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"Together Decatur" Columnist and Food and Drink Reporter

“Together Decatur” columnist and food and drink reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

DECATUR — Before I start out on a walk, I usually check the weather Doppler radar to see if it is safe to go. If my area looks clear on the magic screen, I am on my way.

I don’t always trust my senses. I have stepped outside to hear thunder, but the Doppler said a storm was still in St. Louis.

I have seen ominous looking clouds, but the Doppler showed a less-scary picture.

I have even smelled the rain. Still, the Doppler said … and I am drenched within a few blocks.

So I don’t have to question my instincts or weather radar, I attended a Weather Spotter class sponsored by the National Weather Service at Richland Community College.

A good friend of mine also lives near Taylorville, the city that was struck by several tornadoes on Dec. 1. Many photos and videos from the storms and the damage left in their wake were used as examples during the class. 

Senior meteorologist Ed Shimon conducted the class. It is designed to give the public an overview of thunderstorm development and prepare us as weather spotters.

“We show you the more severe parts of the storm and where you are going to need to look to provide us at the the weather office identification of these severe features developing,” he said. “As a spotter, you can go outside and have confidence.”

Throughout the seminar, Shimon encouraged the class to report severe weather to the National Weather Service whenever we spot dangerous skies. Alerts and warnings from the National Weather Service note weather storm spotter activation is anticipated. 

“Spotters take an active role in the severe weather operation,” he said. “Our office needs feedback.”

National Weather Service meteorologists have the necessary equipment to warn the public of approaching storms, but having a spotter out in the field with eyes on the sky, witnessing the weather in real time, is needed for reliable information.

“Hail, wind damage, funnel clouds, tornadoes, we want that information,” Shimon said. “We can put that in the warnings.”

Radar may indicate a strong storm approaching an area, but nature happens. And we’ve all been fooled in the past. I want to verify what I am seeing. Shimon understands.

“The radar can only tell you so much,” he said.

The class was held just in time. Meteorologist conduct seminars throughout the Midwest a few weeks before the peak severe weather season, which includes April, May and June. As a refresher, online opportunities are available to students.

During the first half of the class, I was already looking up the spotter review page. Meteorologists are scientists, and they talk that way. I was confused by some of the terminology, such as cold fronts, jet streams, upflow, instability. I even had to think about the words moisture and precipitation, other words for rain.

After learning the fundamentals of severe weather formation, we had a test. I was surprised to realize I learned a great deal. Pictures and videos helped.

An overshooting top on a group of white, fluffy clouds may be pretty, but it could mean a dangerous storm is forming — quickly.

“If all of a sudden it collapses, you have about a 15-minute lead time before the hail core reaches the ground,” Shimon said.

An anvil is an iron block on which metal is shaped with a hammer, but in weather-speak, an anvil describes clouds of impending dangerous weather about to hit.

“The anvil gives you an indication about how fast that air is reaching the stratosphere level,” Shimon said. “It has nice crisp edges to more severe storms.”

The star of the show was learning about tornadoes. This was enlightening, because in the past I have said that I had never seen a tornado. Maybe I was wrong. Sometimes they are funnel clouds, wall clouds full of rain, sometimes they are tornadoes.

Tail clouds point to where a storm is headed. This is just handy information.

Along with what to look for, I also learned the correct wording for communicating with the National Weather Service meteorologists. Be specific, using distances and correct locations. As an observant journalist, I hope I have that knowledge down.

The class was helpful, giving extra information and allowing students interaction with a professional. After we ended the class, the students each received a "Certificate of Completion" with our individual names.

But now Shimon wants me to use what I’ve learned.

“We want people to actually apply what they see and hear,” he said. “To be an active role.”

The responsibility made me nervous. If statistics were correct, I had a few weeks to worry about it.

Less than 12 hours later, I awoke to heavy rain, thunder and lightning in Central Illinois.

During the class I learned spotting severe weather in the dark is difficult, and the safest place in a storm is inside your home.

I wanted to pass any kind of test from the class, so I went back to bed.

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Contact Donnette Beckett at (217) 421-6983. Follow her on Twitter: @donnettebHR

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