Hockey and Tornadoes

There is a hockey team named the Carolina Hurricanes but no NHL team calls themselves the Tornadoes. This past Saturday night, hockey and tornadoes faced off against each other.

Stanley Cup Body Checked by Storms

Let me state up front that there are few people reading tonight’s blog who are as big a hockey fan as I am. Growing up in Philly, I couldn’t wait for the ponds to freeze and the rinks to open every winter.

Truth be told, my interest in weather was sponsored by my love of hockey. My dearly departed mom would tell you that I was a rink rat, plain and simple. I earned the nickname the “deking deggo” (stick handling Italian) for my ability to fake out my opponents. When the Flyers played the Montreal Canadians there was no bigger event in the world in my mind.

With that as a back drop, I offer a recap of the storm bulletins we did here at WSAZ on Saturday night.

After a busy day where I had spend a few hours here at the studio with Josh Fitzpatrick watching afternoon storm clouds build, I left the weather center in Mr. Fitz’s capable hands as I attended a High School graduation party (congrats Paige) and planned to settle in for a night of watching the Stanley Cup finals on NBC at my friend Jack Steel’s house.

For non-hockey fans, the Stanley Cup is the oldest competed for sports trophy in North America, a gift from Lord Stanley of Preston.

Last year Jack had “questioned” me for breaking into the Cup Finals with a severe weather bulletin while his beloved Pens were playing. That May night, hockey fans missed a minimal amount of action during our prime time cut-ins on WSAZ as severe thunderstorms passed thru.

On this Saturday night, the Pens were again facing off against the Red Wings while a beautiful field of cumulonimbus clouds dotted the Ohio Valley horizon. This told me Josh would be scrolling weather warnings across the screen during game number one of the Stanley Cup finals.

As I drove on I-64 from Barboursville to Huntington for the game, my mind wandered from frozen pond (HOCKEY) to icy heavens (HAIL). You see the billowing cauliflower cumulus clouds were a dead give away that a night of hail storms was ahead.

As we cozied up to the big screen for the opening faceoff, a crack of distant thunder faintly reverberated thru the hills around Huntington. I unconvincingly told Jack not to worry. Just a few minutes into the game now, the jolt of a nearby lightning bolt hit not too far away. The spectacular high definition feed of the game on NBC was interrupted and replaced with a black screen.

Jack instantly switched to WSAZ low def TV. After a minute of fuzzy hockey, the SEVERE WEATHER ADVISORY alert filled the TV screen and Josh immediately showed up on the air. Instinctively I knew a tornado warning had been issued and that my night ahead was not going to be spent watching slap shots but rather hail storms.

The hook echo signature on the 3d Doppler radar scope that Josh showed was a dead ringer for a tornado wannabee as Dr. Greg Forbes had taught me at Penn State some 25 years ago.

I quickly excused myself and made my way into town. “Hopefully, I will be back by the second period”, I told Jack’s wife Patty on my way out the door.

That hope was based on the fact that even in these days of advanced computer models and Doppler radars, forecasting a tornado based on a radar signature is still as much art as science. In fact, I recently read where as many as 70% of tornado warnings result in false alarms. High winds and hail occur with hook echoes most of the time, but an actual tornado forecast based on a hook is less reliable.

Still, since tornadoes can kill, a meteorologist must not assume a hook echo is a tornado flunky.

As I made it to WSAZ, Josh briefed me on the situation and I assured him he had plenty of back-up. Chris was blogging on WSAZ.COM from his home and I was there to support him as needed.

Our bench strength at WSAZ has always been one of our fortes and on this night, Josh shines. He clearly, concisely and calmly gives severe weather information on WSAZ and MY Z as I work behind the scenes.

Josh’s next cut-in covers 5 minutes of air time (roughly 3 minutes of hockey time) and comes during the first goal of the series, this one by Sid “the Kid” Crosby (one of the best hockey players in the world). A few disgruntled hockey fans call in and make their feelings known.

Had I been in their position back in the 1970s when I was growing up and watching the Flyers I would have felt the same way, though not called to disrupt the normal operation of a TV station.

But our weekend staff takes time from their normal duties to answer these ill-timed calls and do their job in a professional manner. Josh did one more live cut-in for a tornado warning for Scioto County at around 9:30 (which lasted less than 1 minute).

Since the storm was still a half hour away from Scioto County, Josh got on and off quickly. We would track the storm as it weakened in the next half hour, never seriously threatening Scioto County. A crawl would suffice to tell Scioto Countians that the risk of a twister had ended.

But if the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, it is our duty to relay that information to you. Performing public service like this allows us to keep our license with the FCC and provide you with sports programs like the Stanley Cup, Wimbledon and NFL Sunday night football to name a few.

Long story short, a host of storm warnings spew out all evening long and I stayed here at the studio until almost 1 AM, Josh stayed beyond 3 AM, and Chris blogged until after 12AM to help keep people informed of the severe weather risk.

The night finishes with countless hail storms (some stones the size of Titleist golf balls), pockets of high winds (damage in Roane and Mingo Counties among others) and at least one report of a funnel cloud (tornado in the skies but not touching down). In effect, storms had body checked our hockey coverage without high sticking it to death.

Our duty as meteorologists was complete and done with a minimal amount of disruption to our normal programming. To me that was a win-win to all involved.

Oh yeah, I would find out the Red Wings won the game on Sunday morning. So how important was the game really?

For more on the tornado warning, check out Josh's blog at WSAZ.COM. Here is the link to Josh's prose.
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