Since the launch of the Skywarn program in the 1970s, the National Weather Service says nearly 290,000 people have been trained across the U.S. to report severe thunderstorms, hailstorms, floods, tornadoes and their damage. The agency says that information — along with Doppler radar, improved satellite information and other data — has allowed it to provide more timely and accurate warnings for the 10,000 severe thunderstorms, 5,000 floods and more than 1,000 tornadoes that hit nationwide each year.
A free, two-hour class is all it takes to become a spotter. Spotters once all were ham radio operators, but cellphones and other technology now allow far more people to participate, meteorologist Frank Rivette told a class of about 20 people on a recent Saturday at the Jefferson Parish Public Library in Metairie.
During and after last Sunday's hailstorm in the New Orleans area, people uploaded photos of hailstones to the weather service's Facebook page for New Orleans. Rivette said spotters should report hail when it's at least the size of a dime, as well as any winds that damage buildings or knock down power lines, trees or big branches. Spotters also are encouraged to report rain that causes widespread flooding or dumps more than two inches an hour, and a tornado, funnel cloud or wall cloud outside falling rain.
Rivette said meteorologists from his office in Slidell have trained about 375 south Louisiana and south Mississippi residents over the past 18 months.
Jackson meteorologists hold 20 to 30 classes a year, some in October and early November and some from February to early April, because the region has two storm seasons, Wilkinson said.
"We kind of have a November season, and it almost continues through the winter," he said. By mid-April, meteorologists are again too busy dealing with bad weather to teach people about it, he said.
Rivette's recent class included a Jefferson Parish firefighter, a freelance meteorologist from New Orleans, an artist and ham radio operator from Harahan, and a graduate student in meteorology at Mississippi State University.
"It was good to be able to know how to give them the information that'll help them better warn people and make better forecasts," said Sal Vinterella, of New Orleans, the graduate student.
Linda S. Mauer, 59, of Harahan, said she's been a ham operator for about 11 years but had not had the free time needed to be a weather spotter. "It was on my list of things to do. Because it's important," Mauer said.
Many say spotters' work pays off in big ways. Meteorologist Stephen Wilkinson in Jackson said reports of a tornado before it reached Hattiesburg, Miss., in February probably helped avoid any deaths in the storm.
Jay Robertson, who owns a car repair business in Tupelo, Miss., and is a founder of Northeast Mississippi Storm Chasers and Spotters, said about seven of the group's 35 members are storm chasers. The rest are spotters — and those who want to become chasers must get training and about $1,000 worth of equipment to ensure that they stay out of harm's way while sending in reports, he said.
The weather service is happy to get photos, video and other information from storm chasers but emphasizes that it only trains spotters.
"We don't want to encourage people to be out endangering themselves," Wilkinson said.
Spotter's Guide: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/os/brochures/SGJune6-11.pdf
Scheduled classes, and the weather service office providing them:
Slidell, La.: http://www.srh.noaa.gov/lix/?n=skywrnpg2
Shreveport, La.: http://www.srh.noaa.gov/shv/spotter/
Jackson, Miss.: http://www.srh.noaa.gov/jan/?n=spotter_train_schd
Memphis, Tenn.: http://www.srh.noaa.gov/meg/?n=skywarn_meetings
Mobile, Ala.: http://www.srh.noaa.gov/mob/?n=spotter_training