Meteorologist: Public’s help vital to weather reporting
By ZACHARY FITZGERALD
MORGAN CITY — Roger Erickson, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Lake Charles, stressed Tuesday the importance of having the public’s assistance to ensure the weather service gets accurate severe weather reports. The Port of Morgan City hosted a National Weather Service Skywarn class Tuesday. The St. Mary Parish Office of Homeland Security also partnered to organize the event. Skywarn classes, which are held across the region, inform people about how to report weather incidents, Erickson said. Skywarn consists of a group of volunteers who report to the National Weather Service, Erickson said. “The story of, if a tree falls in the middle of the woods, and no one’s there to see it, does it make a sound? Same thing with our business,” Erickson said. “If no one reports the tree falling down in the woods then, nope, we never heard about it.” Though Skywarn is typically focused on reporting tornadoes, “flooding is the big story” in this region, Erickson said. If pumps cannot keep up with the water coming in, then an area will flood, he said. Judging how the depth of water from a distance is difficult to do, which makes driving through in flooded conditions dangerous, he said. Heavy rain and flooding are generally much bigger issues in south Louisiana than tornadoes, Erickson said. “One foot of moving water can pick up 2,000 pounds,” he said. “Most of our cars and trucks are going to get picked up if it’s moving water.” National Weather Service meteorologists use radar to spot tornadoes, but to actually verify the information, the service relies “heavily on feedback from the people out in the community,” Erickson said. The service’s radar system can detect whether the activity shown is rain, hail, ice, snow or debris being thrown into the sky, Erickson said.
Weather data is also collected through weather stations across the region, he said. Patterson and Berwick both have weather stations, Erickson said. “We’re always looking to partner with more people out there that have data,” Erickson said. Two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather stations should be online soon in the Atchafalaya River, about 20 to 25 miles south of Morgan City, Port of Morgan City Executive Director Raymond “Mac” Wade said. Skywarn reporting by the public is especially important in St. Mary Parish because the radar data picked up through the Lake Charles office is “very limited in terms of the quality of information that it’s going to be providing us of what’s going on over here,” Erickson said. As a National Weather Service meteorologist, Erickson issues a weekly weather outlook, and later a watch, which is much more specific for a certain location. After a watch has been issued, the service will issue a warning, if the activity is potentially deadly, or just an advisory, if the activity does not have a reasonable chance of becoming deadly, Erickson said. Weather watchers can program weather alerts for a certain area or areas through a weather radio. Meteorologists can drop equipment instruments into hurricanes to get data at any given moment. “We don’t have that capability with tornadoes,” Erickson said. Erickson described how someone can try to determine if a tornado may develop. When watching a cloud while rain is falling, weather watchers should look to see which direction the cloud is moving, Erickson said. If the cloud is rotating and following the rain, tornado development is possible. The bulk of tornadoes in St. Mary Parish occur from March through July between 3 a.m. and 9 a.m., Erickson said. “We really push hard on weather radios for coastal parishes because so often we’re asleep when these things are hitting,” Erickson said. Erickson discouraged people from chasing after tornadoes because many times once one tornado hits, another tornado is close to hitting the ground within five or 10 miles of the first one. Ninety percent of people who die in tornadoes die from blunt force trauma due to debris hitting them or a house falling and crush them. During a tornado, staying in the middle of a building is a person’s best chance to survive, he said. The majority of tornadoes hit in rural areas, so the data collected on the number of tornadoes is biased on the low end because of tornadoes not reported. “Without this kind of training, without this outreach, without this encouragement to report things, we actually are kind of under-reporting, underobserving the amount of severe weather we get along the coast,” said Tim Osborn, regional manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Coast Survey. The Lake Charles National Weather Service office covers six counties in Texas and 16 parishes in Louisiana. Erickson encouraged people to call the National Weather Service even if they’re not sure what weather activity they are seeing. The weather service relies heavily on local people to communicate to officials what happens in a specific area. “It started out probably in the late Sixties, early Seventies with the amateur radio guys,” Erickson said.
Weather watchers can call the National Weather Service’s Lake Charles office at 337-477- 5285, ext. 1 to report severe weather. They can also connect with the weather service online at http://weather.gov/lch or www.facebook.com/NWSLakeCharles.
Published in Daily Review March 4, 2015