young, were all killed while trying to document and research a powerful storm in Oklahoma last month.

"I was out in Texas during the same time those three were killed—I knew those guys and had spoken with them at storm chaser meetings over the past few years," he said. "I've had close calls before. In Rotan, Texas I was in the outer edge of a storm that recorded winds of 117 mph for more than 35 seconds. It's not a real smart place to be."

Forry was chasing storms in Texas and Oklahoma for about 10 days in late May.

"I put about 6,000 miles on my Jeep over that week. There were hundreds of storms and chasers during that last week of May in the middle of Oklahoma and Texas," he said.

Forry said on May 28, the day of the storm that went through Atlas Township, he had returned from work and identified a cell near Perry,

"At the start of the day there was only a 5 percent chance of a storm, but by afternoon that changed," he said. "At 8 p.m. there was a cell that was getting bigger and bigger—it came up real quick," he said. "We were on the Genesee, Shiawassee county line. It was a wedge tornado heading east, by the time we got to it the storm was south of Bancroft. We tried to stay in front of it, but it just went too fast. The storm moved on to Fenton near Thompson Road. We lost it at that point."

Dale Dollins, a Flint Township resident and Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) operator since 2004, said on the day of the Atlas Township storm, he received a text from the National Weather Service regarding a storm before any watches were issued.

"Rich Pullman, director of the National Weather Service in White Lake, saw something on the radar that looked very different and it concerned him. At that time we deployed the spotters. Just 40 minutes later a funnel cloud was in Flushing and soon after one followed in the Grand Blanc area and Fenton. The storms moved very fast— 35 to 40 mph. We were able to spot and report the storms earlier."

Jenifier Boyer, emergency management manager, said the Genesee County Emergency Management Division has recently received calls regarding sirens within Genesee County.

The sirens are set off when the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, when funnel clouds or tornadoes on the ground are reported by public safety or spotters, or under the direction of emergency management, said Boyer. The sirens are owned and maintained by the local jurisdictions.

"The sirens are an outdoor warning system," she said. "Sirens are not designed for residents to hear them inside. Residents are encouraged to purchase NOAA weather radios to ensure notification indoors."