From blizzards to tornadoes, Rick Smith has seen and forecast it all. He’s the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla. — one of the busiest weather forecast offices in the nation.
Every year, the Norman office issues hundreds of severe-weather alerts, including dozens of tornado warnings, meticulously predicting and tracking Mother Nature’s every move. It’s no easy job, but Smith and his colleagues have taken innovative and unique steps to streamline the process. It’s like “doing weather in the future,” he says.
Smith started in Norman in 2002. Before that, he spent a few years working in Tulsa, Fort Worth, and Memphis. Each area had its own unique challenges, but none as physically, mentally and emotionally demanding as Oklahoma.
When your state averages 56 tornadoes annually, you’re forced to bring your A-game every day of the year.
“Tornado season in Oklahoma runs from January 1 to December 31,” Smith says.
While tornadoes can strike during any season, May is infamous in the Sooner State.
“We all kind of breathe a sigh of relief once May is over,” Smith said. Forecasters in Norman can sometimes work 16-hour shifts during the heart of severe-weather season. “It’s emotionally demanding, too,” he says.
Even the quiet shifts aren’t so quiet. “There’s always something in the back of my mind,” says Michael Scotten, a forecaster and colleague of Smith.
“There are mornings before a big event when we wake up and know something bad is going to happen,” he said. “We don’t know exactly where or exactly who will be hit, but we know by the end of our shifts somebody’s life will be forever changed. They can train us as meteorologists, but there is never enough training to prepare us for that human aspect.”
Conducting tornado damage surveys is one of the toughest things, he says. “We go out there to look at the damage as a scientist, but really we’re just people. It’s emotional.”
Equally difficult is knowing you have family and loved ones at home who could be affected — but having to stay at work and set your emotions aside during a big event. Many National Weather Service scientists live with their families in either Norman or Moore, Okla. — two of the places historically hit the most.
“Before any big days, I clean out my storm shelter at home,” Smith said. His family knows what to do, just like any Oklahomans. “I make sure they’re ready, leave for work, and then think, ‘Here we go.’ ”
Smith’s house was hit by a twister on May 6, 2015. Two days later, a severe thunderstorm swept through and further damaged it with wind and hail. The tornado that struck Smith’s house was classified as low-end on the spectrum of twisters, but he learned through that event to “never call a tornado weak.”
“It’s easy to say a tornado is weak until it hits you,” he says. “There’s no such thing as a ‘weak’ tornado.”
Since he first started in Norman, severe weather has led Smith to replace his roof three times; his vehicle has been pelted by hail on several occasions, and tornado-type storms have repeatedly threatened the Norman Weather Service office, housed on the campus of the University of Oklahoma.
Smith’s scariest moment on the job came May 24, 2011. “There were two EF-4s on the ground tracking toward Norman,” remembers Smith, using a scale of tornado intensity. “And what was scary was seeing this big black cloud mass tracking towards us and knowing the tornado was in there but not being able to see it.”
Meanwhile, pieces of homes and other debris were falling outside the forecast office’s windows. “That was pretty ominous,” he says. The tornado dissipated about five miles southwest of the building.
When significant tornadoes are tearing through the area, “the lights in the office dim and flicker. That’s when you know something really bad is going on,” he says.
Just last week, a tornado warning was issued that included the office. When this happens, protocol is to call security and transfer all nonessential personnel to designated underground storm shelters.
In all but the most extreme circumstances, Smith and his dedicated colleagues remain at their posts. In the event of an imminent threat, the Norman office will place its backup office — in Tulsa — on standby. That means Tulsa can take over operations at a moment’s notice if an evacuation is needed.
For all the unique challenges the Norman office faces, the team of meteorologists has risen to the occasion — and then some. It has formed many partnerships with local organizations geared at keeping the public safe. If a tornado warning is issued, for instance, it can coordinate the activation of more than 30 billboards across the city in under a minute to notify drivers of an imminent tornado threat.
Ongoing projects with researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Severe Storms Laboratory such as the Hazardous Weather Testbed are used to develop and test new weather-forecasting tools. It’s “amazingly cool stuff” that Smith says makes it a “dream to be here.”
This year, Oklahoma has seen a relative lull in tornado activity, but Smith warns that’s not going to last. “I don’t know how many, and I can’t tell you when, but Oklahoma will see more storms. It only takes one.”
Despite the hurdles thrown their way, Smith praises the resiliency and weather-saviness of Oklahomans. “Sometimes we can barely get out fast enough to do a damage survey, because the cleanup is already underway,” he says. “Storms are just a part of life here.”
But it’s no doubt that the work of Smith and the scores of others in the National Weather Service keep people safe. “There’s no way to measure how many lives are saved each time a storm rolls through,” he says, “but I know what we do is vitally important.”