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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Weather Watch

In Evansville, the weather offers plenty to discuss — wicked winter wind chills, spring storms, and the summer humidity. Here, we look beyond the daily highs and the chance of rain. How does the weather define our city? We’ve teamed up with the local weather experts at 14WFIE to give you a glimpse of how the weather impacts our lives.

Changing Weather

From wacky reports to serious forecasts, today’s meteorologist needs both
By Jeff Lyons

By 10 p.m., the old Zenith in my childhood living room had been glowing much of the night. Under the spell of its hot Bakelite aroma and the precise positioning of the rabbit ears, I joined my family as Gunsmoke, Hawaii    Five-O, The Waltons, and I Love Lucy all had their turn on the tube. But there was one more show I begged to see. “Just 15 more minutes, Mom. Just let me watch Marcia!”

For Tri-Staters throughout the 1970s and ’80s, there was one place to be at 10:15 p.m. Sunday through Friday: sitting in front of the TV, watching Marcia Yockey’s weather forecast. For 35 years –– from the debut of local television in Evansville in 1953 to the year of her retirement in 1988 –– Marcia was the queen of local television weather. Her meteorological background, wacky personality, and charisma drew top ratings.

She presented her forecast using a huge map of the United States covered with Plexiglass. On this surface, she drew wavy black lines to show pressure patterns and cold and warm fronts. She’d write temperatures for at least 100 cities on the map. Scotch-taped to it were Polaroids of her cat named “Bird.” When her weather segment began, she’d dip a jumbo magic marker into an ink jar, drawing on the map and talking simultaneously.“It’s raining buckets in Pocatella,” she’d exclaim. “This front wig-wags through St. Joe to Tucumcari. I’ve got a lady going up to the Sioux. Better take a jacket, lady!” It was eight minutes of interaction with her viewers before the screen faded to a Hesmer’s Mush commercial featuring Marcia in her kitchen. By today’s standards, the technology was arcane, but the connection between Marcia and her viewers was as tight as the rubber band in her ponytail. She was like a member of the family.

I couldn’t get enough of it! I had a map in my room covered with waxed paper that I could put the cold fronts on. I watched Marcia every night on summer vacation. Everybody seemed to have a Marcia Yockey story to tell. My dad loved to take the family on Sunday drives. Once, while cruising along the river in Newburgh, he spotted Marcia on her bike. “Hey Marcia, how’s the weather?” he shouted out the window as we whizzed past. We were transfixed. We saw Marcia! Sure enough, that night, Marcia recounted the story on the air, and my dad nearly burst with pride. “That was me!” he exclaimed.

Fast forward to 1988, the year Marcia retired, and I began working at 14WFIE where I landed a job as a weathercaster/reporter for the midday news. I was assigned Marcia’s old desk, complete with a drawer full of rubber bands for her ponytail and a treasure trove of old tapes of her weathercasts. I worked alongside Marcia on a couple of telethons and paid tribute to her at her 75th birthday party.

For Marcia, technology was largely invisible on the air. Folks tuned in to be entertained and informed, but mainly, entertained. The nightly weathercast was a vehicle to give a little weather forecast and have a lot of fun. As I entered the field, personality was still the top draw. Not only was creativity and humor encouraged, my managers and viewers expected it. After all, it was our legacy. The station had a long line of crazy weather personalities who were well-known for their antics. I had a lot of fun in the first half of my career dressing up, falling down, and taking the weather on remote to joke around with folks. Then, right at the new millennium, technology began to take center stage.

With the advent of the Internet and access to almost instant information, viewers came to expect more from their television weathercasts, and we could deliver with the whiz-bang technology of today that melds the science of meteorology with the flash of a Wii game. I can track storms on radar from the chroma-key wall via a video “touch screen” that I use to select high-tech tools to look at thunderstorms in 3-D. Our viewers submit up-to-the-moment reports, photos, and videos, which can appear on the radar display the moment they are sent.

Weathercasting today is a fine balance between technical expertise, meteorological knowledge, and personality. In my 20 years with 14WFIE, I’ve tracked many tornadoes, severe storms, winter weather, and everything in between. Through thousands of forecasts, the viewers know that I’ll be there for them at any hour of the day or night when storms roll through, but they also know that I have a sense of humor and don’t take myself too seriously. They want to trust me and know that I’ll use all of my tools to track storms and keep them safe. After all these years, the connection with viewers is still king. From Marcia’s marker to the completely interactive 14 First Alert Dual Doppler Radar, the tools keep getting better to continue the rich tradition of connecting with the viewers. After all, we’re practically family.[pagebreak]

Chasing the Wind

Adventures from an on-the-go weather spotter
By Bryon Douglas

As a meteorologist  at 14NEWS, I can learn a lot about the weather from computer models and real-time information produced by our 14 First Alert Dual Doppler Radar. But to verify the complete story, I often venture outdoors with my video camera and cell phone to observe the sky. I’m a mobile weather spotter –– also known as storm chaser –– and in that role, I’ve learned you never know what to expect.

