Winds of Change
Weather, women and what to watch for
Photos by Shannon Cornman
Illustrations by Chad Crowe
On May 6, 2015, Mother Nature freaked out and flexed her muscles, pounding us with hail, flooding, straight winds and tornadoes … and letting some tigers loose in Tuttle. That is weather to the max. Weather plus. Ultimate weather. Or, as some of us around here like to say, Wednesday.
There’s another saying, often attributed in various wording to state legend Will Rogers: If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma right now, just wait a few minutes. However you phrase it, it’s often fairly accurate. Oklahoma weather is a force, sometimes a farce, a constant topic of conversation and, depending on the time of year, it can be frightening, blistering or bone-chilling. For example, it’s not that uncommon for conditions to pinball from sunny and 70 degrees to an ice storm and perhaps some thunder snow, then back into the 70s … in just a few days.
April marks the beginning of tornado season in the Sooner State, which tends to fall into the frightening category. “In 2017, there were more than 80 tornadoes in Oklahoma,” says Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman. He arrived on the Oklahoma weather scene to start his dream job in 2002 because, if you’re in weather, our state is the ne plus ultra.
Smith’s job is, as he puts it, a hybrid of external relations with sales and marketing. “I work with all of our partners, which are the city and county governments, fire, police, public safety officials and television and radio stations in 56 counties in Oklahoma and Texas,” he explains.
He and his colleagues, as well as the students and faculty of the University of Oklahoma’s school of meteorology, converged on Oklahoma because the weather here is brutally magnificent and powerfully beautiful. It fascinates them as scientists, but as human beings, it often shakes them to their cores.
“When I started, it was so exciting, and older forecasters warned me that I’d get tired. And I have found that while there is still an adrenaline rush, there also comes with it a sense of dread,” he says. His industry is now beginning to realize that forecasting catastrophic storms, and then watching the damage and sometimes loss of life they bring, can cause emotional trauma for meteorologists, even PTSD.
Despite that, every meteorologist and chaser interviewed here has a couple of things in common. They are obsessed with weather, and they care incredibly deeply about keeping people safe. Their faces light up as they start talking, and as they recount their stories, it’s as though they’ve time-traveled back into the moment.
Not too many years ago, charming and comely women (and men) who were without even a flicker of scientific background often started their broadcast careers as weathercasters. Raquel Welch got her on-camera start as the “sunup weathergirl” at a TV station in San Diego. Tom Brokaw gave the weather report, along with the news. David Letterman famously lost his gig as a weatherman in Indianapolis after warning viewers that hail the size of canned hams was imminent.
Weathergirls were ornamental in the 1960s and ’70s, short-skirted and frequently lampooned by virtue of their gender.
Now, though, the vast majority of good-looking people delivering the forecast are, first and foremost, meteorologists. And more and more are women.
Emily Sutton is the only female meteorologist in Oklahoma who has earned seals from the National Weather Association and the American Meteorological Society. She has been in Oklahoma for more than eight years now, and her severe-weather welcome was the Christmas Eve blizzard of 2009. “If you are in weather, this is the place,” she says, over a cup of coffee and an enormous cinnamon roll at a café near her Oklahoma City home. She is quick to point out that she is not the first female meteorologist in the market – that honor goes to KFOR’s Sarah Libby, now delivering the weather on a part-time basis while pursuing an engineering degree.
Sutton has always been fascinated by weather – specifically tornadoes. “I remember Tom Skilling at WGN in Chicago did weather specials, and I was terrified of tornadoes. I packed an emergency kit in my Barbie duffel bag with batteries and cans of food. Once when I was in middle school, my mom and I were at the grocery store, and there was an announcement that we were under a tornado warning. I started crying and we left.”
It never occurred to Sutton that she might one day make a career out of keeping people safe from storms – probably, she says, because she’d never seen a woman weather forecaster. She was a performer, singing and dancing in musical theater, and decided to major in broadcast journalism in college, at the University of Missouri, Columbia. And that’s when it happened.
