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Storm spotters strive to alert region before severe weather strikes

Adam Price speaks to other Skywarn volunteers over the radio in a training exercise Saturday that was meant to simulate a severe weather situation on April 22, 2022, in Cheboygan.
Michael Livingston
Adam Price speaks to other Skywarn volunteers over the radio in a training exercise Saturday that was meant to simulate a severe weather situation on April 22, 2022, in Cheboygan. (Photo: Michael Livingston/IPR News)

Adam Price remembers exactly where he was 11 months ago when thunderstorms were raging through Northern Michigan.

He and a “skeleton crew” of amateur radio operators, weather enthusiasts and public safety officials were tracking the storms and sending updates to the National Weather Service (NWS) station in Gaylord.

By working from their homes and vehicles, the team acted as the eyes for NWS officials.

Price is an assistant emergency coordinator for Skywarn, a nationwide network of volunteer weather spotters who report to the National Weather Service. He helps oversee District 7, which is made up of counties in Northwest Lower Michigan.

On May 20, Price — who also takes jobs as a contractor — was parked in Harbor Springs in his work van. He has installed it with a two-way radio for occasions like that one. He and the team sent in reports on rain, wind speeds, fallen trees and more.

Even before the storm had crossed the border of Antrim and Otsego counties, he said, the team had guessed something big was coming.

But nobody immediately expected an EF-3 tornado — most severe twisters form downstate, he said.

They kept updating the NWS, which uses the information to alert local emergency services and road commissions. The NWS sent out warning messages to residents about 8 minutes before a twister touched down.

The tornado formed around 3:30 p.m. that day and it ravaged the city of Gaylord. It killed two people and injured dozens more. Nottingham Forest, a mobile home community on the west side of town was hit the hardest.

“They got the notification on their phone as it was literally blowing the door open off their house,” Price said.

The tornado was on the ground for almost 18 miles and lasted 22 minutes, which is unusually long for Northern Michigan.

“As it strengthened, coming into Antrim County and moving on into Otsego, we just didn’t have a whole lot of people down in that area. So we couldn’t feed those reports in as quickly as we needed to,” he said. “We did have a couple of guys in southern Antrim County, but nobody up near where it actually produced a tornado.”

Volunteer storm spotters with Skywarn send in real-time reports to NWS from wherever severe weather is raging.

Even with social media, Price said, the NWS still relies on amateur radio to bring the most up-to-date information. Skywarn also uses Zello, a push-to-talk walkie-talkie app to send in updates.

“The radars are never 100% accurate. It’s always best practice to have eyes on the ground that can observe what’s actually happening,” Price said. “Whether that’s for something you can’t see, or something that the radar says is there but actually isn’t.

“You definitely don’t want to drop warnings on something that doesn’t exist.”

But what happened in Gaylord was a “wake-up call” to increase recruitment efforts for Skywarn volunteers, Price said.

District 7 Emergency Coordinator for Auxiliary Communications Chuck Brew said providing better weather updates will take a larger pool of volunteers.

“It really is a civic duty,” Brew said. “It’s helping your neighbor, the person on the other side of town. The weather bureau can only hire so many people so the community needs to be involved in protecting each other.”

On its website, the NWS says “real-time reports from what the storm is actually doing makes our warnings that much more accurate, credible, and timely.

‘We also use spotter reports to help verify if severe weather is or did occur during the official warning. The NWS will ALWAYS need storm spotters.”

Storm spotters for Skywarn are different from “storm chasers.” Spotters typically monitor storms in their local area and report real-time conditions back to the National Weather Service.

Brew said it’s important that Skywarn volunteers prioritize safety over thrill-seeking.

Volunteers must be over the age of 18 and are required to complete a free spotter training class that typically takes place in the early spring.

Meteorologists teach the basics of thunderstorm development and how to properly report information.

If done correctly in the field, information from these volunteers can save lives, Price said.

“At the end of the day, you never know what exactly is going to happen. Nine times out of 10, it might just be a passing thunderstorm,” Price said. “But it’s that 10th time, that one really severe storm that drops a tornado, that you want as many people out there observing as possible.”

Skywarn training classes are scheduled throughout the state.

More information is available through the National Weather Service website.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.