- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2002

Craig Carignan was walking home from his gym in College Park when the weather radio he was carrying crackled to life.
The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Prince William County in Virginia, one of the first alerts April 28 on a storm that would spawn a deadly tornado in Southern Maryland as it moved across the mid-Atlantic.
With that warning, Mr. Carignan began scanning the skies over the University of Maryland for hail, ominous clouds or spinning funnels that could grow into tornadoes. He has been a storm spotter since last fall, after a tornado swept through campus and killed two students.
"A lot of us on campus felt helpless. We didn't know what to do," said Mr. Carignan, a researcher in the university's aerospace engineering department. "This was one of the things we came up with."
As severe storms batter much of Maryland this spring a small tornado touched down on Saturday not far from where the April 28 struck communities that have suffered damage are looking for warning systems to better predict when storms may strike and to warn residents of coming danger.
Many Maryland residents are jittery after the April 28 tornado. Since then, some school districts have dismissed classes early when the National Weather Service has issued tornado warnings. People pay closer attention to their radios and televisions when severe storms approach.
"I can appreciate why people are very nervous," said Jim Travers, head meteorologist for the Weather Service's Washington-Baltimore region. "We've gone through a tense period with a lot of significant weather."
Charles County, which has suffered the brunt of the April 28 storm, is weighing several warning methods, said county spokeswoman Nina Voehl.
The county may recommend residents and schools buy receivers to pick up the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Weather Radio, a 24-hour service that broadcasts alerts. County fire crews also may use sirens mounted at stations to issue tornado warnings, Mrs. Voehl said.
Only two other jurisdictions in the state have siren warning systems, said Maryland Emergency Management Agency spokesman John Healy.
Harford County has sirens to warn residents of problems at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, where chemical weapons are stored. Baltimore city's system, installed 50 years ago during the Cold War to warn of dangers that included nuclear attack, is tested every Monday. It was used twice last year to warn residents of chemical accidents.
The College Park campus has taken several steps to prepare for any repeat of the tornado in September.
The school contracted with a Kansas forecasting company to provide the public safety department with up-to-date information for the campus when storms are nearby. The $6,000-per year deal was signed in response to the fall tornado, said school spokesman George Cathcart.
Mr. Carignan and two other university staffers organized storm-spotter classes on campus. About 200 students, staff and community members took Skywarn courses offered by the weather service in November and earlier this year.
They are trained to scan the sky for conditions that could indicate severe weather. They also can assess the severity of damage caused by a storm.
About 2,000 Skywarn volunteers are in the Baltimore-Washington area, which includes parts of Virginia and West Virginia. Many are amateur radio operators who report conditions to the weather service office in Sterling.
Spotters act as eyes for the agency, which incorporates the reports into their decisions to issue storm watches and warnings for particular regions.
"The spotters play an important role," Mr. Travers said. "They act in some cases like ground truth. We can ask them to go to certain locations and verify what is going on."
Emergency officials and forecasters stress warning systems already in place do an adequate job. Along with the spotters, the service relies heavily on radar, satellites and other tools to make storm predictions and warnings.
Mr. Carignan still carries his NOAA radio when the forecast calls for bad weather. He is ready if needed as a storm spotter, but isn't eager to put his skills to work.
"I haven't spotted anything yet, and hopefully that won't happen," he said.


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