COLUMBIA — As a thunderstorm battered the windows Thursday night, around 50 people gathered in the council chambers of the Daniel Boone City Building, hoping to earn the title "storm spotter."
Jim Kramper, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in St. Louis, came to Columbia to teach the “room full of Weather Channel junkies” how to become an official volunteer severe storm spotter. Storm spotters serve as the eyes and ears for the Weather Service when radar cannot detect dangerous conditions.
If you feel you have dangerogerous weather to report, you can contact the National Weather Service in St. Louis (which serves Boone County) at 636-441-8467.
“We can’t see tornadoes with radar,” Kramper said. “That’s why people need to tell us when they see a tornado. A lot of times, people don’t report them because they assume we already know. You would be surprised at what we don’t know. We get better information and put out better warnings when people tell us what’s happening. Public involvement is important; we cannot depend solely on radar.”
The training focused on recruiting volunteers to help with dangerous weather and tornado identification and to educate the public on how to accurately identify tornadic weather.
False reports are a common problem for the weather service. They get a lot of calls about what they have "scientifically" termed SLC: scary-looking clouds.
“We are working on a scary-looking cloud alert for people, but we aren’t quite there yet,” Kramper said.
In order for something to be a tornado, two conditions must be met: There must be steady rotation among lower hanging clouds, and there must be an actual effect of the weather on the ground. Without rotation, a storm does not yet show signs of tornadic activity.
“If you see rotation but are not in a position to observe conditions on the ground for whatever reason, go ahead and report a funnel cloud,” Kramper said.
Kramer spent much of the class explaining how tornadoes really act.
“How many of you have seen the movie 'Twister'?” Kramper said. “That’s a real shame; things don’t really work like that. 'Twister' was not a government-sponsored documentary.”
Kramper commented that tornadoes often follow straight paths — that is, it seems, unless mobile homes are nearby, in which case they instead head straight for them.
“These structures are not built for these kinds of winds,” Kramper said. “We aren’t trying to outlaw trailer homes, but people need to take shelter somewhere else.”
Gary Oerly, a lieutenant with the Boone County Fire Protection District, attended the class for the second time.
“We serve as an extra set of eyes on our radios for the weather service," Oerly said. "Dispatched personnel are on the road quite a bit and keep their eyes open to give ’em a hand.”
Gilbert Blackburn, a garage supervisor for the prison in Moberly, has been attending the events for more than five years now. Blackburn storm-spots as a personal hobby.
“It’s just fascinating,” he said.
The class was sponsored by Boone and Columbia emergency management agencies, but similar classes are often set up by volunteer fire departments and amateur radio groups. The classes have been around since the '50s, and Kramper has been teaching them for the past 23 years.
“Not everyone who attends these classes are actually going to become storm spotters,” Kramper said. “Most just find it interesting. That’s why we can never have enough people at these classes.”