“I needed a science elective, so I took intro to meteorology and got an A+,” she says. “There was a storm chase team, and that sounded amazing to me, but you had to have either a major or minor in meteorology to be on it. So I went for a double major and have two degrees: atmospheric science and journalism. At first, I was on the base team, telling the chasers where to go.
“I got to actually go out chasing for the first time on April 21, 2004. I was supposed to sing at a Greek event, but I fibbed and said I was under the weather, which technically I was,” she laughs. Broadcast meteorology suited Sutton to a T, and once she found that magical combo, she never looked back, except to wonder why she hadn’t thought of it earlier.
News9 Meteorologist Cassie Heiter grew up in Kentucky, and says simply, “Oklahoma is the Mecca of meteorology. You don’t get any better, and I feel so fortunate that I do what I do where I do it.” Her fascination with weather began when she was in middle school. When severe weather struck, she found it exciting to rush down to the basement, where her designated safe spot was under the stairs. “A weather person was a hero in my eyes, because he knows what’s going to happen and he keeps people safe. That seemed like the coolest person to be,” she says.
She remembers sitting in the newsroom of her old station, watching News9’s live coverage of the 2013 Moore tornado. “It was Gary England. And then I saw his episode on ‘The Colbert Report,’ and I thought that to be in Oklahoma would be incredible, but I never dreamed I could,” Heiter says. But she did.
And now, in addition to handling the weather at 10 a.m. for radio and at noon on News9, Heiter has stepped into the role of running the radar for Chief Meteorologist David Payne during severe weather. When she talks about the radar system, it’s like she met a movie star. “NextGen Live has dual pol [polarization], and 1 million watts. It’s the most powerful in the state and one of the most powerful in the country. It can see fine detail, and is actually live.” Heiter has never seen a tornado in person, and has only gone storm chasing once. “When there is weather, I have to be in the station, but I’d love to go at some point.”
Robyn King, also with News9, holds a B.S. in meteorology with a minor in math. “My fascination with weather started at the age of 5,” she says. “I grew up watching storms roll in with my dad. I remember always being curious with weather. Why did it change almost every day? Guess you could say my head was always in the clouds.” Her career has taken her through several states, finally depositing her in Oklahoma. Like the others, keeping people safe is her first priority.
Their colleague Amy Castor has been chasing storms for more than two decades, and like countless others in her field, she too found her calling thanks in part to Gary England, while she was in college. “I grew up watching Gary England, and I’ve always loved being outside. One day, I was sitting in my apartment in Stillwater, and Gary was talking about a storm east of Stillwater. Something inside me said ‘chase,’ and I chased it all the way to the Arkansas border.”
Not long after that, Castor was looking for a project for her senior year, and she contacted England for an internship. One thing followed another; she got her internship and was introduced to her now-husband, the most famous and daring storm chaser in Oklahoma, Val Castor. “I was hired in 1998, and started storm chasing with Val. Love bloomed for us over time. We had so much in common. We got married in 1999,” Castor says. The couple now has six children, whom Amy home-schools.
She and Val still chase storms, and her role is to handle the technology. On the day she spoke to 405 Magazine, she and her husband rolled into the parking lot in a huge, customized truck with lightning bolt graphics and their names on the doors. While Mr. Castor drives, Mrs. Castor runs the camera, posts to social media, watches the weather models and makes sure the live stream stays online.
Storm chasing is seasonal work, which allows Castor to enjoy the best of both worlds. “So many women have to choose. … I’ve always been adventurous. I’ve always followed my husband’s lead and trusted the Lord, and I think that Val and I are a great team. For a few months a year I focus on this, and the rest of the year I am with our children,” she says. “It’s so satisfying for us to pull up to a gas station, and have somebody say ‘You saved my life.’”
It was a fear of severe weather and a desire to keep people safe that drew KOCO’s meteorologist Shelby Hays to the field. “I was always the first person in the storm shelter,” she laughs.
