Published Sunday
October 1, 2000

Severe Weather on the Plains to Get an Airing at Conference

When National Weather Service forecaster Cathy Zapotocny started her shift on Oct. 26, 1997, it looked as if an incoming storm would bring only rain mixed with snow flurries. 

By morning, Omaha was buried under 9 inches of snow. Broken tree limbs blocked streets all over town. More than 300,000 people were without power. 

For Zapotocny, the October 1997 snowstorm proved to be a good example of the Midlands' unpredictable weather and the challenges it places on weather forecasters. 

"It's amazing how a storm can produce very different weather across a single state," she said. "And sometimes that can be hard to predict." 

Zapotocny will speak about the challenges of forecasting winter weather in the Midlands on Saturday in Lincoln during the second annual Central Plains Severe Weather Symposium. The event, which is free and open to the public, will run from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Nebraska Center for Continuing Education, 33rd and Holdrege Streets. 

Also scheduled to speak at the symposium are renowned storm chaser Chuck Doswell; Mary Ann Cooper, a doctor specializing in lightning injuries at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Tim Marshall, a meteorologist and engineer who helps design weather-resistant buildings; and Jeff Morrow of the Weather Channel. 

Ken Dewey, the symposium organizer and a member of the High Plains Climate Center, said he picked the speakers for specific reasons. 

Dewey said he hoped Cooper's expertise with lightning injuries would help people realize that lightning is a serious hazard in the Midlands, often more dangerous than tornadoes. 

"Nebraska hasn't had a tornado fatality in more than 10 years," he said. "But we have people killed from lightning nearly every year." 

Doswell was invited to speak, Dewey said, because he has been a professional storm chaser for nearly 30 years and is considered the foremost authority in the field. Doswell, who works for the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., was chasing storms even before sophisticated technology, Dewey said. 

"All he could do 30 years ago was look at a weather map and guess," Dewey said. "Now he has equipment in his van that tells him where is the best place to chase." 

Despite his interest and expertise, Doswell still recommends that people leave storm chasing to the professionals, Dewey said. 

"He loves to show people what he's accomplished," Dewey said. "But then he reminds people that, 'Boys and girls, you shouldn't do this at home.'" 

The symposium also will include dozens of weather-related exhibits as well as appearances by several local television weather forecasters, area storm spotters and weather-related organizations. 

Dewey said the event is designed to offer information that will interest experts as well as amateur weather buffs. 

"It's a family event that has everything from the gee-whiz to the technical," Dewey said. "I want grandma and her 10-year-old grandson to get as much out of it as anyone else." 

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