The Herald Banner, Greenville, TX

March 4, 2013

Eyes on the skies

By BRAD KELLAR
Herald-Banner Staff

GREENVILLE — When skies across Hunt County darken, the National Weather Service calls upon the services of a dedicated group of volunteers to provide the agency information on the potential for tornadoes, floods and hail.

“You have an important role in what we do,” said Senior Meteorologist Eric J. Martello, as he presented the annual Skywarn storm spotter training program at the Fletcher Warren Civic Center in Greenville Thursday night. Martello works with the National Weather Service Dallas/Fort Worth office and noted that even with the advanced technology used by the agency, storm spotters are often relied upon when it comes to warning the public of an approaching tornado or other hazardous weather conditions.

“You guys are going to be the local experts for us, and tell us what you see,” Martello said.

The National Weather Service presents the Skywarn program each winter, in advance of the start of the spring severe thunderstorm season. The free seminars cover the formation and behavior of storms, the production of severe weather, environmental clues which can suggest the possibility of a tornado or other severe weather, spotter reporting procedures, and safety tips.

Thursday’s program went over the basics of the differences between a severe thunderstorm/tornado/flood watch vs. a warning; the definitions of what constitutes a severe thunderstorm, the various types of severe thunderstorms and how to determine whether damage may have been caused by a downburst or a tornado.

“Our number one mission is to save lives and protect property,” Martello said, adding the individuals gathered in the room will be important in fulfilling that mission, as they will be able to detect weather clues in developing storms which cannot be seen by even the most sophisticated radar.

“Radar is not a cloud detector,” Martello said.

Many of the 92 people who attended the program were members of the Sabine Valley Amateur Radio Association (SVARA), whose members often serve as storm spotters when severe thunderstorm warnings are issued for Hunt County. Alongside law enforcement and fire department personnel, the SVARA transmits information via amateur radio about storms entering, or forming above, the area to the National Weather Service. The SVARA has a web site at www.k5gvl.org.

Hunt County Emergency Management Coordinator Richard Hill had the SVARA representatives stand during the meeting and receive an ovation in recognition of their efforts.

“These people do so much for us,” Hill said.

There have been plenty of opportunities for storm spotters to be active in the Hunt County area.

“It has been a very active couple of years,” Martello said, including an especially intense severe weather event on April 3, 2012.

At least one confirmed tornado touched down in Hunt County, with multiple homes destroyed in the Union Valley area.

Investigators with the National Weather Service joined emergency management officials from both Hunt and Rockwall counties  to assess the damage.

Five homes in the Union Valley area were completely destroyed by the tornado which passed along and either side of the Hunt/Rockwall county line, and which was rated as a low EF-2, containing wind speeds between 110 and 135 miles per hour. Nine more homes sustained damage.

All of the homes damaged or destroyed in Hunt County were along the north side of State Highway 276.

Damage was also reported in various locations across the rest of Hunt County as a result of the storms, which produced four tornado warnings.

The National Weather Service estimated 13 tornadoes touched down across North Texas on that day.

Tornadoes were also reported over Campbell, 10 miles west of Quinlan, four miles north of Lone Oak, three miles southeast of Royse City and five miles south-southeast of Royse City.

An 80 mile per hour wind gust was reported two miles south of Greenville and large hail was reported to have fallen in Greenville and Quinlan.

“Luckily, we did not lose one life that event,” Martello said.

The City of Greenville suffered a direct hit from a tornado 28 years ago. A citywide clean-up effort had begun the Monday morning of May 13, 1985.

A few hours later, much of downtown Greenville lay in ruins, and devastation was reported across the city, after at least one and as many as two tornados struck. Nine people were injured, none seriously, although hundreds of structures were either destroyed or heavily damaged.

The National Weather Service still lists the storms which hit Greenville and portions of Dallas, Ellis and Rockwall counties that day as the biggest weather story in north Texas during the spring of 1985.

And the Herald-Banner (then the Greenville Herald Banner) was literally at ground zero, as the newspaper’s offices were inside the 12-block area of central Greenville which was the hardest hit.