Growing up in Velma, Oklahoma, Hays knew from a young age what she wanted to be when she grew up. “I said I wanted to be Gary England. And I never understood at the time why people laughed. Now I do see that hearing a little girl say she wanted to become a middle-aged man was kind of funny, but there were no women doing the weather on TV when I was little, so I wanted to be him,” she says.
Hays’ own small, rural high school didn’t even offer calculus. But the self-described nerd and valedictorian of her class just took it in college and moved on. It was her high school science teacher, Ms. Johnston, who ultimately put Hays on her path. “She had us each do a report on our field, and then she set us up to meet with someone in that field. She set me up to meet Gary England. It was incredible to go from meeting my idol to being mentored by him,” she says.
“It never occurred to me to let being female stop me, but maybe it stopped others. Now, many of the people who reach out to me are young girls and women,” Hays says. “We have a lot of school kids tour the station, and we have interns every semester. What I want them to know is that they can do anything if they work hard for it.”
Gary England Mentor, Legend
He spent more than 40 years at KWTV, a chief meteorologist-slash-weather king who helped develop Doppler radar, the First Warning map and the Storm Tracker computer system while becoming an Oklahoma legend. Few people in any field have been as influential as Gary England in meteorology; many of today’s top forecasters cite him as an inspiration … including those interviewed in this article.
► The Future is Female
Jacqueline Nugent, a native of Elmhurst, Illinois, is a senior at OU, pursuing a dual degree in meteorology and math. One rainy Saturday, she sauntered into Gray Owl Coffee in Norman and spilled the beans. She’s a cool customer with a deadly sense of humor, and is a member of OU’s equestrian team. As she starts to talk, it’s immediately clear: This woman is going places.
“Since I was a kid, I have loved storms,” she says. “I grew up watching the Weather Channel obsessively, and at some point I realized I could make a career out of it.” Weather Channel star Jim Cantore and his “Cantore Stories” fascinated her. She was a part of middle school academic competition, the Science Olympiad, and the subject at hand was meteorology. “I realized it was much more than just pictures on television,” Nugent says.
She specializes in the interface between math and meteorology. “There are equations to model how the atmosphere behaves. There is a system of complex equations a computer has to solve, which is a big part of forecasting. I am interested in modelling data assimilation.” After graduation, Nugent will pursue a Ph.D. in meteorology and a career in meteorological research.
Nugent’s graduating class is close to 50 percent female, which is significant, but Nugent still feels that women are underrepresented in science as a whole, including meteorology. “I think the gap is closing,” she says, although she often was one of the only women in her college math classes. “I have never felt that this was something I couldn’t do because I’m a woman.”
► Weather Words & What They Mean
Less specific than a forecast, but similar. As Smith puts it, “Sometime within a certain period, there is a possibility of severe weather, because certain ingredients are coming together.” It’s very imprecise.
A forecast is a statement of what the weather is anticipated to be over the next several days. Generally, a forecast covers less than a week.
This is issued on the day it’s in effect, usually a couple of hours before severe weather is anticipated. “By the time we issue a watch, our certainty is higher of the location and timing. We are literally watching,” Smith says. He says that when a tornado watch is issued, it’s time to make sure your shelter is ready and all of your supplies are in place.
Usually, a severe thunderstorm warning will be issued before a tornado warning. “A tornado warning means that tornadoes are likely or already occurring,” Smith says. Warnings are when the storm or tornado is about to happen, or happening right now. Take cover, or be really ready to. Warnings are much more precise than watches.
This means that hail an inch in diameter or larger and winds of 58 mph or greater are expected. Severe thunderstorms are not determined by inches of rain. Television stations and the National Weather Service use the same definition.
When it’s time to take shelter, seconds count. It’s important to stock your shelter with the things you might need well before you might need them. You should at least be ready at the basic level; what you do beyond that is up to you.
