The Amateur Amateur: Barking Up a Storm

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
June 24, 2004

I relaxed the grip on my transceiver. "Weird cloud" wouldn't mean much to the net control operator.

SKYWARN logo In June 2001 the first The Amateur Amateur column, "Storm Spotting--the Hard Way," appeared here on the ARRL Web site. It was about checking into my local SKYWARN net during a severe thunderstorm. Three years later I once again found myself on the front porch of my house looking up at a threatening sky. I was clutching the same handheld transceiver. My wife Nancy, N0NJ, was inside the house watching The Weather Channel. The chatter on the SKYWARN frequency indicated that really bad stuff was headed our way. I had an overwhelming sense of having done all this before.

"Please, no hail this time," I muttered under my breath.

"Pea-sized hail in Maryland Heights," someone said over the radio.

Maryland Heights is southwest of my home in Florissant. Here in the Midwest, most of the nasty weather comes out of the southwest. That was ominous. But I could handle pea-sized hail. Three years ago it had been the size of lemons. Big lemons.

"Torrential rains. Branches down, two inches in diameter," said the radio.

Gary on porch

When storm spotting from my porch, I use a special feed line to connect to the rooftop antenna.

Again, no sweat. While broken branches are not a good sign, two- inch diameter branches don't worry me too much. I was more concerned about the long, thin cloud that was streaming overhead like a railroad train. I'd never seen anything like it before. I considered calling it in, but I didn't know what it was. It didn't exactly fit any of the reporting criteria. Besides, I've lived in the Midwest for more than 30 years, and there is always some new and weird weather phenomenon. I relaxed the grip on my transceiver. Weird cloud wouldn't mean much to the net control operator.

"Torrential rains. Branches down, five inches in diameter," someone said.

One thing had changed since the storm three years earlier. Now, I can send in reports from my porch. Previously, I had been unable to reach the SKYWARN repeater using the handheld transceiver's rubber duck antenna and had to run inside to connect to my rooftop antenna whenever I needed to make a report. Thanks to a suggestion from Robert Woodworth, KG6ATH, I now have a feed line running out to the porch.

"Torrential rains. Branches down, eight inches in diameter," a new voice reported.

And, I noted, the wind speed he gave was higher as well. I wasn't convinced that all the reports coming in were completely accurate. Most of the SKYWARN spotters were pretty good, but a small minority seemed to feel that they had to get on the air no matter what the actual weather conditions were at their locations. It was possible that they were exaggerating just a tad.

"Torrential rains. Branches down, 18 inches in diameter," said someone else.

Gary & Ariel on porch

Ariel. We were literally talking about aerials when we named her.

"How large?" asked the dubious net controller.

"One-eight inches, the whole tree trunk," replied the spotter.

Yeah right, I thought.

From just inside the house I could hear our new puppy barking like crazy. Thor, our inappropriately named Labrador retriever, had been terrified of thunder. It sounded like Ariel wasn't handling it very well either. I stuck my head in the door to check on her.

Nancy was holding the squirming black puppy in her arms.

"She wants to go outside with you," said Nancy.

Well, that was different. I went back outside.

About that time the rain started coming down. Or up. I couldn't really tell. It seemed to be coming from every direction at once. The porch is covered by the roof of the house, but it was no protection at all. I fumbled for the door handle and staggered backward into the house. About 400 gallons of rain water came in with me.

Nancy ran to get me a towel.

Gary in shack

Then the power failed. Fortunately, I used to collect lanterns as a hobby.

"Yap! Yap! Yap!" barked Ariel, jumping around in the puddles on the floor.

"Torrential rains . . ." I sputtered. At least they got that part right.

Then the power failed.

It was off for five and a half hours.

I never did make a SKYWARN report. I didn't personally see any tree limbs down. Power outages, torrential rain, and barking dogs weren't worth reporting. Thankfully we'd received no hail.

Driving to work the next day I noticed several trees had been blown down. I'll be darned, I thought. Some of them were easily 18 inches in diameter. I guess those spotters weren't exaggerating after all.

Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page,. Readers are invited to contact the author via email.

© 2004 American Radio Relay League

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