Eye for the storm

Published 10:40 pm Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The National Weather Service recruited about 25 more sets of eyes and ears in eastern Shelby County during a Feb. 2 storm spotter training class in Vincent.

From funnel clouds to baseball-sized hail, the spotters learned about a plethora of severe weather characteristics and how to properly relay information to the weather service.

The spotters will serve an important role in helping the National Weather Service to forecast, confirm and warn others about severe weather throughout Shelby County, said Warning Coordination Meteorologist John De Block, who works in the National Weather Service’s Calera office.

“There’s only so many of us, but the more people we can train to call these things into us, the better,” Block said. “Your reports will help us to do a better job of saving lives and property.”

To be considered a severe thunderstorm, it must produce winds of 58 mph or greater, or produce hail at least 1 inch in diameter.

Brock urged anyone who witnesses damaging winds, any type of storm damage, heavy rains, hail, high or rapidly rising water, snowfall or ice to contact the National Weather Service at 1-800-856-0758.

Because radar images cannot confirm the presence of tornadoes or damaging winds, the eyewitness accounts help weather service officials in determining the severity, direction and impact of many types of storms, Block said.

“If you don’t know what you see, call us,” Block said. “Not everything you see is what you think it is.”

Supercell storms capable of producing tornadoes typically look like towering, fluffy cauliflower- or mushroom-shaped clouds formed when masses of warm air and cold air collide.

A typical telltale sign of a tornado is a wall cloud, which usually descends from the western or southwestern end of a storm. Tornadoes form when wall clouds begin rotating, form a funnel cloud and contact the ground, Block said.

But because tornadoes in Alabama are usually shrouded by walls of heavy rainfall, Block urged spotters to always consider their safety first.

“I’d rather be chasing a tornado than in a mobile home,” Block said. “During a tornado, I don’t want to be in a car. I don’t want to be in a ditch. I want to be in a building.

“The safest viewpoint is to the southeast of the storm relative to its motion,” Block added. “I would rather get a call from you in your basement saying something bad happened than read about your obituary.”