A wall cloud hovers over a cornfield about three miles south of Little Chicago township between Lonsdale and Northfield in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Eric Smestad)

The Front Line

September 18, 2011

By Joseph Lindberg and Derek Wehrwein,

Diligently navigating his sport utility vehicle through southern Faribault’s flash-flooded streets, John Rowan, assistant director of emergency management for Rice County, leans his ear closer to the radio after a spurt of incomprehensible chatter.

Silence. Then a crackle of radio.

Then, action.

“There’s a kid in the water,” Rowan says as he heaves the wheel around and mashes his foot to the floor. “That’s the danger with so much water accumulation. People don’t realize how dangerous it really is.”

Rowan’s SUV pulls around another corner and the two-ton vehicle is immediately faced with an unusual problem: The 17th Street Southwest and Prairie Avenue intersection is blocked by more than three feet of standing water.

A fire truck has already tried to ford the intersection, only to retreat behind a plume of white smoke, its motor struggling for air. Sirens blare as more emergency vehicles converge on the area.

Forced to move on foot — and still without detailed information about what’s going on — Faribault’s first responders begin running to the scene.

Completely unfazed, Rowan gets out and starts jogging up the road.

The War Room

An hour and a half earlier, Rowan is standing anxiously in the Rice County Emergency Services Center, monitoring radio frequencies and multiple computer monitors packed with multicolored weather readings.

The July 15 storm that’s about to dump more than four inches of rain on Faribault in a tiny timeframe is cutting through Mankato, with its eyes set on southeastern Minnesota.

From this room, Rowan and Jennifer Hauer-Schmitz, director of Rice County emergency management, will evaluate electronic data and official real-time reports from assorted storm spotters and county law enforcement officials — all in an effort to keep 64,000 residents of the county aware of the danger posed by severe weather.

Tucked neatly inside the emergency services center in downtown Faribault, the “war room” (as Rowan affectionately dubs it) feeds data and reports from all over the county to Rowan and Hauer-Schmitz through radios linked with other cities, counties, National Weather Service (NWS) outlets and storm spotters.

At 2:55 p.m., a severe thunderstorm warning is issued for Mankato. Given the storm’s eastward trajectory, Rice County’s stable of around 20 storm spotters is put on alert, though not all are given instructions.

Severe thunderstorm warnings are issued when NWS radar or storm spotters report at least 3/4 inch of rain or measured wind speeds of at least 58 mph, according to the NWS.

“Our response really depends on the location, the time and what kind of storm we are dealing with,” said Hauer-Schmitz. “Every storm is different, and you have to treat each threat like it could be the big one, which hopefully we never have.”

Spotters are not dispatched at night — even with constant lightning, it’s incredibly difficult to identify elements of a storm that could help county officials. Even in the daylight, spotting is equal parts experience, knowledge and art.

With that, Hauer-Schmitz leans back and raps her knuckles on a nearby wooden table for luck.

At 3:24 p.m., spotters around Morristown begin feeding reports of a “bow echo” that has expanded past the current NWS warning in Mankato. Rowan reluctantly pulls his eyes from banks of radar and wind data on his computers and leans into the radio microphone.

The radio links him directly with the NWS outlet in Chanhassen. After identifying himself, he asks a simple question.

“Is there concern?”

The radio crackles back with a yes, and a warning to prepare for strong winds.

A bow echo is a line of severe storms curved backward at the ends, giving it the appearance of a drawn bow. They bring especially strong winds — so much so that formations like these account for a great deal of structural damage not done by tornadic winds.

While Hauer-Schmitz directs the entire emergency management department, Rowan’s specialty is severe weather. A 15-year veteran, he began when the Internet was in its infancy and the availability of radar data was minimal due to its cost.

Despite all the technology and capability at his fingertips, he waits.

“It’s hurry up and wait,” he says. Eyes narrowing at the live radar feed, he mutters, “I don’t think it will do much, the storm seems to be falling apart.”

But by 3:31 p.m., a severe thunderstorm warning is issued for northern Rice County, along with a flash flood warning a few minutes later.

Conditions are ripe for flooding: The ground is saturated and an excess of rain is expected from the slow-moving storm. Storm drains can become overwhelmed and conditions can get dangerous quickly.

