Weather Service recruiting storm spotters, despite last year’s slow season

Published 7:30 am Friday, January 30, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY — Leave it to a meteorologist to start an evening seminar for weather watchers with a dire warning.

“Nothing about observing storms makes any difference if you have to do something dangerous or stupid to observe storms,” Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Norman, said during the first of several seminars for storm-spotters.

In Oklahoma, that’s probably sound advice.

Spring weather can be pretty dangerous.

More people in Oklahoma typically die each year from flash flooding than any other weather-related reason, Smith said, stressing the epigram, “Turn Around, Don’t Drown.”

The most common weather danger, of course, is lightning.

And the most well-known are tornadoes, though Oklahoma hasn’t had many of those recently.

The state set a record last year with the fewest tornadoes recorded — just 16 confirmed — since 1950. The old record was 17 recorded in 1988.

It was also a below-normal tornado season nationally, too, with just over 1,000 confirmed, Smith told his audience, adding that the usual average is around 1,400.

But, he noted, that means absolutely nothing for this spring.

In all, about 600 people from 28 states signed up for Tuesday’s online training in storm spotting.

Theirs is an invaluable network for the Weather Service. For all of the gadgets and computers that aid meteorologists, human eyes are among the most reliable instruments in finding and tracking storms and reporting damage.

(The online audience included people from six countries, as well, though why someone from abroad would care about spotting and reporting dangerous weather in the United States remains a mystery.)

On Tuesday, Smith and other meteorologists distilled the basics of storm spotting into a two-hour presentation that an unseen audience could experience in the comfort of their living rooms.

In addition to pleas to proceed with caution, Smith imparted another word of wisdom: The free, online seminar wasn’t for wannabe storm chasers — you know, people like the characters in the movie “Twister,” who climb into their cars and drive into storms.

Instead, the course was for people who like to stay safe — or as safe as possible in a raging storm. Storm-spotting, Smith said, involves staying put and watching weather from a specific vantage point, then reporting findings to the Weather Service or local emergency officials.

Oklahoma’s storm season typically ramps up in March and April, then peaks in May, though the state has been known to have thunderstorms and tornadoes as early as February, said meteorologist Erin Maxwell.

Weather patterns — think El Nino or La Nina — often shape long-range forecasts. Maxwell said the state is in for a neutral pattern during the next three months, which means residents have equal chances of weather that is wetter or drier than normal.

The best bet, she said, is to prepare for the worst.

That means investing in a weather radio that will alert you to dangers even in the middle of the night.

“Make sure you have a plan on what to do if there is a tornado,” Maxwell added.

Those without a storm shelter should select a room in the middle of a house where they can take cover. Those in upstairs apartments should talk to their landlords about a tornado plan. As always, cars and mobile homes are the worst places to hide during a severe storm.

In any case, Oklahomans should make certain they have a trusted source of weather information in an emergency.

These days, Smith warned, all sorts of people spread weather information online — even if they don’t know anything about it or aren’t even there.

“Just because it looks good and looks official doesn’t mean it actually is,” he said.

Over the next two months, the Weather Service will host about a dozen more online and in-person trainings to cultivate a reliable network of spotters. For more information, or to sign up for one of the free sessions, go to or