Hams in Arkansas and Alabama Help Provide Assistance to NWS During Severe Sunday Storms
Strong winds and tornadoes moved through Arkansas and Alabama on Sunday, January 22. In response to the storms, the National Weather Service office in Little Rock activated Arkansas SYWARN the same afternoon, while ARES® members were activated in parts of Alabama.
Arkansas SKYWARN Program Coordinator Danny Straessle, KE5WLR, summoned a team of radio amateurs and headed to the NWS office to provide communications support to the forecasters. While Straessle was enroute to the NWS office, Daryl Stout, AE5WX, brought up the Weather Watch Net, a pre-net for Arkansas SKYWARN. By 6 PM, the Arkansas SKYWARN net control team was in place and the NWS issued the first tornado warning for the area. At this time, Straessle and Shane Lee, KF5FBR, took over as Net Control for the Arkansas SKYWARN net. They were assisted by Mona Blacklaw, KM5ONA. The NWS received reports of tornadoes in Arkansas, Dallas, Lonoke, Prairie and Cleveland Counties.
In addition to activity by Arkansas SKYWARN, ARES® members in Alabama also helped to provide communications support in that state. According to David Gillespie, W4LHQ, of the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency, hams across Central Alabama began monitoring the storm conditions in preparation for a possible activation. “Hams deployed to the National Weather Service office to relay storm observations and damage reports,” he told the ARRL. “When the NWS issued a tornado warning that evening, local ARES® members began an emergency communications net. Net Control logged reports from 34 stations through the night. When the storms cleared, these damage reports were used to dispatch first responders to the areas that sustained the most severe damage.” Fourteen hams reported to the Jefferson County EMA, where Gillespie coordinated communications for three shelters run by the American Red Cross.
“In Arkansas, darkness fell as activity picked up, most of which was south and east of Little Rock, in the less-dense populated areas of the Delta region of the state,” Straessle told the ARRL. “In the dark, it was extremely difficult to see storm development and more so dangerous to try and spot it. Arkansas SKYWARN relied upon certified Amateur Radio storm spotters from the area to be the eyes and ears of the National Weather Service. Troy Singleton, N5ARK, was the most valuable player of the entire night. Troy was raised in Southeast Arkansas and knew the area like the back of his hand, which was instrumental in his safe navigation of the farm roads in the area to safely spot developing tornadic supercells.”
Straessle said that at times, the only information coming from that part of the state came from Singleton, and both Arkansas SKYWARN and the forecasters at the Little Rock NWS office were glad to have them. “A little further to the east, in Arkansas County, members of the Grand Prairie Amateur Radio Club collected weather reports through a simplex net,” Straessle explained. “Club members relayed the reports to their president Randy Geater, K5NDX, who in turn relayed to Arkansas SKYWARN at the National Weather Service.”
According to Straessle, a rain-wrapped tornado headed toward Geater and his crew, and they had to seek shelter in the Country Sherriff’s bunker for about 20 minutes: The tornado was completely rain-wrapped and all they could see were power flashes as the tornado took down high-voltage transmission lines.” The storms quickly moved out of the Little Rock County Warning Area and left the state around 10 PM. Shortly after this, Straessle closed the Arkansas SKYWARN net. In all, more than 60 radio amateurs were involved with providing reports during the storm.
According to the Little Rock NWS office, the day in Arkansas started out pleasant. “It did not look at all like a severe weather day early on January 22,” the NWS office in Little Rock noted on its website. “Temperatures at 6 AM CST were mostly in the 30s to lower 40s, and there were areas of fog and drizzle. Even so, forecasts called for dramatic changes and severe storms by evening. One storm in particular had a history of producing tornadoes over at least a five-county area. The storm moved through Fordyce (Dallas County), where a tornado (rated EF2) damaged houses on the north side of town. A woman was trapped for a time in one of the homes. The storm caused structural damage north of Kingsland (Cleveland County), and hit a 150 year old church. North of Rison (Cleveland County), the storm snapped dozens of trees. Farther northeast along the storm track, there was evidence of tornadoes at Sweden (Jefferson County), near Lodge Corner (Arkansas County) and south of Almyra (Arkansas County). At the latter location, a transmission tower was mangled and lines were downed. There may have been more than a half-dozen tornadoes spawned during the event.”
In Alabama, a number of tornados swept across the state during the early hours of Monday, January 23, 2012. “Tuscaloosa County had minimal structural damage in the northwestern part of the county, with Jefferson County had a lot of destruction centered in the Center Point area,” explained ARRL Alabama Section Manager David Drummond, W4MD. “The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for these areas around 2:30 AM. ARES® members in Jefferson County stood up a net on the Birmingham ARC repeater, taking reports from 34 check-ins. Once the storm was clear, these reports were used by the Homewood Police Department to dispatch first responders. ARES® volunteers responded to the Jefferson County EMA to coordinate shelter communications.” Homewood is a suburb of Birmingham.
Drummond said that the Alabama Emergency Response Team (ALERT) in Jefferson County supports Amateur Radio communications for the National Weather Service and they deployed members on Sunday evening in response to a tornado warning. “ALERT members collected spotter reports from area ARES® nets that the forecasters at the National Weather Service used to refine their forecast,” he said. “In addition, the Sylvan Springs Amateur Radio Club stood up a net at 4:30 AM, with a number of check-ins providing reports and health and welfare messages. As the day progressed Monday, local nets went to a stand-by mode, with KF4OUS -- the Amateur Radio Station at the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency -- monitoring traffic and forwarding information for shelters and response volunteers. The hams in Alabama, particularly Jefferson County, are to be commended for their commitment and service to their served agencies. They provide a public service that is invaluable. A job well done!”
ARRL Delta Division Director David Norris, K5UZ, commended the hams in Arkansas, saying “Those radio amateurs involved with Arkansas SKYWARN have done yet another exemplary job during this severe weather outbreak. It’s good to know that hams in Arkansas and throughout the Delta Division are quick to respond when called upon to provide communications support.” Norris lives in Batesville, Arkansas, in the northern portion of the state.
Arkansas Section Manager Dale Temple, W5RXU, concurred: “I want to congratulate all the people who help provide communications support and weather spotting assistance during the extreme weather conditions on Sunday night. Troy Singleton, N5ARK, did a fantastic job. He was out there in his truck in the dark, caught between two tornados. He could only see them when the lightning flashed. Troy’s vehicle is equipped with APRS, and the hams at the National Weather Service office were able to track him through this. This was really helpful to the forecasters, as they could see, via APRS, right where the activity was that Troy was reporting.”
ARRL Southeastern Division Director Greg Sarratt, W4OZK, said he was proud of the radio amateurs in Alabama who assisted served agencies in the state. “Alabama Amateur Radio operators spent the night in EOCs, National Weather Service offices and their homes to once again provide vital emergency communications in time of need,” he said. “Tornados, severe winds and deadly flooding gripped Alabama throughout Sunday night, and on Monday, caused devastation, hundreds of injuries and two fatalities. Many amateurs continue to volunteer and will not have time to rest before the next round of severe weather is expected later this week. I am proud of ARES® and the amateurs who stepped up to help people in need and for the offers from surrounding areas to help. Thank you.” Sarratt lives in Huntsville, Alabama, about 100 miles north of Birmingham.
“Spotter reports are crucial and the National Weather Service relies on radio amateurs to provide ‘ground truth’ reports to refine their forecasts and relay better information,” Gillespie told the ARRL. “Alert ARES® members relayed reports overnight to support that effort.”
The Arkansas SKYWARN net is streamed live on a RadioReference feed provided by the Central Arkansas Radio Emergency Net (CAREN Club).