Storm chasers fill technological void

 

Storm chaser Jay Robertson displays a radar image of the tornado they were first to confirm before it struck the Hattiesburg area.

Storm chaser Jay Robertson displays a radar image of the tornado they were first to confirm before it struck the Hattiesburg area.

Most local residents are aware of the devastating tornado that moved through the Hattiesburg area several weeks ago, but probably few know that the twister was first confirmed by a local group of storm chasers.

The group is named North Mississippi Storm Chasers and Spotters and director Jay Robertson is quick to note the difference between chasers and spotters.

“We actually only have seven chasers but a lot of spotters,” he said.

Robertson, who is a Tupelo business owner, and Billy Hill, of Kossuth, who handles radio, presented a program at the Northeast Mississippi Amateur Radio Club here this past week in conjunction with the advent of severe weather season.

Although they do record video of storms, their primary concerning is increasing knowledge and providing ample warnings.

“We’re not glory chasers. We don’t like to see damage,” Hill said. “We would prefer to be out West where there is nothing for miles.”

West has a strong interest in radio communication and a background in avionics from serving in both the Army and Navy, but it was while he was at First Monday in Ripley one day and saw a tornado pass less than a quarter mile away that made the difference.

“The tornado came by a quarter mile away and I never heard a siren,” Hill said. “I don’t want anybody to have to depend on a siren. A siren is OK if the Germans attack or something but if the wind is blowing the wrong direction you can’t hear a siren a quarter mile away.”

Robertson was a storm spotter when the Smithville tornado occurred. “We started this individually,” he said. “We weren’t even a group. We were all spotters at the time. We realized how broke the system was and we started this group last year.”

“I don’t care about photos or film,” Hill added. “I care about if it comes through my town.”

If their goal is to provide warning and save lives, that was apparently achieved in Hattiesburg. Robertson believes that the warning time they provided prevented loss of life and serious injury.

And even with the extent of technology, spotters physically on the ground still have a purpose.

Storms often pass through areas where there is little or not cell phone coverage. And if there it, the network usually becomes overloaded and unusable when there is a storm. Some areas are served by Skywarn ham radio nets but Robertson said they either often aren’t up when a tornado occurs or are not run as efficiently as they might be.

But a more critical factor in the need for spotters is the limit of radar.

Robertson said radar has improved greatly and is excellent at showing super cell storms and wind rotation aloft, but the basic physics of the system cause it to not be able to spot storms below 6,000 feet. It has to be spotters who report these lower storms and provide warning.

The North Mississippi group is entirely self-funded with about 20 people heavily committed 24 hours a day. They have accumulated about $10,000 worth of gear they travel with, and continue to upgrade radar, video and other services.

In addition to working with the National Weather Service and area emergency management agencies, they are the official chasers and spotters for WTVA television.

But first and foremost, they are meteorology geeks, and they can talk about weather.

“We train others,” Robertson said. “We can tell whether a storm is going to be severe or tornadic.”

Actually, he said, “All thunderstorms want tornadoes but not all can produce one. They choke out.” The chasers can look at their radar and note where supercell storms are that may rotate or just collapse. A collapse can cause as much damage as a tornado.

“When a 60,000 foot tall cloud dies and collapses, it turns into straight line winds,” Robertson said, and that – not a tornado – is what blew trailers apart in Union County this past year.

He said one can look at a cloud to tell which way a storm is moving. The wall cloud – often a precursor to a tornado – goes first. “At night, lightning is what we are looking for,” he said. “That is what produces hail.” The size of hail is directly related to the strength of the updraft, he said.

Robertson also mentioned something TV weather viewers have become familiar with: a hook echo on radar. Doppler radar not only shows intensity of storms but can also show direction of wind flow and a “hook” results when wind is moving in opposite directions in a limited area, usually meaning rotation. “There is almost always a tornado where there is a hook echo or wall cloud rotating,” he said.

Not just anyone can decide to become a spotter or chaser overnight.

“We don’t encourage anybody to ride along and see what it’s like,” Hill said. “I’m a stickler for safety.”

To be a chaser you have to be in group one year and have the required equipment, Robertson added. “We now have seven chasers, and a lot of spotters,” he said.

A way to get started is to take one or more of the free Skywarn classes offered by the National Weather Service. They are scattered around the state and mostly given before or after the main severe weather season (one was recently given in Fulton and one is coming up in Corinth; see the related story in this issue). The classes usually last a couple of hours but there is a lot to absorb and many people take classes more than once to be sure they grasp all the information.

One can also use some of the same tools the chasers use, but they don’t come cheap. A suitable video camera is about $1,000 and subscriptions to professional radar services are $79 and up. Satellite radio streams radar data in addition to music, by the way, and is the source of radar data that airliners use, Robertson added.

Another aid is to be a ham radio operator.

“It’s hard to depend on cell phones and the internet. The network overloads quickly when there is a storm,” Robertson said. That’s when amateur radio comes through, especially Skywarn nets.

“I think Skywarn is an awesome program,” Hill said. “I’ve only been a ham for one year, I’m extra class.” Achieving that top level that quickly is rare but Hill said he was aided by his extensive electronics and avionics background.

Even though the chase group is relatively young, they have members scattered around the north part of the state. Union County Sheriff’s Deputy Brett Wicker is one.

They also have a website, www.nmscas.com, are on Facebook and Twitter, and you can download a free smartphone app for the organization. “We have about 15,000 followers and that is a way we provide information to EMS,” Robertson said.

They stream live video to the internet as well, when they are chasing or spotting.

“We do live streaming but mute it so as not to offend when we get excited,” Robertson said. But he added he will try to do better and turn the audio on so people can hear.

Robertson had some hints for anyone in the vicinity of a tornado.

“If you are 600 feet out of the wind path you will be all right,” he said. “Generally head south (to avoid a funnel cloud).” Hill emphasized that one should not park under an overpass despite what you may have seen on TV because it actually increases the wind velocity. A tornado picks up a car when the wind goes under it, Robertson said (TV chase vehicle has skirts that can be lowered), so if you can put your vehicle in a ditch with high enough sides you probably will be OK.

People often drive right into funnels because they can’t see due to the tree line’s obscuring them, they added.

The group continues to work toward earlier, more accurate alerts. “We have a unique way to move information,” Robertson said, “and we can cut response time.”

“I guess we’re all a little off but we want to help people with a passion,” Hill said.