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Jonathan Erdman
126,070 followers -
Digital/Sr. Meteorologist, The Weather Channel, weather.com (All posts and opinions my own)
Digital/Sr. Meteorologist, The Weather Channel, weather.com (All posts and opinions my own)

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How many meteorologists decided on this career based on a personal experience with a storm?

Thirty-six years ago today, a tornado nearly hit my childhood home. As a 7 year-old, I knew from that point on that meteorology would be my career choice and passion.

Dodge County is in Wisconsin's "tornado alley", but April tornadoes are rare, though not unprecedented. From archived weather maps (attached), it appeared a fairly vigorous shortwave was amplifying & going "negative tilt" by that afternoon. Probably a low-topped supercell case, though there wasn't any archived radar to confirm that. A surface low moved from near Aberdeen, SD to northern IL the following morning, but was filling. Afternoon temperatures were in the upper 50s to low 60s. Mild, but not "warm and humid", as you would expect in a typical Midwest pre-tornado environment.

I was picked up from school and taken shopping on the north side of town. I suppose I had a little weather interest, as, for reasons only known to 7 year-olds, I begged my Mom to buy me a simple temperature/humidity desktop gauge, which still may be in my parents' home today. 

When leaving the store, we looked to the west and saw the darkest sky I have still seen to this date. Not exactly "crayon black", but about as close as could be.

We rushed home and as we pulled into our driveway, I'll never forget seeing low clouds (scud?) racing from the east to the west. I asked Mom, "Why are the clouds moving so fast backwards?" 

A couple minutes later, we received a frantic phone call from a family friend with a clear view to the west over Beaver Dam Lake, "Carole, there's a tornado coming over the lake." 

My sister looked out the window to the west and saw the tornado coming down our street. I never saw it. Without fully understanding what was going on, I was grabbed by my Mom and sister, sprinted downstairs and huddled under an admittedly unsteady large table I had used for a model train set. We just had enough time to turn on our radio to the local AM station, but they were playing music, also unaware of what had been going on. To this day, I don't know if a tornado warning was ever issued.

After saying a quick prayer (the first time I can remember praying in my life), Mom shielded my sister and I for those brief, terrifying 15 seconds. Instead of closing my eyes, though, I couldn't resist watching through those tiny, west-facing glass block basement windows as the sky went from pitch dark, to sunshine in 15 seconds.

While thankfully nothing of the scale of damage as, say, Joplin, Moore or Tuscaloosa, it's hard to put into words the look on people's faces after emerging from shelter following a tornado.

Fortunately, the vortex missed our home, as only a few shingles were ripped off and a backyard swing set was turned upside down. However, some neighborhood homes weren't so lucky. One kiddy-corner from us had garage damage. Another, a damaged roof.

An area called "Lost Lake" west of town wasn't so lucky. One house was lifted 35 feet in the air with four people inside, according to the official storm report. The tornado was rated F3 in that area. For the rest of the north side of Beaver Dam, maximum damage was F2 along the 9.5 mile-long path. Athletic field bleachers were destroyed, some homes damaged, a canning plant unroofed, and insulation littered trees. 

Perhaps my most vivid memory was of my Father. At the time, he was taking a bus from Beaver Dam to work at John Deere in Horicon, about 10 miles to the east. The bus would drop JD employees off at a local church, and he'd have to walk home from there. The church was several blocks south of where the 70-yard wide tornado tracked.

I can only compare the scene of my Dad walking down our street to that of Marty McFly in the movie Back to the Future seeing his yet unbuilt subdivision in the 1950s. Dad had no idea what had just happened and had a look of bewilderment you rarely see from an engineer as he surveyed the damage on our street.

About an hour after the tornado, we had local news crews situated on our street, then Governor Lee Dreyfus gave interviews as he surveyed the damage. 

Yes, my sister and I piled into our little car and drove around looking at the damage, during which our car died, requiring us to push it a good part of the way home. 

It's cliche to say an event "changed my life", but that's what happened on April 7, 1980. From that point forward, I had a curiosity, but also an outright fear of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. An outdoor siren was located just kiddy corner from our house. Even on sunny days when the siren was just tested, I had to run inside to avoid the nerve-rattling wail. I would spend much of the day playing in the basement even when a watch was issued, much less a warning.

Despite all that, the events of that day 35 years ago cemented a love for meteorology and a desire to keep people in the path of severe outbreaks, winter storms and hurricanes as safe as possible. 

I give my heartfelt thanks to my parents, family, the Univ. of Wisc. Atmos. Science Dept., Colorado State Dept. of Atmos. Science (Dr. Steven Rutledge), Mike Smith (AccuWx Enterprise Solutions, formerly WeatherData, Inc.), +The Weather Channel and weather.com's countless meteorologists, producers, journalists and editors, and all the incredible local, government and private-sector meteorologists out there in social media for all the support to live out this lifelong dream, set in motion by an incredible April afternoon in 1980.

Fellow meteorologists, I'm interested in hearing your stories on what triggered your passion for the field. Please share, if you would like.
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2015-04-07
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America's Coldest Outbreaks. (See, the #cold could always be worse.) http://wxch.nl/1zSRX6o  
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PHOTOS: Views of a New Year's Day lake-effect #snow squall over Lake Superior, sent to weather.com/photos by wooddan. "It was blizzard conditions on highway M-28 within 15 minutes."
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2015-01-03
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#Fall  colors + morning ground #fog in northern Michigan Sunday. (Photo: NWS-Gaylord, MI)
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Waterfalls into Glen Canyon Nat'l Rec. Area after heavy rain. (Photo credit: Lindsey G. Norte via +The Weather Channel)
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Yes, it rained only on one side of this Houston area cul-de-sac Saturday. The wonder of summer's isolated, stationary thundershowers. (Photo via NWS-League City, Texas)
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A view from 32,000 feet of sunset-lit anvil cirrus from thunderstorms somewhere between Nashville and New York's LaGuardia Airport on Aug. 21, 2014. (Photo credit: flysoto via weather.com/photos)
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What a view from the window seat taking off from Colo. Springs Tuesday! (Via weather.com/photos contributor Gregg12).
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The pitfalls of extended model forecasts was clearly illustrated by our current Caribbean disturbance: http://wxch.nl/1sZBiAd 
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