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Local weather watchers provide the ‘ground truth’

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news New Richmond, 54017
New Richmond Wisconsin 127 South Knowles Avenue 54017

The fear and helplessness his wife and daughter felt as they watched a tornado develop in the family’s Hammond backyard convinced Jason Winget of the need for storm spotter education.

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Now he is a volunteer with the National Weather Service, and this spring he will teach Skywarn classes in St. Croix County for his third storm season.

“They both were afraid and felt helpless at the time,” said Winget of his family’s reaction. Eventually the tornado moved north, away from their house. Since then both his wife and daughter have become ham-radio licensed and are involved in Skywarn.

Winget became a storm spotter in 1994 but drifted away from the program until the tornado incident. Now he teaches Skywarn for the National Weather Service.

“In the class we cover the basics of the super-cell and how that leads to generating a wall cloud and then a tornado,” said Winget. “We cover updraft and downdraft identification in detail. We talk about the differences between super-cells and roll clouds, which are often confused with wall clouds.

“Throughout the class there is focus on how to safely observe and understand how the storms move and develop. The class is an excellent class in understanding storms for those who are interested and are afraid of them.

“I have had a number of people take the class because of being afraid of the storm and after the class they feel more comfortable in knowing that storms are a process of development and not just something that strikes out at you randomly.”

More volunteer storm watchers are needed, especially in the New Richmond, Baldwin and Glenwood City areas, said Kristen Sailer, emergency management coordinator for St. Croix County.

The classes are open to everyone. Once a person completes the training, he or she is given an ID through the National Weather Service and can enter information online at the website, call the NWS in Chanhassen, Minn., or blog to report conditions.

“The National Weather Service activates storm spotters basically when they send out the details on the daily weather outlooks,” said Sailer. “It just depends on the situation. If (the Weather Service) has enough warning, they put them on standby in the morning.”

The protocol usually activates volunteers several hours in advance, using the website or social media, including Facebook and Twitter.

Anyone with a cellphone can participate, said Winget. His class provides an 800 number to make reports to the local weather office.

“When a certified spotter calls they are talking directly with one of the meteorologists that are making a decision on whether or not to put out a warning,” said Winget.

“The volunteers provide real-time accurate information at the time of the storm to give the National Weather Service better intel on the ground,” said Sailer.

“The understanding of how weather impacts us and how tornadoes ultimately develop is a constantly involving science,” said Winget. “Over the years, the amount of public notification lead time has increased, and the trained storm spotters have been a factor in providing that advanced warning in communities.”

He doesn’t have a complete count but estimates the local program has trained about 200 people each year since 2012. Because there is some overlap with people coming back for refresher training, Winget said St. Croix County has about 300 trained storm spotters.

“Spotters are the eyes on the ground providing ‘ground truth’ to what the radar cannot see,” said Winget. “There is a great misconception to what technology can do in weather forecasting and prediction of tornado events. The reality is that the tools are getting better, but there is a long way to go before we see the role of the on the ground storm spotter replaced.”

The local weather radar is in Chanhassen. At New Richmond, the bottom of the radar view is at about 6,000 feet off the ground, said Winget.

“Much of the weather we are interested in is below that 6,000 feet level, so having storm spotters on the ground is very important to fill in what is missing.,” Winget said.

He said it’s important for spotters to be there to report what they see but also what they do not see.

“Sometimes radar can indicate rotation that doesn’t exist at the ground level and this can lead to needless tornado warnings,” said Winget. “Spotters can sign up to be contacted by the weather service to do quick looks at the local conditions to see if they can confirm or deny what the radar is seeing.

“Stopping needless warnings is important because the public gets desensitized to the frequent warnings, and institutions like hospitals, nursing homes and factories enact their response plans risking patient lives and loss in revenue.”

He said local storm spotters help ensure that the warnings are more consistent and valid.

“After-action reports … show that the public responds more quickly and consistently when the warning can say a ‘trained spotter has seen’ or ‘trained spotter has reported’ than if ‘radar indicates’ is in the message,” said Winget.

He emphasized that he teaches storm spotting, not storm chasing. The class covers mobile spotting and how to ensure that the spotter is safe.

“We strongly discourage any mobile spotting at night due to the dangers associated with that. You can safely do this spotting from your backyard only steps from your safe shelter,” said Winget.

For more information, contact Winget by email at skywarn@stcroixaresraces.org or by phone at 715-441-2316.

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Storm spotter classes

The public, ham radio operators, police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, hospital staff and company emergency managers are invited to attend any of three Skywarn classes offered this spring by the National Weather Service.

Participants in the three-and-a-half-hour classes will learn how to recognize when a thunderstorm is severe and when funnels and then tornadoes are developing.

Due to room capacity, walk-ins are limited so registration is requested. Register at stcroixaresraces.org/skywarn/spotter-classes.

For more information, call Kristen Sailer at 715-381-4911 or email kristen.sailer@co.saint-croix.wi.us

These are the class dates:

— Tuesday, April 22, 6-10 p.m., St. Croix County Government Center, County Board Room, 1101 Carmichael Road, Hudson

— Saturday, April 26, 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., St. Croix County Government Center, County Board Room

— Saturday, May 3, 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., Agriculture Service and Education Center, Training Room, 1960 8th Ave., Baldwin

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Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.
(715) 426-1049
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