Now nearly overwhelmed with new data, Rowan begins issuing crisp orders into the banks of radios. He advises law enforcement of possible high winds and hail, consults maps and sends spotters to strategic points around the county. Residents watching TV are likely annoyed at the warnings breaking into their daily programming.

“People get angry, they call us and the cable companies get calls too,” Rowan says. “But those only go out if there is a threat. There is a substantial system in place keeping people aware, and nothing is done lightly.”

Then it hits.

Outside, torrential rains are falling, visibility plummets and the power begins flickering on and off, although backup generators hide that fact from Rowan and county officials who dip in and out of the war room.

Inside it’s silent, save for a few faint echoes of thunder.

“If the roof came off, we probably wouldn’t notice,” Rowan says with a chuckle.

By 4:03 p.m., the storm has passed, but widespread reports of street flooding are being radioed in. With the storm threat passed, Rowan relaxes a bit, but the flooding is a cause for concern.

“Let’s go take a look,” he says.

The times, they’ve changed

Herb Sellner is no stranger to storms. The lifelong Rice County resident has been weather spotting in some capacity for around 40 years.

“When I started going out and looking at storms we didn’t have any fancy radio equipment like we do now,” he said. “We had no type of communication whatsoever. We didn’t have any cell phones, no nothing.”

Instead, Sellner would make a map with the location of all the nearby pay phones. When he went out spotting, he’d bring a pocketful of quarters so when he observed severe weather conditions, he could head to the nearest pay phone to call the weather bureau, then in Rochester.

Sellner remembers one time — he thinks it was in 1976, although he isn’t completely sure anymore — that tornadoes hit Owatonna and Waseca, killing several people. Sellner was out spotting that day in Waseca County, and found himself in unfamiliar territory.

With no knowledge of where any pay phones were, there was nothing Sellner could do as the storms raged around him.

“It’s the most helpless feeling in the world,” he said.

Rowan has seen the changes even since he took over. When he started spotting in 1991, only one county in southeastern Minnesota, Waseca County, had radar. During severe weather then, people would have to turn to Channel 17 which, if they were lucky, displayed radar information.

But today, when Rice County weather spotter Eric Smestad heads out for severe weather, he’s armed with a Blackberry that he can use not only to call someone, but to pull up the latest radar readings. Another spotter, Brian Klier, has a truck equipped with a two-way radio and a laptop with mobile Internet that can provide him information on lightning strikes, the location of other spotters and the latest storm reports. Spotters routinely have instruments they can use to measure such critical items as wind speed and direction.

But even the advancements in technology can’t replace the basics: the ability of spotters on the ground to accurately report what they are — or aren’t — seeing.

At a recent Skywarn Spotter Training class in Lonsdale, something all potential Rice County spotters must take, Rowan and Hauer-Schmitz used a two-hour Powerpoint presentation to cover key elements of weather spotting: the parts of a thunderstorm, what to look for, the difference between a wall cloud and a shelf cloud and how to determine whether a formation is or isn’t a funnel cloud.

The untrained frequently have trouble identifying what they’re really seeing, leading to false reports of wall clouds, funnel clouds and tornadoes. Sometimes trained spotters even slip up.

Rowan offered important tips and analysis to the group. The key to knowing you’re looking at a funnel cloud, he said, is the visible and persistent rotation you’ll observe. He recalls looking at a recent NWS log and noting that someone from another county reported a “non-rotating funnel cloud.”

Rowan pointed out the absurdity of such an observation: A non-rotating funnel cloud is physically impossible.

“So, don’t embarrass the county,” he concluded. He appeared to be only half joking.

Clearing the scene

Officers responding to the call about the child in the water say Rowan “cleared the scene,” meaning he was one of the first of many first responders to arrive and secure the area.

The child is aware and alert, and is transported to the hospital. Rowan admits being that close to an emergency event isn’t usually part of his post-storm assessments, but given the circumstances, it’s all hands on deck.

Collaboration and communication is key, and Hauer-Schmitz and Rowan have devised a system that allows for maximum use of the county’s resources during severe weather events.

