The WKU Weather Service was wide awake in the early morning hours of Dec. 11, updating the WKU community in the weather leading up to the tornadoes that ripped through Bowling Green.
“We were well aware that there was a significant threat of severe weather and a tornado threat was definitely on the table,” said Joshua Durkee, WKU academic meteorologist. “Trying to make a claim about whether or not a tornado is going to hit your city is next to impossible, but the general outlook was ‘yes’.”
The system rolled through town Friday night of finals week after many students had already left campus. The program did its best to warn those who were still there.
“We were already watching out for the storm [Friday night], we were tracking the storm and warning people because it was finals week and people were still here,” said Dustin Knight, weather specialist.
Once the storm rolled over and left its path of destruction, those inside the program knew there was work to be done.
“We knew we were going to do something [the next day]“, said Knight.
John Gordon, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Louisville, contacted Durkee to see if the students would help with the official tornado survey, which measures a tornado’s strength based on debris and damage patterns.
“We have a great relationship with the weather services office there and John Gordon has been there for a number of years,” Durkee said. “It’s just kind of an unwritten, unspoken relationship that if the weather service is in town, we’re here to help.”
The group, led by Gordon, began looking for signs of major damage, such as homes destroyed to their foundations, tall trees that had been twisted and mutilated, and debris that had been thrown through solid material.
“[Gordon] was looking for specific things that were out of place,” said Bret Garlitz, a junior in the meteorology program. In one instance, the group came across a decorative rock that had been knocked over and moved several feet.
“So [Gordon] takes pictures of that, makes a note of it, and plugs it into an app, which then generates a value of how much wind it takes to do that.
Garlitz said the group found a plank of wood that had penetrated a car tire, leading them to suspect a rating of at least EF2.
According to Knight, by examining how the storm affected various structures, information from the survey can be used during reconstruction to ensure that homes and businesses can withstand the weather in the future.
“We’re not just looking for damage like, ‘This house was destroyed to its foundations, it must have been an F3; this house was destroyed, it must have been an F4,” Knight said. “Our thing is to look for ways to prevent these tragedies from happening again in the future.”
Knight knows the opportunity has come due to a dire crisis, but takes comfort knowing that this data is crucial to helping those on the road.
“Storms are always going to happen, but finding the best ways to build, the best ways to shelter, the best ways to warn people, those are the ways to prevent these tragedies from happening,” Knight said. .
The event, while tragic in nature, gave meteorology students experiences they would never have had access to otherwise. Durkee was happy that his students were able to participate in such a hands-on way.
“Our program philosophy, which is the mantra of the university, is applied learning,” Durkee said. “Everything I do with my students is an attempt to provide them with these kinds of experiences.”
As local and national media spotlighted the investigative team, Durkee was proud of the work his students did throughout the process and how his students represented WKU and the meteorology program.
“As a parent, at home, my job is very parenting,” Durkee said. “You’re trying to mold these young adults into the waking moments of their future, and watching them cross the line and pull themselves together is awe-inspiring. It’s endearing and that’s all I could hope for. [I’m] always proud of these students.
Durkee is aware that the work was optional; students could have started their breaks or gone home to see their families. He is grateful to those who volunteered their time and effort.
“They didn’t care about any of that,” Durkee said. “A lot of these people, and rightly so, went home for breaks and so on, and you had a handful who were able to stay, get up early and stay late, eat weird meals and do everything for free , just to learn. As a teacher, I can’t ask for anything better. These students are wonderful. »
Content Editor Jake Moore can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Charles_JMoore.