Shoes with good soles for everyone, since you might have to walk through debris; a flashlight with fresh batteries; helmets for everyone, because debris flies fast in a tornado; a whistle, so you can signal to rescuers where you are, should you be trapped; pillows, blankets or a mattress to wrap around yourselves to buffer against flying objects; diapers, wipes, formula and any other little basics your baby will need; a dog leash or pet carrier so you can contain your freaked-out furry companions; your phone and charger.
The Boy Scout
Everything above, PLUS: a few bottles of water; a small, battery-operated television or radio; non-perishable snacks such as energy bars or packaged crackers; some pet food and chew toys; a set of dry clothes for each person.
The Serious Survivalist
In case the grid collapses and things get real, you’ll need everything above, PLUS: everyone’s prescriptions for a few days; at least a three-day supply of canned and dehydrated food; a gallon of water per person, per day; a first-aid kit; NOAA weather radio and batteries; plastic sheeting and duct tape in case you need to shelter-in-place; a wrench or pliers to turn off your utilities; plastic trash bags to poop in, along with moist towelettes; dust masks to facilitate breathing in debris-laden air; a stash of cash; unscented chlorine bleach for use as a disinfectant or emergency water treatment; a medicine dropper; signal flares; waterproof matches; rain gear; sleeping bags for everyone; mess kits or paper plates, cups and cutlery; your important paperwork, including copies of insurance policies, your passport or driver’s license and so on, in a waterproof envelope.
For generations, Oklahomans knew that if it was spring, before long they’d hear News9’s Gary England, our most-revered meteorologist, shout those iconic words: “We need to get Val on the Gentner!”
The Gentner is a now-obsolete communication device used by storm chasers to talk with the station. It looks like a teleconferencing device. News9 still uses a similar device, which has another name, which England never called it.
Out of that iconic phrase, a game was born. It’s a severe weather drinking game. Now that the great and powerful Oz, er, England has retired, Payne is the name of the game. Nobody at News9 endorses this game in any way, and you should probably never play it. Here are the rules:
Everyone selects a storm chaser other than Val Castor. Every time David talks to your storm chaser, you take one drink. Take two drinks every time we see footage from your storm chaser. Take four drinks if your storm chaser says “tornado on the ground.”
Everyone selects a county other than Pottawatomie County. Every time David mentions your county, you take one drink. Take two drinks every time we see footage from your county. Take four drinks if a tornado touches down in your county.
Take One Drink
Every time David interrupts a program. Take one additional drink if David says, “You’re not missing any of [insert program name].”
Every time David says the following: hook echo, updraft, Metro, Doppler radar, wall cloud, underground or mobile home.
When David gives a list of counties, take one drink for every county in the list.
Take Two Drinks
Every time David says the following: baseball-sized hail, Waterloo Road, Potawatomie County or Deer Creek High School.
Every time David talks to Val Castor.
Every time David mentions the following towns: Altus, Burns Flat, Del City, Gotebo (a crowd-pleaser), Hydro, Lookeba, Meeker, Mulhall, Oktaha, Olustee, Shattuck, Slaughterville, Tryon, Vici, Waukomis, Wayne (or Payne), Weleetka or Wetumkah.
Take Three Drinks
If we see footage from Pottawatomie County.
If we see footage from Val Castor.
If David mentions the following: immediate tornado precautions, National Weather Service, mesocyclone, portable radio, take shelter or tornado warning in effect until …
Take Four Drinks
If the Bob Mills SkyNews 9 HD helicopter must land to refuel.
If a shirtless tornado victim is interviewed.
If David issues his own tornado warning, not recognized by the National Weather Service, or says the following: “Will someone please answer that phone?” Or: “Do you see power flashes?”
Finish Your Drink
If someone uses the word tornado as a verb, or if David mentions the nearest cross streets to you.
If David says, “We’ve lost Val,” pour a little out for your compatriots and finish your drink.
Again, not endorsed; don’t really play it.