In Oklahoma, He's The (Weather) Man

Gary England has been at News 9 in Oklahoma City for over 35 years. He is the commercial weather man credited with issuing the first televised Doppler weather radar bulletin for a tornado, and has created what can only be called a meteorology empire in a state that sees lots of severe weather. He even had a bit part in the movie Twister.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

S.E. Hinton, the novelist and lifelong Oklahoman, says Oklahoma doesn't have a climate, it has weather.

Ms. S.E. HINTON (Novelist): You never know if the sprinkles are going to turn into floods, if a high wind is going to turn into a tornado, if that pelting rain is going to turn into hail.

SIMON: Oklahoma's in the smack dab middle of the funnel ship that runs between Minnesota and Texas that's sometimes called Tornado Alley, especially in the spring. Hurricanes are the onrushing trains of storms, vast and destructive, but you can see them growing fatter with ocean waters and whirling for days in advance.

Tornadoes get whipped up in an afternoon. You can't evacuate town in advance of a tornado because they strike suddenly, like a bank safe falling out of a window. Blue sunny skies turn suddenly dark and stormy.

Ms. HINTON: You're always on your toes, you scan the skies, you check the weather channel first thing in the morning and you watch the evening television just for the news, especially if you've spotted a cloud the size of a small hand on the horizon that morning, 'cause you never know what that's going to blow up to.

SIMON: So in Oklahoma, TV meteorologists aren't just comic relief between news and sports. They don't just tell you when to take an umbrella to work or put an extra blanket on your bed, but when to cover your backside.

The preeminent meteorologist in Oklahoma is Gary England. He's been at KWTV, Channel 9, in Oklahoma city since 1972 and has won Emmys, Murrah(ph) Awards and scores of other honors. He played a TV weatherman in the movie "Twister" and was a consultant of the film too. Although Mr. England is often credited as the first meteorologist to make use of Doppler radar images to predict and depict weather, he began his career with more basic tools.

Mr. GARY ENGLAND (Meteorologist): You know, I had basically a map of the United States and a map of Oklahoma and I used chalk and magnetic numbers and letters. Now it's rather sophisticated and it's so high-tech and then you have this moving and that moving. And people look at those computer models and they think they're real, and they're not real.

SIMON: He says even meteorologists sometimes forget that the images they can now present of how storms and clouds may move through the skies over the next few days are merely computer projections.

Mr. ENGLAND: Every time I bring a new kid in here, I have to work with him. I say, keep in mind this is not real, even though it looks so wonderful and so perfect. You have to use your abilities that you learned in college, you have to use your experience, your intuition, all of those things to say, is this really what's going to happen? Does this look anything I've seen before? What did it do last time it came through? They're not real.

SIMON: Real Oklahoma weather can range from drought to hail in a single day. It's happened. In an average year, the state will be struck by 50 tornadoes. But one memorable day, a single day, there were even more.

You mentioned a day in - was it 1999 - and there were 60 tornadoes?

Mr. ENGLAND: May 3rd.

SIMON: What was that day like for you?

Mr. ENGLAND: Pretty scary, pretty wild. It's like many other days. You know, you expected severe thunderstorms, a few tornadoes, which is pretty normal for springtime in this part of the world. And even that morning we expected severe thunderstorms and a few tornadoes. It took a while, I think, for everyone to realize it was a very significant event.

SIMON: How did you alert people, cover that, deal with it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ENGLAND: Well, for years I said, you know, tornado warning for Oklahoma County, all residents continue the tornado precautions. News 9 will keep you advised, and that's been heard thousands and thousands of times by the people of Oklahoma. On that day, I realized I had to say something a little bit different.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ENGLAND: I said, don't go outside and look at this thing. It will kill you. And then shortly after that I said, most structures will not withstand this tornado. Then I got to the point, I said, you know, you need to be below ground level to survive. And I knew that one would get their attention, because I'd never said it before and I've never said it since: you need to below ground level to survive. And they listened.

SIMON: Forty-four people died in Oklahoma, May 3, 1999. Who knows how many more might have been harmed if Gary England hadn't bluntly told them to go below ground. That's why S.E. Hinton says that in Oklahoma meteorologists are regarded in some of the same goodly light as football coaches and rodeo champs.

In Oklahoma, do meteorologists become celebrities in the same way?

Ms. HINTON: Rock stars.

SIMON: Okay. Yes.

Ms. HINTON: Rock stars.

SIMON: So news stations in Oklahoma field teams of meteorologists who don't just point at storms on a screen but chase after them, as if Beyoncé had just come to town. They're called storm chasers, and Channel 9's top chaser is considered to be Val Castor of Stillwater, just north of Oklahoma City.

Mr. ENGLAND: And anybody chasing storms is a little bit odd. You know, a little strange. And Val's one of my closest friends, and I'll be the first to tell you he's a little bit odd when it comes to storms. But he loves them.

Mr. VAL CASTOR (Storm Chaser): I'll say this - God has given me a passion for chasing storms, and I'm happy.

SIMON: We caught up with Val Castor in his pickup truck, which is stripped down and outfitted with gauges, censors, and laptops computers in which he can follow a storm that he could look dead in the face. While Gary England's in the studio telling Oklahomans to get below ground, Val Castor is on top of that very ground, trying to catch up with the storm that's making normal people take cover.

Mr. CASTOR: You know, when I'm out there chasing, most of the time I'm pretty calm. And he's learned how to read me. Whenever my voice goes up and the excitement level goes up, he pretty much knows it's real.

SIMON: Have you ever been in a situation where you thought - this is it?

Mr. CASTOR: You know, we try to stay in a safe part of the storm. But you know, every now and then, if you chase long enough, you're going to come across times when the storm might surprise you. And actually, one time this last year we had a small tornado pass right over the truck - a very weak tornado. Luckily for us, all it did was push us into the ditch.

SIMON: Well, that raises the question. I mean with five kids, do you ever ask yourself: is one more damned tornado worth it?

Mr. CASTOR: I feel a lot safer chasing the tornado than I do at home sitting there waiting on it to hit me. If I'm out chasing it, I can get behind it, keep it in front of me all day long and not have to worry about it.

SIMON: By the way, Val Castor's wife, Amy, is also a storm chaser and often joins in him in the truck. A trusted babysitter takes their children into their storm cellar at home.

While it's tempting to see storm chasers as men and women who draw some electric charge from danger, Val Castor says that seeing storms close up actually recharges his faith in even greater powers.

Mr. CASTOR: I'm a Christian and I have faith in Jesus Christ. And if I die, I know that I'm taken care of. And so I don't know how anybody can chase storms and not know what their destiny is when they die.

SIMON: And S.E. Hinton, the novelist, says the very capriciousness of Oklahoma's weather, the chance that a single day might begin with dry prairie heat but lead to hailstorms kind of renews her faith in the humility of human beings too.

Ms. HINTON: There's just something so uncontrolled about the weather. We like to think that humankind has got a lot of things under control. But nobody thinks the weather is under control.

SIMON: Another Oklahoma story next week: the hottest restaurant in town doesn't get anything hotter than 105 degrees.

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