TGIF: Pilots steer clear of storms, and drivers should too

Brownwood Bulletin
Gene Deason

My trip to the Texas Panhandle last weekend had been planned for several weeks, and as it neared, so did the inevitability of severe weather.

It’s springtime, after all, and bad weather isn’t unusual.

I could see that getting to Plainview would be no problem. But during the hours I expected to drive home Sunday evening, a significant chance of thunderstorms — some perhaps severe — was predicted to accompany me the entire way. Spending the night wasn’t an option, because I had an appointment at home Monday morning. I was going to sleep in my own bed that night, come heck or high water.

I got both.

Leaving Plainview, conditions were OK, but I felt like the Israelites must have felt being led by Moses through the Red Sea. There were thunderstorms to the east and west, dark clouds to the north, and brilliant flashes of lightning to the south. Yet, it wasn’t until I neared Scurry County, which I figured to be just over halfway home, that I needed to activate the windshield wipers.

Weather conditions deteriorated quickly in Snyder, where torrential rain mixed with small hail and strong winds reduced visibility to about 30 feet. A nearby FM radio station apparently had no announcers working on a Sunday night, but thankfully, the reliable National Weather Service alerts were interrupting a syndicated music broadcast. More about that later.

Like a miracle, an exit off U.S. Highway 84 appeared through dense sheets of rain. I took it. After negotiating an overpass, I found a spot to park among at least 50 other vehicles at a Burger King/Valero gas station. Some 20 minutes later, conditions began to improve.

I was among the first to pull out and head south, but those other drivers who waited must have known something I didn’t. About 5 miles out, there was another violent storm cell with driving rain and small hail. Fortunately, it was short-lived, but just moments later, I drove through what appeared to be the path of a small tornado at Hermleigh. On Monday, authorities said the Weather Service confirmed an EF-2 twister struck while I was parked 10 miles away at Burger King.

South of Hermleigh, it was full speed ahead. Storm clouds were still churning all around, but no rain fell where I was driving. Wet highways and bar ditches filled with water offered proof that storms had just moved through, but my car’s wipers weren’t needed — not yet.

Those wipers remained off until I approached Santa Anna. It was almost 10 p.m., and the nasty storm that was soon to hammer southern Brown County with grapefruit-sized hail was still building. I thought perhaps I should pull off the highway for a second time because of poor visibility, but I managed to find my way after slowing to one-third the posted speed limit.

I wonder how self-driving vehicles would have handled such conditions. I could have used that technology. You don’t realize how important reflectors and fresh paint that mark lanes can be until they’re not visible at night during a powerful storm.

On the other hand, I’ve never fully appreciated those annoying grooves on the side of the road — you know them, the series of short elongated depressions in the pavement that alert drivers who aren’t paying attention or who doze off. That night, I stayed the course by keeping my right tires on those grooves for a few miles, even though it was a rattling experience.

Of course, it would have been much smarter for me and the two other fools still driving through that blinding rainstorm between Santa Anna and Bangs to find a safe spot and wait it out. But it had been a long day, and after being on the road for so long, I was only 25 miles from home and my own pillow.

Let’s revisit those National Weather Service broadcasts. Their warnings are invaluable, and occasionally lifesaving. Vigilant Texans perk up like the family dog hearing a can being opened whenever those piercing tones sound.

But once the alert is handed off to a meteorologist, the sound quality of the actual message is too often compromised by static and other noise — especially if you’re listening to a distant AM radio station and lightning is flashing across the sky. The network needs enhancement, because in many rural areas I’ve been, reception is weak.

The strength of each transmitter is limited, by design, to an area of about 40 miles. Even so, the amount of static and the strength of the signal depend on things like distance, terrain, and the listener’s receiver itself. Sometimes I think I’m listening to Marconi transmitting across the Atlantic in 1901. Thankfully, local broadcasters and municipal alert systems promptly repeat the information.

The good news is that such issues are reportedly being addressed, according to NOAA’s research laboratory website. The Weather Service’s signal is directly available to 70 to 80 percent of the U.S. population, and the NWS is working to boost that to 95 percent. This should help tremendously, because when storm clouds threaten, few messages are more important to public safety.

Meanwhile, ‘tis the season for staying on guard for rapidly changing weather conditions and damaging storms. As the Weather Service advises, “Make a plan. Know where to go” — even if that means simply pulling off the highway.

Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column “TGIF” appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at tgifcolumn@yahoo