Trained storm spotters are the key to severe weather alerts

Photo: WKRN

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – When you look at the relative frequency of killer tornadoes, Middle Tennessee is right in the epicenter.

That is why Krissy Hurley of the National Weather Service believes people living in the mid-state need to be prepared.

“It really is a team effort. The National Weather Service may issue the watches and warnings, but without the TV media, it is hard to communicate the warnings, and without the storm spotters out in the field and emergency management, we wouldn’t know what is going on out there,” Hurley explained.

SKYWARN storm spotters are volunteers trained by the NWS to be the eyes and ears in the field, reporting back about severe weather. They report on hail, damaging winds, and, most importantly, tornadoes.

“Our radar, even though it is fantastic technology, it is not scanning on the ground, so we don’t know what is happening on the ground,” said Hurley. “Spotters really help us provide the details on what is happening on the ground and radar is helping provide details of what is going on aloft in the storm.”

(Photo: WKRN; Image: Chris Gullikson)
(Photo: WKRN; Image: Chris Gullikson)

The network of spotters is now around 400,000 people across the United States, but Hurley says as that number grows, so does the confidence in people to get closer to the storm.

“One of the downsides to that is now people are becoming a little more adventurous with their videos, and our number one thing is we want people to be safe. So if you are going to be out there storm spotting, we don’t want you to be in the path of the tornado. We don’t want you to be storm chasing. We want you to be safe,” she said.

They ask if you are safely taking pictures or videos to send those to the NWS by email or, better yet, Facebook or Twitter. They even have a special hashtag for Tennessee– #tSpotter.

(Photo: WKRN)
(Photo: WKRN)

“Not only do we pick it up, but the media @nashseverewx, which is fantastic and kind of like our local Twitter hub for weather. They actually go through the reports and make sure they are valid reports for us,” explained Hurley.

A local Twitter hub, @nashseverewx is well-known for making sure weather reports on social media are valid.

Andrew Leaper, one of the five people who run it, says his interest really peaked when downtown Nashville took a direct hit from an EF-3 tornado on April 16, 1998.

“I remember very well being in school, and I remember there were around eight tornado warnings for Davidson County in a period of 12 hours. So we spent most of our day in the hallway at school. It was a scary day, but it was a fascinating day because there was all this destruction and how did this all happen,” he told News 2.

(FILE video)
(FILE video)

Leaper became a SKYWARN spotter and has seen storm reporting change over the years.

“We used to call an 800 number and tell them what you are seeing and describe it to them, and they would issue warnings based on that. Nowadays with social media, most people have camera phones, so they can take a picture. A picture is worth a thousand words,” he told News 2.

Leaper continued, “We can get that picture to them through social media and other ways, and they can actually see what you are seeing on the ground.”

Pictures and confirmation from SKYWARN spotters were very important in how the warnings were issued for the April 10, 2009 Murfreesboro tornado.

“What was very interesting that day is when the weather service issued a tornado emergency for that county, which is the highest level of warning they can issue, the text specifically said, “Trained spotters have reported a tornado.” So the people on the ground saw that tornado and reported it to the weather service,” said Hurley.

The Murfreesboro tornado, which did not look that impressive on radar, is a reminder of why SKYWARN spotters are needed.

Click here to view additional coverage of our News 2 StormTracker: Family Safety Day reports.