A longtime Arkansas weatherman will issue his final forecast this week, then gladly give up the grimmest task in his business – logging the deaths of everyone who couldn’t get out of the way of a storm.
“What sticks out in my mind are storm surveys,” said John Robinson, who retires from the National Weather Service office on Friday after 401/2 years. “I can remember every single place where someone died.”
Robinson toils behind the scenes at the North Little Rock Airport – “I don’t have the looks or the voice for TV,” he said. And since 1998, he has been the office’s warning coordination meteorologist, in charge of making sure warnings reach their intended audience.
“During an outbreak, it can be really noisy in here,” Robinson said. “Once fatality reports start coming in, it’s really, really quiet. There’s always lingering doubt” about what else could have been done – even if the warnings were on the nose.
Robinson and 40-year forecaster Renee Fair, also retiring Friday with 16 years as the office’s meteorologist in charge, often venture out following storms to log where people died.
“We have to put down age, sex, and what type of structure or what situation they were in – mobile home, automobile, we have to find those things out,” he said.
Sixteen people died in the Mayflower-Vilonia tornado on April 27, but advance warnings saved a countless number. Some Vilonia residents had 40 minutes’ notice and reached a community shelter. That was better than the 32 minutes that Arkadelphia had before a 1997 storm – with a forecast that prompted questions because some residents ventured out to retrieve loved ones before the storm hit.
The typical lead time for a tornado warning is 14 minutes. Before technological advances let forecasters detect rotating storms before they drop a twister, it wasn’t uncommon for a tornado to touch down before a warning was issued.
“Do you want people to think, ‘I still have time to go to the grocery store?”‘ Robinson asked.
While Robinson has predicted ice storms, blizzards, tornadoes and flash floods, twisters dominate his list of memories.
“The tornado is what people feel threatened by more than anything else … it’s whatever the atmosphere wants to do,” he said. “You can’t prevent them.”
He listed the 1997 storms that killed 25; a January 1999 outbreak that had even more twisters; and 2008’s “Super Tuesday,” when a February storm formed near Atkins and was on the ground for 120 miles, killing 13.
Danny Straessle, an amateur radio operator who has worked bad storms with Robinson, said the forecast office will miss a lot of history when Robinson retires.
“If you throw a dart at the map, he will have a flooding story or a tornado story or a hail story about it,” Straessle said.
Robinson joined the weather service after graduating from Texas A&M in 1974. Save for a brief time with Miami air traffic controllers, he has spent his career at the North Little Rock office.
In his early days, it took 60 words per minute to send bulletins. Now, he can push a button and see warnings appear on television within 20 seconds.
But while forecasting has advanced, Robinson knows people are part of the equation.
“The best forecaster in the world is not worth a hoot if no one hears him,” he said. “If people won’t take responsibility for their own safety, we cannot save the world.”
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