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Skies have begin to turn an ominous gray and there's a threat of severe weather. Employees of the NOAA - Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma issued the first alerts. Weather experts there keep track of the skies and try to provide information to local weather forecasters and others about the risk of thunderstorms and tornadoes.
NPR's Cheryl Corley went to Norman, Oklahoma to see how they do their job.
CHERYL CORLEY: The Storm Prediction Center is located here on the University of Oklahoma campus - a towering five-story building made of concrete with an observatory on top that lets the weather experts keep an eye on the wide open fields and sky around them. So this week, when staff saw a tornado forming not too far from the building, spokeswoman Keli Tarp says lots of folks started heading for the center's underground auditorium.
KELI TARP: People who are employees actually came here with their families and some of their pets. And so the pets were in the other room. But we had quite a few people seeking shelter in this room.
CORLEY: Tracking tornados is a way of life for the Prediction Center workers. Computer monitors are everywhere, full of color coded maps and weather data. In his office, director Russell Schneider keeps a list of numbers on his whiteboard, comparing this season's more than 500 tornado-related deaths to past years.
RUSSELL SCHNEIDER: It means this is a very historic tornado season. A lot of tragedies around the country. And it motivates us at the Storm Prediction Center to work ever harder to protect people by giving them a heads up and to keep striving to make our forecasts more and more accurate.
CORLEY: The operations room is where four or five forecasters constantly monitor weather information. Mark Darrow is one of the forecasters who analyzes radar and satellite observations, looking for evidence of tornadoes or winds with damaging hail. Today, he's writing up details for the National Weather Service and others about thunderstorms along western Virginia and central Pennsylvania.
MARK DARROW: Well, I told them that the thunderstorms would continue. Primarily concentrated over the mountains in the short-term, lifting into central Pennsylvania.
CORLEY: The Storm Prediction Center issues outlooks for areas in the United States that might experience severe weather as much as eight days in advance. If needed, it also issues a severe thunderstorm or tornado watch. Local weather forecasters take over from there.
One of the jobs of Harold Brooks, who works in the Severe Storms Laboratory, is to put current events in some sort of historical context. Brooks says the tornado in Joplin, Missouri, where the number of those killed by the tornado continues to grow, presents some real challenges.
HAROLD BROOKS: We're trying to find out information like, you know, where people when they died. Were they in cars? Were they in mobile homes? Were they in - at home? Were they in big buildings? What kind of things happened that could have led to those death tolls?
CORLEY: This week, meteorologists from around the country gathered in the center's hazard weather test room to talk about new research they hope will improve severe weather forecasting. Many, like Jason Jordan from Lubbock, Texas, also traveled to the damaged areas around Piedmont, Oklahoma, where he says the tornado winds came close to 200 miles per hour.
JASON JORDON: And what we do is we go back and look at the damage from tornados to try to determine what the winds speeds were based on the damage itself.
CORLEY: Meantime, the storm center's Louis Wicker, says the push is on to use a new generation of radar to provide better information about tornados.
LOUIS WICKER: We won't be able to say, you know, it will hit here or there but we should I think in 10 or 15 years, be able to provide one-hour tornado forecasts that are, that give people sort of a sense of where main the main problems will be.
CORLEY: And that's the goal here - to get accurate severe weather information out early enough to save lives.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Norman, Oklahoma.
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