The National Weather Service is known for its role in forecasting severe weather. But once in a while, it finds itself in the path of it. Twice last week, local Weather Service offices were forced to go offline to escape Mother Nature’s fury.
The evacuations resulted from the huge “bomb cyclone” that barreled through the Plains and Midwest.
Things got busy quickly Thursday morning for the Weather Service in Paducah, Ky. A line of severe storms was approaching from the west — unusual for so early in the day. At 9:09 a.m., meteorologists placed the most southwestern portion of Paducah under a tornado warning. Eighteen minutes later, they extended it to include the entire city of nearly 25,000. The Weather Service office was in the path of the tornadic storm.
“It was a little surreal,” said Dan Spaeth, a meteorologist at the Paducah office who was operating the radar as Thursday’s storm whirled ominously close. “My gut instinct told me it was going to just narrowly miss us to the south and east."
By 9:30 a.m., a tornado had dropped and been confirmed by weather spotters. So what happens when a Weather Service office tracking the storm becomes the storm’s target?
“Every NWS office has a backup office,” Spaeth said. “We have capabilities to be backed up by NWS Louisville, and if that doesn’t work, NWS Springfield, Missouri. The backup office takes over issuing warnings and can handle all operations in the event of a major power or communications failure."
There are 122 local weather forecast offices across the United States, and each has a neighbor that will step in when needed.
“We knew it would be close and wanted to have [the backup office] ready,” said Chris Noles, another meteorologist in the Paducah office. “For what we needed, it was like flipping a switch. But we had them on standby and just said, ‘Keep the line open. Don’t hang up.’ Finally, we made the call.”
Moments later, the EF-2 tornado missed the office by less than two miles. It was confirmed later that day as a “significant” tornado with 125 mph winds, on the ground for more than 16 miles.
As the danger peaked, a meteorologist at the office took to Twitter to warn residents downwind: “9:31 AM TORNADO JUST MISSED OUR OFFICE IN WEST PADUCAH. TAKE SHELTER NOW IF YOU'RE IN PADUCAH!!!!”
“Cloud bases were high enough that it looked pretty close,” Noles said. “We’ve also had two other near-misses — one in 2004 and another in 2013.”
The Paducah office resumed normal operations minutes later. But that’s not always the case.
The Weather Service in Omaha — two miles from the surging Platte River — was forced to abandon its building Friday and evacuate. People in that office had waited as long as possible, but at 10:06 a.m. announced solemnly, “The Omaha/Valley, NE NWS is evacuating due to flooding,” citing the “protection of lives and equipment” as priority. It ominously stated, “This will be the last message until the flooding threat is over.”
“Ultimately, it’s the meteorologist in charge that starts to feel staff is in certain jeopardy in situations like this,” said Jaclyn Ritzman, emergency response specialist at the NWS Central Region headquarters. “There was a levee nearby that was failing and causing water to rise quickly. Roads were closing and the water was coming up rapidly, so they made the call.”
But unlike in Paducah, this was no flip of a switch. In fact, the office is still abandoned. Ritzman reported that no water had entered the building Friday, but a photo taken Sunday morning by the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District shows that the office is probably taking on water.
Evacuating meant powering down weather radar and sensitive equipment, and the radar remains offline.
In the meantime, Omaha staff have relocated to the office in Hastings, Neb., about 160 miles away. There, they continue round-the-clock monitoring and forecasting of potentially unprecedented floods in the Cornhusker State.
In 2017, floodwaters threatened the Weather Service office in Houston during Hurricane Harvey. Meteorologists at the Key West, Fla., office rode out then-Category 4 Hurricane Irma in their office, which had been built with the strength of a bunker. Weeks later, the office in Puerto Rico had its radar dome obliterated by 150-mph wind gusts in the eyewall of Hurricane Maria.
In 1973, a Weather Service office in Centreville, Ala., was sideswiped by an F-4 tornado, also destroying the radar dome. Staff reportedly worked there for weeks in the stifling summer heat without air conditioning while the building awaited repairs.
This time around, there’s no telling when the Omaha office will be back up and running. Until floodwaters recede, it’s impossible to know the state of the building or the infrastructure inside.
“The recipe was there for widespread flooding,” said David Pearson, the service hydrologist at Hastings. “We had a lot of frozen ground, then rain, and then melting. And it all went into the rivers.”
When asked how this stacked up against other episodes of flooding, Pearson’s answer was blunt. “Nothing compares to this.”