Perspectives from a New NWS Forecaster
Suzanne M. Fortin, (current) Meteorologist in Charge, NWS Wichita, KS
It doesn’t seem like twenty years have passed since the tornado event of 26 April 1991, but my memories of working the event and assessing the damage afterwards still linger. Searching my memories, the images that come most readily are centered on mentoring and professionalism, but more on that later.
Most notable about 26 April 1991, is that it marked the first major severe weather event I had worked as a National Weather Service meteorologist. I only had been working as a journey forecaster about three months, at the newly established Tulsa Weather Forecast Office, and admittedly was a little green with forecasting, let alone severe weather forecasting and severe storms analysis. The day of the event and for a few days prior, I was scheduled to work the mid-shift. In those days, the forecasters worked solo on the night shift, and there were no lead/senior forecasters on-site whom one could collaborate, thus any forecasting decisions were yours and yours alone. I remember going through my normal analysis routine and recognizing that I really didn’t have a good feel for the situation, especially after reading the outlook produced by NSSFC (predecessor of SPC) – so I called the lead forecaster at the Oklahoma City/Norman WFO. I cannot remember who I spoke to, it was either Jerry Osburn or Ken Huckabee, both now retired, but I remember being a little relieved that he was willing to take the time to provide some insight and guidance to me. He encouraged me to be assertive with my products, highlighting the potential seriousness of the situation. In those days, there were no web-briefings or decision support pages to broadcast information about high impact weather, so I highlighted the threat of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes in the zones, regional weather summary, and area forecast discussion. Whether it was Jerry or Ken, they basically stayed on the phone with me until I was comfortable with the state of the products I generated. He could have just conducted the cursory coordination call with me, but instead he took time to mentor me through the situation, and I always will remember that.
The mentorship didn’t end with the coordination call with the Oklahoma City/Norman WFO, as the day of the event, I was fortunate to work with Mike Teague. Unlike today, when 5-12 extra people may be in the office for a severe weather event, I only recall Mike and I working the bulk of the event. Mike called me in early; I think it was around 6 or 7 pm, as I was still scheduled to work at midnight. The WSR-88D had not arrived at Tulsa yet, and Mike and I had to use the WSR-74C to issue warnings. I should use the phrase Mike and I lightly, as Mike mainly worked the radar. I acknowledged that Mike had vast more experience in radar meteorology – thus I took the opportunity to watch and learn from him. I recall helping him with warnings and statements, and coordinating with Norman on NAWAS or phone, as the Norman WSR-88D was operating. Coordinating with Norman became imperative as the event progressed, as there was a period when I recall the 74C experiencing quite a bit of attenuation about the time the F4 tornadoes were on the ground to the north and west of Tulsa. I especially recall how calm Mike was, even with the seriousness of the situation, even during several frantic phone calls by storm spotters. He was professional on the phone, and managed to diffuse the stress level. Mike also demonstrated a lot of patience with me, as I remember asking quite a few questions, and advice. I have worked many big outbreaks since 26 April 1991, but I believe the mentoring I received leading up to the event and during the event really reinforced the concept one can learn in any environment, especially through courtesy and professionalism.
My memories from the day after probably are the most clear to me. Being twenty-something and pumped with adrenaline, after working the entire severe event and my scheduled mid-shift, I went home and caught a one hour nap, then returned to work in order to assist in the damage assessments for the tornadoes that struck the Tulsa county warning area. In another first in my career, this was my first time I’d ever participated in a damage assessment of the aftermath of a tornado. I’d done quite a bit of storm-chasing as a student at the University of Oklahoma, so I had seen a few tornadoes, but I’d never experienced the aftermath. In a word, it was surreal. I remember being very chatty and excited as we drove to Westport, but when I saw the destruction, I was stunned. Again, Mike Teague was the team leader of the group to which I was assigned. I vividly recall a lady in her nightgown standing amidst the debris that was her home, smoking a cigarette, calling for her dog or cat. Her husband was poking around the debris looking for any valuables. If I recall, they knew the man who had died only half mile or so west of their house, when he drove his truck into the path of the tornado. Her whole life had been up-ended, she had lost a friend, and all I could think to say was, “I’m sorry.” Aside from the lady in her nightgown, the images of several dead dogs, cats and dozens of dead horses and cattle come to mind. Again, I remember observing Mike conversing with the rancher who had not only lost property, but animals he cared for, and how sad he looked. I’d never seen death at that scale, and I remember being a little numb, and thinking what if this had been people. Ironically, the field where I saw all the dead animals was not too far from Oologah High School, thus my fears could have been realized if the tornado had struck earlier in the day. By the end of the day, I was physically and mentally tired. I had gained a different perspective on my role – my days of storm-chasing for “fun” began to wane after that day, after seeing the despair and sadness of the people we encountered. Sadly, less than two years later, I encountered not only animals that had been killed by a tornado, but a family of five near Catoosa. I think I did a lot of growing up in the forty-eight hours that I was focused on the events and aftermath of 26 April 1991. I was fortunate that several individuals took time to mentor me and provide me great examples of how to grow and communicate. Though it was hard to absorb, I think everyone who sits in a warning chair should take the steps to participate in a damage survey – it galvanizes how important and life impacting our warnings and products can be, and perhaps will make one realize we can provide a little comfort during and after the storm if we take time to talk.