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Storm spotters learn to cast weather eyes to the sky


Spotter trainees Matthew Evans, 10, of Monroe, left, and Carol Diroff of Belleville are told by Rich Pollman of the National Weather Service that they could get calls at 3 a.m. to check storms.

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MONROE - Look, up in the sky!

It's a bird! It's a plane!

No, it's a tornado!

Good thing we've got sky spotters out there.

There are more than 5,000 certified storm spotters in southeast Michigan.

More than 500 of these weather watchers reside in Monroe County, protecting surrounding areas from unforeseen disaster.

They look like normal folks, but they tote spotter identification numbers and carry weather radios, cameras, and daredevil predilections.

They enjoy chasing storms. It's a hobby. Some people may find weather dull, but as Newport resident Greg Milatz points out: "It's the conversation everyone has for every day of their lives."

Mr. Milatz was one of roughly 40 people who came out last week for the seminar "Spotter Training 2007 - Working together to Save Lives."

The trainees were there to be certified as spotters, or to renew their certifications.

Spotters contact the National Weather Service and identify what severe weather has occurred in their area, as well as when, where, and what damage or injuries were sustained.

But the weather service also has their contact information and addresses, so if a storm is passing near a spotter's house, a National Weather Service official may call them up, sometimes at 3 a.m., and ask them to confirm a spot on the radar that looks like it could be a tornado, severe thunderstorm, or the like.

"But we do try to limit the overnight phone call to once a year," said Rich Pollman, the warning coordinator meteorologist for the National Weather Service's White Lake, Mich., office.

"Spotters assist in the warning-decision process," said Mr. Pollman, the seminar's host. "But you must remember, safety is the No. 1 concern. Getting the information to us is No. 2," he said.

In terms of Michigan weather, cold is the primary weather-related killer, followed by high winds, severe thunderstorms, lightning, heat, floods, and then, lastly, tornadoes.

Yet, despite their paltry number, the seminar mainly focused on tornadoes, perhaps because they are so sexy.

"I've just always been interested in weather just want to go out and be a storm chaser when other people are running, I say let's go it's just fascinating," Monroe resident Jason Beck said.

He brought a photo album with him showing the damage caused by a small tornado that ripped through Monroe County last summer.

In one photo, a tornado's twirl had braided a small tree's branches like a person's hair. Another photo showed the shavings the tornado had made through a bright yellow wheat field, like a bad, uneven buzz cut.

Dearborn resident Caitlynn Williams, 8, put her head in her arms, taking a brief rest during parts of the seminar, which got quite technical at times.

But she woke up for the videos.

"Any weather presentation, by law, has to have three tornado videos," Mr. Pollman said, with such a straight face that it was hard to tell whether he was joking.

The videos showed the heavens opening up, revealing beautiful clouds that morphed into circular twirls, treacherous storms with 100 mph winds.

Caitlynn said she has never seen a tornado firsthand.

"I hope to see one someday, but I hear they are pretty nasty," she said.

In Michigan's history, most tornadoes occur in June, with 96 tornados since 1950, closely followed by May, and then July.

Tornadoes are most likely to occur in the late afternoon and evening, and since 1950 there has never been a tornado between 2 and 3 a.m. or between 7 and 8 a.m., according to National Weather Service statistics.

One video, filmed by a spotter, showed a "good Texas tornado" up close and personal.

The filmmaker was in his car, but debris from the tornado, whether a table, a tree, or a ground-up home, regularly splattered across his windshield like large flies.

"Hey, you need to get out of there!" Caitlynn yelled out to the screen. "What are you doing? You need to go away from there!"

If a tornado comes, the best bet is to get into the basement, or if your home doesn't have a basement, get as many walls as possible between you and the tornado, experts say.

If you are outside, find a ditch.

"That's better than a car or a mobile home," Mr. Pollman said.

Most people who are killed by tornadoes are actually killed by the debris, he said.

Mr. Pollman said there have been 45 tornado-related deaths in the United States this year.

The next training seminar is scheduled for 7 p.m. April 23 at the Monroe County Intermediate School District, 1101 South Raisinville Rd.

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