“If I’m out helping spot a storm, he’s [in the control room] dealing with it, and vice-versa,” Hauer-Schmitz says while giving a quick run-down of the county’s control center/war room. “Storms are probably going to hit at the worst times, and you can’t expect Mother Nature to play nice.”

Rowan spends the afternoon of July 15 assessing the flooding and trying to direct cars away from the flooded streets. While most are cleared of their water within 20 to 30 minutes, drivers still plunge through standing water, seemingly oblivious to the danger.

“It takes an inch of moving water to move a car,” he says, carefully looping his SUV around standing water on Division Street. “It’s incredibly dangerous, and it just takes one stalled car to muck up an entire street.”

Along Prairie Avenue, Rowan directs cars away from nearly two feet of standing water — forcefully.

“Sometimes you can’t be nice,” he says. “It’s for their own good.”

Storm damage is minimal besides the flooding, but if the storm had worsened, and tornadoes threatened, the county is prepared.

Each city with a siren system can trigger its own independently, and the control room in Faribault also has that ability. The sirens can even be triggered via radio.

While Rowan doesn’t consider himself superstitious — his focus is entirely on data and science — Hauer-Schmitz figures it can’t hurt.

“We haven’t had that [big] storm this summer yet,” she says, finding a wooden table to rap her knuckles on. “And I hope it stays that way.”

A night at the fair

On July 23, Rowan spends the day at the Rice County Fair in sweltering humidity. A thunderstorm rolls through the area in the morning and Rowan knows another one is likely on its way later in the day.

Sure enough, at 8:30 p.m. reports of a rapidly developing storm emerge, including a cell with a protruding hook echo, or storm spur that can spawn strong winds or tornadoes.

The storms are still well to the west — with dangerous-looking spots by North Mankato and Madelia — but headed toward Rice County. At 9:30 p.m. a flood advisory is issued for the county.

Rowan and nearly a dozen others — mostly sheriff’s deputies and emergency management staff — squeeze into a camper at the fairgrounds, huddling over tables and electronic equipment. Officers enter and leave the camper, and as the rain picks up, one enters soaked. Rowan is concerned.

“Do you need a paper towel or something?” he asks.

“Does it matter?” the woman replies with a chuckle.

Rowan is a whirlwind of energy, constantly fidgeting and wisecracking, all the while keeping track of the chatter and reports coming in and barking out directions. (“Wow, that is so 1980s,” he informs someone who walks in wearing a garish orange jacket. “Kind of like your glasses,” the officer responds, without missing a beat. But Rowan remains unruffled. “No, those are 1950s,” he says.) Later, others tease Rowan for his habit of watering down his lemonade.

Eventually Rowan throws open the camper door to see directly what’s going on outside, revealing a mass exodus of people retreating for the safety of their vehicles — and home. The grandstand has already been shut down and, with heavy lightning already in the area, Sheriff Troy Dunn advises the fair board that it should shut down the fair.

By 10:30 p.m., the storm has passed and Rowan has pulled in his spotters.

The fairgrounds feel like a ghost town. Despite some heavy rain, lightning and some unconfirmed reports of funnel clouds from other counties, not even a severe thunderstorm watch was issued for Rice County — just the flood advisory.

“Is it the right call?” Rowan asks in the aftermath. He shrugs. “It seems to be in this case.”

Rowan’s main concern that night is flooding from the heavy rain and all the people gathered in one place out in the open.

“For us the issue is the fair,” he says. “If you take the fair out of the equation, it’s just a garden variety storm.”

But that’s little solace to the officers ducking in and out of the camper, many of whom are having difficulty staying dry.

One enters wearing a bright yellow raincoat. Rowan looks over.

“Paper towel?” he asks.

The power of Mother Nature

During the Lonsdale training session, Rowan and Hauer-Schmitz showed two video clips that displayed, in the words of Hauer-Schmitz, “the power of Mother Nature.” In one clip, flooding sweeps away cars in a parking lot and leaves them piled atop each other like empty pop cans. The second clip shows a train derailing after it heads into the path of a tornado.

The point is clear: Storm spotting is a serious business.

