Volunteers gather weather info to help communities avoid disasters
As director of emergency management in Russell County, Kan., Keith Haberer will take any help he can get to save someone's life or property.
And in his case, much of that help comes directly from his neighbors.
Kansas will soon top 1,000 volunteers who are collecting rain, snow and hail measurements every day and reporting to a national database, a program called the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network (CoCoRaHS). The information is used to help communities better understand weather patterns to aid in reporting severe weather conditions, including floods and winter forecasts.
"Precipitation is one of the most highly-variable weather measurements; it can change from one side of town to the other," said Kansas state climatologist Mary Knapp. "By having an increase of observers (in a town or region), you can get a better picture of where the precipitation is and the risks that might be associated with it."
Haberer's Russell County office, located in the Bunker Hill fire station, looks modest from the outside. But inside, his operation is more sophisticated. By reading online CoCoRaHS maps and checking National Weather Service gauges, he can quickly know about threatening weather or other conditions in the region.
"It's been easy to just look at the data and say, 'hey, it's important to set up barricades' in an area," he said. "From the standpoint of day-to-day emergency management, knowing how much rain or snow fell in which part of our county helps with taking advance precautions. For example, if we get an ambulance call, I can let them know they had more snowfall in that area than in others."
Haberer noted that CoCoRaHS data helped Russell County qualify for federal emergency funds recently. The data helped convince authorities that the flooding pattern that took place met guidelines for disaster relief.
Currently, CoCoRaHS data is available in 11 states. Kansas was the third state to join, in 2004. Kansas citizens in the network are required to report by Internet every day--even if no precipitation or hail fell-- to a database in Boulder, Colo.
In Kansas, the National Weather Service and Kansas State Research and Extension are the primary sponsors of this program.
Stacie Minson, K-State Research and Extension's watershed specialist in the Big Creek/Smoky Hill area in western Kansas, says CoCoRaHS helps her in "making the case for watershed planning."
It's why she's actively involved in holding meetings, making presentations, and acquiring grant funds to purchase approved rain gauges for residents. Since 2008, she and her staff have purchased more than 100 gauges for watershed residents.
"Our gut feeling always has been that you will have more pollution (in waterways) after rain events," Minson said. "Now, we have data that supports that."
The information, she says, recently helped the local Farm Service Agency provide rainfall data to western Kansas farmers when they were trying to plant winter wheat last September through November. FSA officials said the information was "critical" in helping establish planting conditions.
Ron Major, the fire chief in Dorrance who also operates a custom drilling business, reports rain and snow measurements to CoCoRaHS. But he also benefits directly; knowing where the moisture is, he can send his company's trucks elsewhere so that they don't lose working days.
"It sounded like a good idea to have reporting, but it didn't dawn on me right away," he said. "I could use that data with my drilling business to know what roads we could go on. It's saving me time and money."
K-State's Knapp, who is the CoCoRaHS coordinator in eastern Kansas, works on the university's Manhattan campus and also is a key figure in the state's Extension Disaster Education Network. She says that data collected in the 11-state network eventually helps national weather experts adapt forecast models.
She also notes that Kansas can always use more volunteers to collect rain, snow and hail measurements. Those interested can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 785-532-7019.
More information on CoCoRaHS in Kansas is available on the web; go to www.cocorahs.org, and click Kansas on the map.