Preparations for a chase day usually begin a day or two before the advent of severe weather. A powerful thunderstorm requires moisture, instability, wind shear, and a charging cold front to lift and rotate itself into a tornado. Looking for those approaching conditions helps me determine when and where to start my day. Since most storms that hit Evansville move in from the West, I often begin in Southeast Illinois, which has a topography similar to Oklahoma and Kansas that allows me to see great distances. If I see a storm structure favorable for severe thunderstorms, I call my colleagues, fellow meteorologists Jeff Lyons and Chad Sewich, to pass along the information.

Once I spot a storm, I try to view it from the right flank, staying on the southeast side of the storm. It’s the safest viewing location to keep me out of the storm’s path. Contrary to popular belief, storm chasers do not purposely put themselves in harm’s way, but our plans don’t always work out.

A case in point: On Jan. 29, 2008, I shot a video of a tornado while driving west on Interstate 64 near Poseyville. There was no way I was going to stop the car to get out; Jeff had just reported 70 mph winds in nearby Carmi, Ill., heading my way. So I lowered my window, and once I put the tornado in my viewfinder, I put my eyes back on the road and held the camera steady for as long as I could. When it was safe, I pulled off the interstate and drove into Griffin to relay the information back to the station and the National Weather Service. Unfortunately, the tornado claimed two lives in Posey County.

As a storm chaser, I am most scared of lightning –– the most unpredictable part of a thunderstorm –– and flash flooding. The latter caught me off-guard one night in Wayne County, Ill., while I was busy viewing a rotating thunderstorm while driving. The roads were flooded more than I thought, and my vehicle started to hydroplane. Soon I saw that the highway was littered with snakes from the Little Wabash River. I stopped in Fairfield, Ill., where I filmed residents evacuating their homes due to the flash flooding. I returned to the station with a flooding story on a night that was supposed to be packed with violent thunderstorms and isolated tornadoes. But on this storm-chasing trip, flash flooding was the story Mother Nature provided.[pagebreak]

First Response

Knowing a storm’s strength requires a hands-on approach
By Chad Sewich

On the second Sunday in March, a line of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes swept through the Tri-State but spared Evansville. The National Weather Service later rated one of the tornadoes an EF1 and another an EF-2 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, the official rating system used in the U.S. since 2007 to determine tornado intensity.

How did they know where to rank them?

Discovering the answer to that question can best be told by a look at what happened the day after the storms hit when I traveled with damage-assessment teams from the NWS. Four teams of meteorologists determined the intensity of the damage inflicted on the area and to find out its cause.

My position at 14NEWS is unique in that I’m almost always in the studio during severe weather and then out in the field reporting on the aftermath. It’s a perspective that gives me a hands-on approach to forecasting.

On March 9, the day after four confirmed tornadoes had hit the area, the teams arrived with this goal in mind: to determine if tornadoes or straight-line winds caused the toppled trees, the flipped mobile homes, and in some cases, the severely damaged houses in the area. Complicating the investigation was the widespread damage that had been done to trees by the January ice storm.

I met up with one team that spent the day combing through Wayne County, Ill., for signs of a tornado footprint. The storm’s path was easy to spot. On a farm south of Cisne, Ill., we saw what remained of a large, metal machinery building that had been blown into the air, slicing off treetops. We found twisted metal from the building in a farm field about a quarter of a mile away. Based on those signs and others, the National Weather Service declared that an EF-1 category tornado wwith winds approaching 110 mph had hit the area. Later that day, again based on a site assessment, the NWS discovered a tornado track through Enterprise, Ill., indicating an EF-2 tornado with winds up to 135 mph.

Since storms rarely pass over a wind gauge –– and would probably destroy the instrument if they did –– determining the strength of a tornado is a scientific “best guess.” But there are clues. Straight-line winds, for example, typically leave damage falling in the same direction and over a wide area; tornadoes, on the other hand, typically leave a twisting footprint in a narrow path.

As a replacement of the Fujita Scale, the Enhanced Fujita Scale, designed to determine the strength of winds within a tornado, serves as a reminder of the damage, often fatal, that can be caused by a storm. The EF scale runs from EF-0, a relatively weak tornado that may only topple small trees, to a terrifying EF-5, a tornado with winds over 200 mph that rip a home off of its foundation.

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