Hams in Southeastern US Provide Spotting Assistance to NWS
As tornados swept through the southeastern part of the country on April 10, hams in Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia were on the air providing assistance to the National Weather Service (NWS).
At 12 noon on April 10, Madison County Emergency Coordinator Rolf Goedhart, K4RGG, sent out an e-mail to Alabama ARES members alerting them about the severe storms headed to Alabama. Doug Hilton, WD0UG, at WX4HUN, the amateur station at the NWS office in Huntsville, activated the linked North Alabama SKYWARN Net, with Sonny Blankenship, N4JDB, as Net Control Station at N4IDX in Moulton. According to Goedhart, the Net was active for almost nine hours.
"At 12:37, at the request of the Madison County Emergency Operations Center and in response to a tornado watch, we formally activated the Madison County Emergency Net," Goedhart told the ARRL. "For about an hour and a half, there was virtually no dead air, either on the SKYWARN net or the Madison County Emergency Net. In fact, reports were flowing fast enough to make one pause, deciding when or even whether to call NCS with a report." Goedhart said that Hilton, at the Huntsville NWS amateur station, estimated handling more than 200 reports from the northern counties of the state.
"Early in the event," Goedhart said, "the hail reports coming in to the NWS from the SKYWARN spotters became so numerous that the NWS requested that nothing smaller than 'quarter-size' hail be reported. There were several reports of baseball-size hail!"
Calhoun County Emergency Coordinator Randall Landers, KG4EUD, said his county went through 8 different warnings and one significant weather alert on April 10, beginning at 6:25 AM. With reports of numerous trees down around the county, Landers said that their "biggest weather event occurred when a wall cloud was spotted from Alexandria looking toward Ohatchee.
"We had a number of stations that spotted the same cloud," Landers told the ARRL. "It then formed a funnel cloud and we tracked it all the way across Calhoun County until it passed over the mountain terrain east of Jacksonville, about 20 miles. All Calhoun County storm spotters and ARES/RACES members did a fantastic job reporting the hail that ranged from pea-size to golf ball-size."
Landers said he contacted Ken Adkisson, WB4FAY, early that afternoon "about linking the K4DSO D-STAR repeater in Birmingham to Reflector 002 B, along with Cheaha Mountain for weather purposes. Then David Drummond, W4MD, saw that we were linked together and started talking with us and the Tuscaloosa repeater was linked up, as well. Later in the evening, we had the W4AP Montgomery D-STAR repeater linked up," and reports were going back and forth to the Alabama Emergency Response Team, K4NWS, in the Montgomery area.
"We should do [link the repeaters up] more often when Alabama has a significant chance of severe weather," Landers said. "All the NWS offices in Alabama could really benefit by using the D-STAR in the fashion it was used today."
ARRL Alabama Section Emergency Coordinator Les Rayburn, N1LF, told the ARRL that at times during the April 10 storm, that at the request of NWS office in Birmingham, the Shelby County repeater was linked with a nearby repeater in Tuscaloosa County. "The NWS was seeking reports from counties in Western Alabama; linking repeaters is a common NWS practice to extend their coverage range," he said.
"Three mobile stations were directed to various supercell storms in the area to gather real time information for the NWS," Rayburn said. "Combined, we covered all of Shelby County, as well as parts of neighboring Bibb and Chilton Counties." Twelve reports of severe weather -- including hail, high winds and wall clouds -- were reported during the Net's duration; hams also informed the NWS of five damage incidents, Rayburn said.
According to Rayburn, Shelby County ARES activated an emergency Net just after midnight on April 13, due to more bad weather in the area. "At approximately 1:10 AM, the repeater sustained major damage from several lightning strikes, and operations shifted to the Birmingham repeater," Rayburn said. "We relayed damage reports to both the Jefferson County and Shelby County Emergency Management Agencies and the NWS office until approximately 2:30 AM, when we secured operations."
At 11 AM weather spotters reported that the storm was near the Tennessee River, and the National Weather Service began issuing severe thunderstorm warnings. The storms moved at nearly 40 MPH, sprinting northeast into the Nashville area just 45 minutes later. Around 12:45 PM, an EF-4 tornado struck the town of Murfreesboro in Rutherford County, 30 miles southeast of Nashville. A separate EF-1 tornado hit the southern end of Murfreesboro, also on Friday.
