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State’s storm spotters ‘crucial’ to severe weather preparedness

Like badges of honor, vehicles owned by the the Davison County Search and Rescue team don various dents and cracks from storm spotting escapades. Though none are a result of tracking storms in 2017, Davison County Emergency Manager Jeff Bathke ex...

A storm rolls through the Mitchell area back in June 2015. (Republic file photo)
A storm rolls through the Mitchell area back in June 2015. (Republic file photo)

Like badges of honor, vehicles owned by the the Davison County Search and Rescue team don various dents and cracks from storm spotting escapades.

Though none are a result of tracking storms in 2017, Davison County Emergency Manager Jeff Bathke expects a few more dings before October.

The Davison County Search and Rescue Team is the designated storm spotter for the county, according to Bathke. Through April, the group hasn't been sent out to track any severe weather, but Bathke expects work to heat up along with the weather next week.

"This temperature this week pushed severe weather back, but when you get the influx in temperature, that's when you'll see the storms," Bathke said. "If it's 39 degrees one day, and the next week it hits 75 or 80, you're going to see storms."

In 2016, the Davison County Search and Rescue team responded to 10 severe weather spotter events, of which none resulted in any major damage. Damage, Bathke said, is classified by the extent of harm to homes, vehicles and other structures.

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The last time the team responded to a "major" incident was in the summer of 2015, when strong winds tipped over a trailer house near Mount Vernon.

And though the past year has been quiet, as has the beginning of what is considered severe weather season - early April to September - Davison County storm spotters haven't forgotten how important their role is in keeping residents safe.

Neither has the National Weather Service.

Sally Johnson, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, said there are "easily thousands" of trained storm spotters in South Dakota. This means the storm spotters have attended one of the National Weather Service's 22 annual training meetings that typically take place in early April, with many held during National Severe Weather Awareness Week, which ended Friday.

At the training, attendees are taught how to spot rotation in clouds and report storm facts, such as hail size - all skills Johnson said are imperative to the National Weather Service's operations.

"It's important - it's crucial," Johnson said. "It's the only way we get information about what's really going on on the ground as human beings observe it."

'Leave it to the professionals'

When the National Weather Service identifies the potential for severe weather in the area, the organization will alert the Davison County Search and Rescue team, sometimes days in advance. Other times, spotters will only receive a few hours' notice with the issuing of a severe weather watch. At that point, spotters begin to congregate at the Davison County Search and Rescue department and gather equipment.

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Then, when the watch turns into a warning, the 15 spotters typically break off into groups of two and set out to one of 10 zones throughout the county. Often, the Mount Vernon and Ethan fire departments and Mitchell Police Division will cover some zones, as well, Bathke said, easing the strain on the Search and Rescue team.

The department's vehicles are each equipped with iPads and wireless internet, as well as radars so spotters can utilize multiple devices at once for more accurate reports.

"I've watched a lot of clouds and some of the guys with me say there's rotation and I don't see it," Bathke said. "So, with the iPad, we can video that and email it to the NWS and say, 'Watch this 30-second video and tell me what you see.' It helps because there's so many different kinds of clouds. You look at them and they all look like Bart Simpson out there."

And the job of a spotter is not one for the faint of heart.

Davison County Search and Rescue Captain Noah Hughes said storm spotters try to stay on the outskirts of severe weather, but often drift in closer and can get caught in the heart of the storms.

Hughes said spotters rely heavily on radars to keep them safe, but some incidents are unavoidable.

"Sometimes you're getting close - I can remember a few years ago we had a bad hail storm come through and you just can't get away," said Hughes, who has been a storm spotter for seven years. "They teach us you always want to be behind or ahead of the storm, but when it's pitch black out there, it's hard to tell which direction it's coming."

And, no matter how hard the spotters work, Hughes said residents' safety ultimately is dependent upon how they react.

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With that in mind, Hughes urges people to seek shelter when severe weather is approaching rather than going outside or to windows to watch the action unfold.

"Leave it to the professionals," he said.

But if a person wants to do storm spotting, the Search and Rescue team is looking for team members, Hughes said.

The group can have 20 members, per its bylaws, and currently has 13. And though the Search and Rescue team typically hovers around 13 members, Hughes said it would be helpful to have extra sets of eyes when storms begin rolling through the area to do "one of the most important jobs."

"I think it is of utmost importance, what we do," Hughes said. "It's a good experience and opportunity to be involved in the community."

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