Local weather spotters keep eye on sky

By Karl Terry, PNT Managing Editor

National Weather Service officials in Portales Wednesday say eastern New Mexico residents have proven themselves over the years as good skywatchers.

Kenneth Drozd, senior meteorologist with the NWS, along with fellow meteorologist Tim Shy, were in town conducting the second SkyWarn class of the year in Portales. The NWS class certifies severe weather spotters to act as eyes and ears on the ground when weather conditions turn bad.

“I think we’ve always had a tremendous response,” Drozd said of participation on the High Plains. “Folks in the eastern part of the state are more intuned to the threat of severe weather.”

Wednesday’s class at Becky Sharp Auditorium at Eastern New Mexico University was held at the specific request of the Greyhound Amateur Radio Club. The audience was mostly club members and ENMU staff.

According to Roosevelt County Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Keith Wattenbarger, Roosevelt County has had 37 people take the class this year, down just slightly from 49 in 2007, following the tornado in March that hit a Roosevelt County dairy and killed two people in Clovis.

Drozd said he figures 100-120 have taken the class in Roosevelt and Curry counties this year. He says it doesn’t have to be just emergency personnel taking the class, citizens with no formal emergency training are welcome.

“The more eyes and ears we have out there, the better,” Drozd said. “It’s a chance to actually save lives.”

Wattenbarger credits a well-trained network of spotters working in southern Roosevelt County with helping get early warning out on the 2007 tornado that hit Clovis.

“Because Paul Luscombe (Dora fire chief) and his volunteers had the training, we were able to start tracking that storm very early,” Wattenbarger said.

He said good spotting is also important to keep people from taking action unnecessarily. He said he is focusing his efforts onqualifying all tornado spots and developing a very clear protocol for activating the new sirens or the mass notification system that have recently been installed in Roosevelt County.

During the class Drozd and Shy focused on properly identifying the types of storms and the stages of development for severe storms.

Shy said that in New Mexico, radar coverage isn’t as good as the NWS would like it to be and spotters play an important part in getting the word out early and providing credibility to what forecasters are seeing on radar.

Shy said a weather phenomenon called downbursts are often mistaken for tornadoes. He said a downburst, which is caused by a rapid cooling of air in a cloud, resulting in a sudden dropping of the air, can generate winds as strong as some tornadoes. But he said they’re not tornadoes and making people understand that is often hard.

“There should be no shame in having your home destroyed by a downburst,” Shy said laughing.

Shy said things have changed greatly since he came to the NWS in 2001. Today, through the NWS Web site, residents can get the same radar information that the forecasters in his office look at in real time, along with continuous updates.