Leader Blues

Saturday, April 05, 2008

TOP STORY > > NWS assesses damage, recalls night of storms

Leader staff writer

Amie Browne, meteorologist with the National Weather Service at North Little Rock, is waiting for information to come in from the teams out tracking the path of the tornadoes that ripped through the state Thursday night.

“All we know right now is that there were no reports from Jacksonville,” she said, “and we know that the Sylvan Hills High School was damaged, but we haven’t quite gotten up that far yet. It will be awhile before we have an idea of how strong this storm was.”

Browne describes the process of rating the magnitude and strength of a tornado: teams will go out and look at damage and first assess how the debris is spread out on the ground. It will lie in a straight line if caused by high winds, or if it falls in a circular pattern the damage is the result of a tornado. They then calculate the strength of the tornado by assessing the sort of structure that was damaged and rate it per the EF scale.

“It’ll be awhile before we know for sure what the details are,” Browne said.

John Lewis, of Cabot, a senior forecaster with the National Weather Service at North Little Rock, was ready to go home and get some sleep after 14 hours awake and on the job Thursday and Friday. He was called into work 8 p.m. Thursday to handle the severe weather headed toward Little Rock.

“About the time the storm hit the Benton area, we extrapolated its path, but it took a few moments to hit that it was headed right toward us,” said Lewis.

The forecasters watched the storm go through Benton, then Cammack Village, and when it got to Burns Park, they knew it was close. The time was 10:05 p.m.

“When a station can no longer take care of its area, we call our backup,” Lewis said, “and I called our backup in Memphis before heading for the shelter.”

One of the other forecasters had run in to tell him that there was a loud roaring sound to the southwest.
“I’ve been here for 15 years, and this is only the second time I’ve gone back to that room,” Lewis said.

He said that the storm shelter at his station is a designated room in the Weather Service building.

“We heard a loud roar,” he continued. “The building shook and the windows rattled. Still, we thought it went over us. We stayed in the room for about three minutes, then came out.”

He estimated that the tornado itself missed his building by about 200 feet, but the winds were still about 60 miles per hour.

Walking outside, he said there was no doubt that the tornado touched down at the North Little Rock Airport.

“Our flagpole broke and the bird feeder is gone, but a little farther away, there are planes everywhere and in piles. It barely missed us,” Lewis said.

“I put the whole story online on our site at http://www.srh.noaa.gov/lzk/html/rain0408.htm,” he said.

The site also reports that the amounts of rain Thursday night were 200 to 500 percent of normal. “It was eerie. It was just eerie,” said Lewis.