Severe weather events can be unpredictable. Klier remembers one incident, in 2002, when he was eating lunch at a Green Mill restaurant near Medford. He walked out of the restaurant, got into his vehicle and looked behind him — and saw a tornado on the ground.

The key, spotters say, is to remain calm — a skill learned through time and experience — and concentrate on the task at hand.

“You’re focused on what you’re doing,” Sellner said. “We’re not stormchasers like in Hollywood. They don’t have a camera on us all the time to record everything we do for a TV series. We’re trained spotters and we go out and we do this to help the communities out.”

Severe weather events can also inflict almost unimaginable damage. Near the end of the training, Hauer-Schmitz and Rowan showed images of the aftermath of a 2007 tornado that devastated Greensburg, Kan. The EF5 tornado — the most powerful type, with winds more than 200 miles per hour — hit the town at 9:45 p.m. on May 4. The tornado was nearly two miles wide — bigger, Rowan pointed out, than the width of Lonsdale — and virtually removed the town from the map.

Of the 1,700 homes in the area, 961 were destroyed. Hundreds of others sustained significant damage. Eleven people died.

Images showed books still on their shelves and trophies still in a glass case in the midst of utter chaos. The town’s water tower was flattened. A metal bar pinned a jacket to a tree.

Hauer-Schmitz shook her head.

“How do you recover from something like that?” she asked.

No answer came. For now, she and Rowan have escaped ever having to deal with the question.

Knock on wood.

— Joseph Lindberg covers the city and county for the Daily News. He may be reached at 333-3135. News Editor Derek Wehrwein may be reached at 333-3131.

Located in the Rice County Sheriff’s Office, the county’s emergency management services office has a dispatch board for turning on county sirens and a weather radar showing potential severe storms. (Shane Kitzman/Daily News)

The Siren's Call

July 3, 2010

With recent severe weather, the use and purpose of sirens is a popular topic of conversation. John Rowan, Rice County deputy director of emergency management services, is the No. 1 resource for information regarding the noise that’s heard when blue summer skies turn green and violent.

Rowan took time to answer some questions for the Faribault Daily News about the sirens and the process of sounding them.

Q: What do the sirens mean?

They’re an outdoor warning system that tells you that you need to turn to local media, such as KDHL 920 AM radio or any TV station that transmits emergency weather information. Local media outlets will then tell you what to do.

Q: What emergencies are sirens used for?

• When tornadoes are spotted in the area.

• When there is extremely large hail.

• When winds are clocked at more than 65 mph.

All of these scenarios can be discovered on radar or spotted by severe weather spotter groups like Skywarn, or a city’s police sergeant. Skywarn has multiple volunteer groups scattered across Rice County. When it comes to tornadoes, the county looks for visual confirmation first but when night falls, radar is relied on.

Q: Where are sirens located?

From Faribault up to Lonsdale, sirens are located in nearly every town in Rice County to notify residents in case of an emergency. Every town except for Webster, as the town requested its siren be removed a couple years back. That’s why Morristown has two sirens.

The city of Faribault has nine sirens with each reaching 5,000 feet and virtually covering the entire city limits.

Q: Who turns the sirens on?

The National Weather Service can tell towns in Rice County to turn on its sirens for any of the severe weather reasons: Tornadoes, large hail and winds clocked at more than 65 mph. Also, each town’s officer in charge, most times the sergeant, can request the sirens to be turned on for their area if they see weather that calls for an emergency. Sirens will run for three minutes and there is not an “all-clear” siren to notify when the warning is over.

Q: From where can the sirens be turned on?

Not every town has the ability to push a button and turn on their own sirens — some need to make a phone call to one of the four places where the county’s sirens can be activated. The four locations are:

• The Rice County Dispatch Center located in Owatonna, where Steele and Rice County consolidated their dispatch centers more than a decade ago.

• The Rice County Emergency Management Services Office that resides in the Rice County Sheriff’s Office in Faribault.

• The Faribault Fire Department.

• The Northfield Safety Center.

Q: What about the use of Rice County-wide tornado warnings?

