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Storm spotters 'chase' danger

Staff writer

“I think it’s in my blood,” Durham Fire Chief Roy Davis said.

When Davis was 12 years old, he saw a tornado when he was walking out of a church while visiting his family in Greensburg. He was mystified by the cyclone and he has been a storm spotter since joining the Durham Fire Department.

While Davis takes pride in warning the citizens of Marion County of an oncoming tornado, he gets a special joy from chasing storms.

He has gone beyond the duty of a storm spotter when chasing approximately 20 tornadoes.

Being close to the county line, Davis will drive into McPherson County to follow a tornado into Marion.

Davis has no problem placing himself in harm’s way. In one instance, a tornado was wrapped by thunderstorms. The only way that Davis could see if the cloud had rotation was to sit directly in the storm’s path.

“That separates the men from the boys,” Davis said.

During a tornado in 2006 that landed just west of Durham, Davis was driving around Durham using the signal on the fire truck to warn residents. Fearing that the tornado was going to descend momentarily, Davis frantically searched for a tornado shelter. He was ready to find any type of cellar to jump into when he received a call on his band radio from the Hillsboro Fire Department telling him that the storm was going to pass over.

Like Davis, many firefighters in Marion County also volunteer for storm-spotter duties, but police officers don’t have a choice — storm spotting is part of their job.

Peabody Police Chief Bruce Burke has spotted six tornadoes during his 11-year career plus 10 to 12 funnel clouds. A funnel cloud is capable of dropping to the ground at any moment and in one instance, Burke found himself in the baleful position directly underneath such a rotating cloud.

Police officers in Marion and Hillsboro are also involved in storm-spotter duties. Mona Hein coordinates the efforts of Hillsboro storm spotters from the Hillsboro Scout House where she has access to radar and a tornado siren.

Unlike Davis and Burke, second-year Marion Police Officer Clinton Jeffrey has yet to encounter a tornado, but Jeffrey was involved when the siren in Marion wasn’t working last year because the electricity was off. Marion Police Officers drove through town sounding their sirens to warn people of a storm. Since then, the city has installed battery-powered sirens.

Davis and Burke have witnessed all of the weather conditions a tornado has to offer.

Fierce winds have nearly toppled Davis’ truck. Davis has been in storms with 80 to 90 mph winds.

Davis has seen hail so big that it didn’t consist of the usual balls but rather flat, 6-inch shards of ice.

As a trained spotter, Davis will get a text message from the National Weather Service informing him of severe weather conditions in his area. It is Davis’ duty to be the eyes on the ground for the weather service. When he can see the signs of a tornado, he relays that information back to the weather service so they can send out a specific warning.

Burke receives information about a storm from a scanner or from television or radio reports. When he has identified a tornado or a funnel cloud he also relays the information to the National Weather service.

Marion Police Chief Josh Whitwell notifies Jeffrey of storm spotter duties. Jeffrey and other Marion police officers will then head to a section of town to look for a tornado.

Along with hail, Davis tries to peek at the top of a storm to see if the clouds have capped as another tornado precursor. The convergence of storm clouds is a giveaway that a tornado is forming.

If people hear a sudden silence after hail, they should get inside. The next sound they will hear is the vacuum cleaner sound of a tornado, Davis said.

Davis predicts that 2010 could be a bad year for tornadoes. He bases this prediction on the fact that Marion County was enveloped in 90 consecutive days of fog this winter and that the county has been tornado free for the past few years.

“It kind of goes in cycles,” he said.

If people are interested in becoming volunteer storm spotters, the next training session will be 6:30 p.m. March 10 at Marion High School auditorium.

Last modified Feb. 17, 2010

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