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FNS Photo by Darren Gibbins Rural Grand Forks ham radio operator Nancy Yoshida, who is also a weather observer for the National Weather Service, spends much of her day collecting data or chatting with other radio operators worldwide.

An eye for storms: Volunteers provide on-the-ground info for National Weather Service storm warnings

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GRAND FORKS — Wes Rogers remembers well June 17, 2010, the day a series of twisters tore through an area stretching from Grand Forks County to central Polk County in Minnesota and as far as Wadena County.

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He was out driving around in the storm with a video camera providing footage for the National Weather Service.

“As far as severity, it wasn’t that bad, but there were a lot of them,” said Rogers, a volunteer storm spotter with the agency’s Grand Forks office.

“That’s the worst one we’ve had since I’ve been involved. We had tornadoes in this direction, in that direction and that direction,” said Nancy Yoshida as she pointed to the northwest, southeast and east.

A ham radio enthusiast and trained storm spotter, she remembers the day well, too.

Yoshida was at the weather service office running a ham radio station and relaying information from other storm spotters to meteorologists.

The two are among the dozens of volunteers in the region who are part of the SkyWarn program, a vital part of the weather service’s storm alert system. It’s the SkyWarn storm spotters who tell the agency if pea-sized hail fell or if a tornado touched down or if strong winds destroyed a barn somewhere out in the 17 North Dakota counties and 18 northwest Minnesota counties that the Grand Forks weather service office serves.

“Radar is one tool that gives us an idea of what is occurring, the potential for large hail, the potential of the type of rotation that may indicate a tornado,” said Greg Gust, a meteorologist with the agency and SkyWarn coordinator. “It doesn’t tell us really where the tornado is, where the hail is, how severe it is.”

“We rely on what is called ground truth — what is really occurring at those locations.” he said. “We get that from SkyWarn spotters.

“The advantage those people provide is they are fairly well-trained eyes that provide a fairly well-tuned report of what is occurring. We may see someone post on our Facebook page that ‘we’re getting big hail.’ That’s somewhat reliable. But the storm spotters can provide detail.”

An eye for clouds

Rogers, who is in the concrete construction business, said weather watching has been a big part of his life, though he has been a trained SkyWarn storm spotter for just five years.

“Weather’s important,” he said. “Being a trained spotter is something that’s not time consuming. Usually, there’ll be a warning or a potential warning of something. You try to get on the safe side of anything and observe it. You’re guessing the safe side. You’ve got to think safety.”

Gust said Rogers and a friend who often travels with him on storm-spotting trips have developed specialized skills. “Wes, he has an eye for those cloud types,” Gust said. “He and a friend know how to read the clouds and will video that and report it.”

Rogers has a good eye for tornadoes, too, which Gust appreciated during the June 2010 storms.

“Wes captured some of the best video we had of the tornadoes,” he said. “That was just an explosive day all over the place.”

The communicator

Yoshida has been a SkyWarn storm spotter for eight years. She and her family moved here from Colorado during the winter of 1996-97, just in time to experience the area’s record-breaking blizzard and flood season.

A former competitor in the Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska, she picked up the ham radio hobby to help out during the annual race and picked up the storm-spotting hobby to make use of her radio skills the rest of the time.

“I’ve really gotten bitten by the bug bad,” she said. “Ham radio is an amazing hobby and weather spotting is a nice service we can provide with ham radio.”

She started with two antennas at her family home in Grand Forks. Today, her former sunroom has been converted to a ham radio broadcast station, with six antennas in the yard.

Yoshida serves as state emergency coordinator for the Amateur Radio Emergency Services, or ARES. The Grand Forks County branch has 52 members, most of whom are trained SkyWarn storm spotters.

“We have several new hams in the area, so we’ll have some new bodies involved in this,” she said.

“Nancy is bringing in people to communicate the information, making sure there are ways to communicate,” Gust said. “So that when that big storm hits, and the power is knocked out, you still can get that information out.

“On a good day, we get telephone reports from spotters. We get ham radio reports and reports from social media,” he said. “We know those who are very well trained, and we rely on them to provide solid information to help us do our job.”

For more info about the SkyWarn program, go to 1.usa.gov/1n4Y8A6.

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Kevin Bonham
Kevin Bonham covers news from northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota for the Grand Forks Herald. A North Dakota native, who grew up in Mandan and Dickinson, he has been a reporter or an editor with the Herald and Forum Communications for nearly 30 years. 
(701) 780-1110
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