Members of the Heart of Tennessee (HOT) ARES started an NWS SKYWARN Net at 12:18 PM as the storms approached. "Amateur operators relayed storm damage information to NWS for evaluation in determining tornado strength in the area," Rutherford County Emergency Coordinator Keith Miller, N9DGK, told the ARRL. "ARES members were monitoring the developing line of storms as watches and warnings were issued in the adjacent counties in the Middle Tennessee area."
Miller said that since primary communications for police departments, fire departments, Emergency Medical Service, County Sherriff or County Emergency Management Agency were not lost, backup communication was not required per the County EMA Director. His ARES group did not receive any requests to staff emergency shelters.
The NWS placed DeKalb County under four separate tornado watches on April 10. According to DeKalb County Emergency Coordinator Freddy Curtis, KC4GUG, hams relayed reports of dime-sized hail from three different locations to the NWS in Nashville via the MTEARS repeater system." Curtis said he kept in contact with the DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency Director throughout the storms, but no other assistance was required. "We in DeKalb County were very fortunate to have four tornado warnings with no major damage."
According to Tennessee Department of Emergency Management Public Information Officer Donnie Smith, there were two fatalities in the Murfreesboro storm: Kori Bryant, 30, and her 9 week old daughter Olivia. Smith said that Olivia was found in a car seat 200 yards from the Bryant house. Kori's husband John was found about two houses away, a family member said. His back and ribs were broken, and a lung had collapsed.
At 7:24 PM CDT, the NWS issued a tornado warning for areas north of the Arkansas town of Mena in Polk County; at 8:01 PM CDT, the warning was extended into Mena. Nine minutes later, an EF-3 tornado struck the city, killing three people.
According to ARRL Arkansas Section Emergency Coordinator John Nordlund, AD5FU, members of the Central Arkansas UHF Group (CAUHF) provided real-time reports to the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock and to media outlets around the state. "The Group used the AR-Links SKYWARN net and the WarnIM system," Nordlund said. WarnIM is a SKYWARN instant messenger system serving to give those with or without ham radio access, or those who are in remote areas an additional means of communication in times of emergencies or severe weather events. Its features include live chat and access to updated radar data directly from the NWS.
"When the net closed at the end of the severe weather outbreak, NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist John Robinson stated on the WarnIM system that the North Little Rock NWS office had never had so much timely storm report information before," Nordlund said.
Nordlund told the ARRL that the Office of Emergency Management in Polk County informed Arkansas ARES that there was no "communication emergency," as the local infrastructure was operational and no additional radio personnel were required in the Mena area; phone service in most of Mena has been restored.
Nordlund visited Mena on April 11 and noted that the local ham operators are participating in any emergency tasks that are assigned to them -- based on their training and certifications -- and are using simplex ham radio frequencies primarily to avoid additional loading of public safety frequencies as they carry out those assignments. "The damage path [of the tornado] is a striking example of the power of nature," he said. "The recovery effort of community volunteers is inspiring. This is another fine example of a local ham group that has their ducks lined up and on parade when it really counts."
ARRL Georgia Section Emergency Coordinator Gene Clark, W4AYK, told the ARRL that hams in Gwinnett County activated a SKYWARN Net at 4:30 local time on April 10. One hour later, he said that the situation had been upgraded and classified as Condition Level 2. "According to plan, a de-centralized Net Control function was used, with the Net Manager coordinating weather spotter reports to the NWS office in Peachtree City," he said. "Forty-one amateurs reported seven different reportable weather situations to the NWS."
Northwest District Emergency Coordinator Bill Dickert, KD4EKZ, said that he opened a weather Net at 5:15 on the W4VO repeater in Rome, going until 8:30 that evening. All reports were relayed to the NWS, and about 30 hams in a six county area in both Georgia and Alabama were on the Net, Clark said.
In Newton County, Emergency Coordinator Charles Davis, WA4UJC, activated a weather Net at 8 PM. Ten operators from different areas of the county, as well as from adjacent counties, participated in the Net, reporting golf ball-sized hail and heavy rain. "When power went out for three hours due to a broken power pole on the west side of the county, the Net continued with hams using mobile transceivers and backup power," Clark explained. "The power outage caused us to lose repeater capabilities, so the hams relied on simplex. Using backup power, they contacted a linked repeater system and maintained communication with the NWS until securing at 11:15 that night."