County-wide warnings ended in 2007. Now warnings are given out in immediate areas affected by the severe weather — areas that can be as small as a fraction of a county or as wide as half a county. The problem was that if we set off the sirens too early, the public didn’t see the immediate danger and they thought the threat was unfounded. But you don’t want to give people too little time to take cover, either. Some people are still in the mindset that there’s county-wide warnings and those county-wide warnings desensitize people.

Q: What’s the best way to know about inclement weather now?

Sign up for text message updates online. Go to the City of Faribault’s website and register for Nixle so that the next time the sirens sound you get a text message that explains exactly what is going on.

— Shane Kitzman reports for the Faribault Daily News.

Severe Weather Week Begins

April 17, 2005

Unlike the early days of skywatching, John Rowan, Brian Klier and Adam Bjorklund have modern technology to help guide their observations.

The three are members of the Faribault/Rice County skywatch group. The Lonsdale, Northfield and Morristown areas also have groups of volunteers ready to go into the field when a severe weather watch is issued by the National Weather Service.

Rice County's Emergency Management Department trains skywatchers, and when severe weather threatens Rowan acts as the observations coordinator. He goes to the basement of the Rice County Law Enforcement Center and uses equipment that enables him to track the location of the skywatcher vehicles in the field, communicate with them verbally, and watch National Weather Service radar on computers.

Meanwhile, field observers like Klier and Bjorklund, with wireless, portable computer terminals in their vehicles, drive toward the inclement weather. They watch the National Weather Service radar report on their computer screens to determine where the severe weather is headed and drive to that location to observe the clouds.

"Why you still need ground spotters, even with the sophisticated weather radar they have today, is that radar can only predict where a tornado might be forming," Klier said. "Radar can't tell if there is a wall cloud, a funnel cloud, or a tornado on the ground. That's why skywatchers are still very much needed when severe weather threatens."

Bjorklund demonstrated a portable wind meter, another tool used by field observers to report back wind speed, direction and barometric pressure. This information is helpful in determining where severe weather is headed.

Skywatchers report their sightings to Rowan. If a tornado, straight-line winds or other life-threatening severe weather is sighted, he reports the findings to appropriate emergency-management personnel, such as Mike Monge, Faribault's director of fire and code enforcement; Rice Rabeneck, Rice County's emergency management director; and emergency management supervisors in Lonsdale, Northfield and Morristown.

"Most of all of us are volunteers. The equipment we carry in our cars we buy. We do this because we enjoy watching the weather, and by doing so help warn people of the county so they can take shelter before a tornado or other severe weather hits," Rowan said.

The skywatchers are helped by deputies, other law officers and firefighters who also take the county-provided skywatch training each spring. Even experienced skywatchers like Rowan, Klier and Bjorklund take refresher courses every two years. Rowan has been a weather observer for 14 years; Klier since 1990, when he was in junior high school and his father piqued his interest; and Bjorklund for the past five years.

"We have footage of the 2000 tornado by Northfield that we use in our training," Rowan said.

In 1998, on March 29, the night of the famous St. Peter tornado, another tornado touched down in the northwestern part of Rice County, including the city of Lonsdale.

Klier also remembers the night of the Faribault Heritage Days parade that same year, when he was out watching some very "serious weather" headed toward Faribault from the west. "They quickly canceled the end of the parade, but a lot of people got drenched with the heavy rains. There was also strong winds and dime-sized hail in places. It was quite the system."

All three warned when people hear the severe weather sirens go off, they should seek shelter and not go outside and look at the sky.

"In this county, sirens are only sounded when a tornado or straight-line winds are coming our way," Rowan said. "People shouldn't be outside gazing at the sky. They need to take shelter."

Tornadoes have occurred at all hours of the day, Klier said. However, right before supper time is when more form than any other time of day.

"We do this because we really like weather and enjoy watching it develop," Klier said. "But, we also do it because we're giving something back to the community, in a small way, by helping protect people."

When the severe sirens go off, Rowan said, "people can turn (on) their radios ... and listen to the weather advisory. They should not call 911. Unfortunately, too often, when sirens sound, people call 911. That ties up that emergency phone system. Instead, listen to the radio, or more importantly, take shelter. Go to the basement or into a room without windows. Take weather warnings seriously. The decision to sound sirens are not taken lightly. There's a real weather threat when they go off."

-- Pauline Schreiber