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Traveling meteorologist prevents further disaster during Midwest tornadoes, weather crises

Sunday, April 1, 2012 | 6:10 p.m. CDT

HARRISBURG, Ill. — Just two days after a tornado tore through Harrisburg and killed seven people on Feb. 29, the latest storm clouds closing in sent shivers of dread through the southern Illinois town. Storm sirens wailed, and skittish locals scurried for cover.

Yet a calm remained inside the city's makeshift emergency operations center, courtesy of Kelly Hooper.

Tasked with parachuting into disaster zones while others are naturally fleeing, the National Weather Service "incident meteorologist" has seen it all, helping locals through everything from wildfires and oil spills to twisters and floods across the U.S.

With his backpack always ready, Hooper is one of more than 70 nomads the weather service has scattered across the U.S. landscape, each constantly on call and ready to drop everything to hustle anywhere disaster hits or threatens. During spring tornado season, their backpacks get lots of mileage.

Their work is crucial to safeguarding recovery crews by closely tracking the approach of weather threats that can compound damage from earlier storms or disasters that often have knocked out communications that would warn anyone in the field to take cover. Their goal: Be on scene within 24 hours of the first call for help.

"We try to keep an incident from happening within an incident," said Hooper, 46. "We're there to protect lives."

In Harrisburg, Hooper hadn't been on the ground long when he spotted potential trouble in more threatening winds that could turn storm debris into missiles. As the gusts intensified, Hooper pressed the sirens into action, warning anyone in the open to find shelter.

Though no more tornadoes materialized, Mayor Eric Gregg was just fine with the decision, ever grateful for Hooper's "tremendous, amazing" help.

"It was very comforting to have him here because he gives you peace of mind," Gregg said. "We'd love to have him stay here all the time. I think we'd all sleep better at night."

For Hooper, the early warning meant mission accomplished, even if the siren wasn't to everyone's liking.

"Two hundred and fifty people mad are better than one dead one," he said.

It's the kind of job that doesn't afford Hooper much sleep of his own, given that his physically taxing adventures involve 16-hour days for entire weeks.

Based in Paducah, Ky., the married father of two grown kids has weathered weeks in a pup tent 8,500 feet up during wildfires in Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests — accommodations he dryly described as "not pleasurable." During that assignment, he stood guard for wind shifts that could redirect flames — imperiling firefighters and dictating when and where communities are evacuated.

"Sometimes ... you have to break camp and run," he said. "But whether I'm in an office or mountaintop, when I have the opportunity to help the little guy it's extremely rewarding."

The 22-year weather service veteran has seen grizzlies lumber through his camp. Mountain lions and moose also have crossed his path, and he's always watchful for serpents.

"And I do a lot of flying in helicopters," he said, "and I've had some pilots say, 'It's not a question of if you crash but when.'"

Hooper was close enough to a blaze that ravaged the Southeast's Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge last year that ashes rained down on his head like snow. During a hectic 2011, he monitored winds for folks fighting Texas wildfires and stayed vigilant about new rains during flood-prevention efforts near Fargo, N.D.

Last year also saw him in Joplin, Mo., where he tracked severe storms that rolled in on the heels of a twister that killed more than 160 people. A day after that disaster, lightning fatally injured an out-of-town police officer who came to Joplin to help, proving Hooper's point that electrical storms during recovery are nothing to dismiss.

Hooper's boss, Paducah meteorologist Beverly Poole, believes he is "the best ambassador" the weather service has to offer storm-distressed communities, many of which request him by name. And off he goes, with a seven-day supply of clothes in one backpack and another duffel "bursting at the seams" with electronic gear, including a laptop-sized satellite device he says "gives me instant communication no matter where I'm at."

"He has saved lives and made a difference over and over again," Poole said. "He has a special talent in balancing the science with the needs of the emergency responders. He can anticipate what they are going to need to be able to make their decisions and can feed that information to them before they even know they have that need, and that's a rare quality."

For Hooper, the exhausting, risky work is far more than an adrenaline rush.

"It comes with great reward, knowing you help somebody," he said. "I can't tell you how many people I've met who say, 'It was great having you here, and we appreciate everything you've done,' but I hope we don't see you again.' "


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