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Project Tornado: The Role Storm Spotters Play During Severe Weather

Published: May. 11, 2022 at 11:18 AM CDT
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PEORIA (Heart of Illinois ABC) - When it comes to severe weather, we may all know the various threats - tornadoes, damaging winds and hail. But when storms are present, how do we know where those hazards are occurring?

Jarrod Cook and Michael Burns have been chasing storms in Tazewell County for more than 30 years combined. They also serve as trained storm spotters. “If it’s a wall cloud, or obviously a funnel cloud or tornado we’re going to get that report in right away,” said Cook.

Cook said he was scared of storms growing up, but chasing storms helped discover a passion for weather. He soon took that passion one step further by becoming a storm spotter. “It’s pretty rewarding to be able to go out and utilize an interest that you have and a passion you have and actually use it to help warn others in your community that may not know what’s going on,” said Cook.

While radars are capable of detecting debris caused by storms, they can’t always pinpoint exactly where the debris came from. When severe weather is on the horizon, spotters like Burns keep a close eye on the forecast.

“The main things I look at is the instability in the air and what they think the probability is. Until those things get to a certain level I don’t get as excited as I used to,” said Burns.

Once storms form, spotters play a critical role. Serving as “an eye on the ground,” Cook and Burns can provide real time reports from areas impacted by storms. This includes confirming a tornado is on the ground to reporting storm damage across Tazewell County.

“Generally we try to get there with enough time to get out and get positioned to where we think we can see the best viewing angle of the storm while also keeping enough distance and escape routes in mind,” said Cook.

Each spotter has a designated area across Tazewell County they spot from, creating a network to safely track storms. While safety is a priority taught through spotter training, weather can be unpredictable. While spotters like Burns maintain a safe distance from storms to keep them away from immediate danger, he’s still had his fair share of close calls through they years, including the Washington tornado.

“I was going to intercept the main tornado and I was going across Spring Creek Road. It dropped a secondary tornado right in front of me on the road.”

While there are risks associated with storm spotting, Burns says the rewards outweigh the danger. “Trying to give people the most advanced noticed I can and just watch the storms as they come,” said Burns.

Anyone can become a spotter upon completing two short training sessions through the National Weather Service. More information about storm spotting can be found here.

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