The perfect storm (spotters)

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Robert Friedman

Weather spotter Debbie Slack Katz reports severe weather near her Ellicott City home as one of Howard County’s 279 trained SKYWARN volunteers. Altogether, nearly 300,000 volunteers nationwide assist the National Weather Service by augmenting radar and airport weather measurements with local reports. Classes for new spotters are offered on a regular basis.
Photo by Christopher Myers

The quick, violent downpour one day last fall registered high enough on the rain gauge in the backyard of David Alexander’s Columbia home for him to call the National Weather Service (NWS). After receiving the call, the NWS office covering the Baltimore-Washington area declared a flood alert.

The unpredicted storm took the life of the driver of a car that was swept away, but Alexander’s call may well have saved other lives.

“I got a call later from a weather service officer who thanked me for my report,” said Alexander, 62, whose fulltime job is at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. “I’ve been a volunteer weather spotter for about 20 years,” he said. “I’ve always been pretty fascinated by the weather.”

Alexander also remembers getting a call about five years ago from an NWS meteorologist asking him to if he could go outside and see if the clouds are spinning, since the radar said a tornado may be forming in the area.

“I didn’t see any swirling formation of clouds. But sometimes you can’t exactly tell what is happening from the radar. You need eyes and ears on the ground,” he said.

Hundreds of local spotters

Alexander is one of, at last count, 279 SKYWARN spotters in Howard County who volunteer to record and report severe weather to forecasters. Nationwide, the program has some 300,000 volunteers.

The local program partners the NWS with Howard County’s Office of Emergency Management. Ryan Miller, who heads the county office, noted that this area is “the perfect environment for some of the weirdest weather you’ll ever see....The more weather spotters we can imbed in the community, the more accurate our response to weather events will be.”

The county has already held one class this year for residents who want to be SKYWARN volunteers. They are now deciding if another class will be held in the fall.

(In the meantime, the NWS will be holding a Weather-Ready Nation event at its Baltimore-Washington forecast office in Sterling, Va., on April 30 and May 1. Among other things, free storm spotting classes will be offered on both days for visitors who want to volunteer for the program. For more information, call (703) 946-2201.)

The classes train spotters to report extreme weather observations in and around their homes — such as heavy rain, snowfalls with high measurements, hail larger than the size of a quarter, high wind gusts, tornadoes, water spouts — any severe weather that could be in need of an emergency response from the county government.

The SKYWARN program was organized in the 1960s to help meteorologists make life- and property-saving decisions. According to the NWS, the spotters are needed because, among other things, the U.S. “is the most severe weather-prone country in the world.”

Each year, according to the NWS, Americans cope with an average of 10,000 thunderstorms, 5,000 floods, 1,200 tornadoes and two landfall hurricanes. Extreme weather causes about 500 deaths in the nation each year and nearly $14 billion in damages.

Keeping flooding at bay

Volunteers from Ellicott City, which has experienced several devastating floods over the years, are especially on the lookout for water levels during rainstorms.

Registered nurse Debbie Slack Katz, an Ellicott City native, volunteered to be a spotter last July, at the same time she became chair of the Ellicott City Flood Working Group, which tries to mitigate flooding damages in the city’s historic downtown.

“I think one of the ways to lessen flooding damage is for citizens to get involved,” she said. “Flooding is a major issue in Ellicott City, and the spotter program is a way for all of us to become involved.”

Slack Katz, 50, is trying to convince Ellicott City gardeners to plant rain gardens which, among other things, feature certain plants that hold the rainfall better than others, and help prevent flooding.

The healthcare worker, who as a risk management specialist visits long-term care and assisted living centers around the country, sees her volunteer weather work as an extension of her professional duties.

“I look at risk issues in the centers and advise the officials there what to do about them,” Katz said. As a SKYWARN volunteer, she assesses the potential dangers of the weather outside, and reports her findings to weather authorities.

Firsthand reports

Damon Gunther, a computer specialist who lives in Columbia and has been a weather spotter for the past 10 years, actually majored in meteorology at the University of Maryland.

“Instruments can only do so much” in predicting the weather, said Gunther. “It’s always good to have eyes on the ground.”

Gunther has reported on several weather occurrences in the area, such as Hurricane Sandy, the derecho of 2012, and major snowstorms in the area in 2009 and 2010.

He took the snowfall measurements in his back patio. While he used a conventional ruler to measure the first storm, he had to use a longer measuring stick for the second one, he recalled.

Maury Freedman, who grew up in Silver Spring and has lived the last 30 years in Ellicott City, joined as a spotter in March, when the county classes were last being given. He, too, appeared moved to join because of the many flooding incidents in Ellicott City, as well as a “fascination with the weather.”

Freedman noted that the area flooding was so pronounced in the 1990s that beavers appeared in his Dorsey Hall neighborhood, felling trees and damming up the surrounding waters. “People came from all around to see the beavers at work,” said Freedman, 62, who is a sales strategist consultant for Verizon.

Freedman, a ham radio operator, said that the NWS was “one of my customers” for several years. The NWS reported that many of the weather spotters have been ham radio users.

Was he looking forward to spotting his first potential flood for the SKYWARN program?

“Not really,” Freedman said. “But if I can help, I’m looking forward to that.”