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Meteorologist: Safety first for weather spotters

In severe weather situations, the Mitchell region just got a little bit safer. More than 100 people crammed into the amphitheater at Mitchell Technical Institute Monday night to hear a severe weather awareness presentation from Todd Heitkamp, war...

Todd Heitkamp, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, speaks Monday to attendees of the Severe Weather Awareness class at Mitchell Technical Institute. (Evan Hendershot/Republic)
Todd Heitkamp, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, speaks Monday to attendees of the Severe Weather Awareness class at Mitchell Technical Institute. (Evan Hendershot/Republic)

In severe weather situations, the Mitchell region just got a little bit safer.

More than 100 people crammed into the amphitheater at Mitchell Technical Institute Monday night to hear a severe weather awareness presentation from Todd Heitkamp, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, to learn how to safely spot indicators of severe weather conditions in South Dakota.

"Folks, there's never been a tornado in the history of the United States, nor will there ever, be a tornado that hits without warning," Heitkamp said about the different indicators of an oncoming storm.

The event took place on the first day of Severe Weather Awareness Week in South Dakota, which takes place within two months of the anniversaries of the Spencer, Wessington Springs and Delmont tornadoes.

Heitkamp talked the audience through a two-hour discussion focused on staying safe while helping to spot signs of a storm.

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"As I've always said, a dead spotter is not a good spotter," Heitkamp said. "We've got to make sure you can do all of this in a safe manner. Your safety is the top priority."

After the majority of the audience indicated they immediately look outside for conditions when they get a weather alert, Heitkamp said storm spotting enthusiasts may as well know what to look for.

"All of you, when you hear the siren go off, you go outside, you go looking for it," said Heitkamp. "So we might as well give you the education so when you go outside looking for it, you know what to expect."

Despite the information, Heitkamp discouraged those in attendance to actively chase a storm, which can be dangerous.

Heitkamp explained to the audience the ways to determine the direction a storm is moving, how to determine when a tornado is forming and the difference between horizontal turbulence-causing winds and a vertical tornado. To determine the severity of the storm, he said to keep an eye on the spin, organization and persistence of the clouds.

When assessing a storm that could create a tornado, Heitkamp said to look for a towering cloud that shoots upward. Towering clouds, which have an anvil-shaped top, indicate high updraft that could potentially cause tornadoes.

Heitkamp also offered another way to determine whether a storm is serious.

"Pay attention to the animals," Heitkamp said. "If you see the cows headed in the other direction when a storm's coming, maybe you should head the other direction."

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Before beginning the second portion of the discussion, Heitkamp recommended spotters do not go out at night if they are inexperienced or are not in the company of an experienced spotter, because the only way you can see the oncoming storm is by the lightning striking in the background.

The next severe weather awareness presentation from Heitkamp will take place at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in the Community Center in Tyndall.

Attendees at the Severe Weather Awareness course at Mitchell Technical Institute listen intently to a presentation from Todd Heitkamp of the National Weather Service Monday. (Evan Hendershot/Republic)
Attendees at the Severe Weather Awareness course at Mitchell Technical Institute listen intently to a presentation from Todd Heitkamp of the National Weather Service Monday. (Evan Hendershot/Republic)

Related Topics: WEATHER
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