December 25, 2011

Dick Elder, longtime head of Wichita’s National Weather Service office, is retiring

Growing up in a two-story house without air conditioning on the south edge of a small Kansas town in the 1950s, Dick Elder would scoot his bed next to the window to catch what breeze he could.

Growing up in a two-story house without air conditioning on the south edge of a small Kansas town in the 1950s, Dick Elder would scoot his bed next to the window to catch what breeze he could.

It also offered him a front-row seat to the drama playing out in the Kansas skies. Soon, he was hooked.

“I’d watch thunderstorms at night — I just became fascinated with it,” Elder said.

The young boy in Douglass caught Cecil Carrier’s forecasts on television every chance he could and vowed to be a meteorologist just like Cecil when he grew up.

True to his word, Elder did just that.

At the end of the year, he’ll retire after 34 years with the National Weather Service — the past 20 as the meteorologist in charge of the Wichita branch.

Technology advocate

“I’d rather have somebody say ‘I’m sorry he’s leaving,’ as opposed to ‘Boy, I’m glad he left,’ ” said Elder, who is 58.

There’s a symmetry to the timing of Elder’s departure. He began his weather service career in 1977 as a radar man in the new Lockheed P-3 Orion aircraft, which were used as “hurricane hunters” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He ends it the same year Wichita’s weather service branch received the newest generation of radar, featuring dual polarization technology that gives forecasters a more detailed look into the anatomy of storms than they’ve ever had before.

That’s appropriate, those who know Elder say, because he has long been an advocate for new technology.

“He’s always on the forefront of innovation,” said Larry Ruthi, who heads the service’s Dodge City branch. “Dick has always had really good common sense. He can perceive what will work and convince people of that.”

Among the innovations Elder led is a change in one of the national criteria for issuing severe thunderstorm warnings. Up until 2005, warnings were issued when hail reached 3/4 of an inch in diameter. But Elder pushed for that threshold to be changed to 1 inch.

At 3/4 of an inch, Ruthi said, “hail doesn’t really do anything to anybody.”

The new criterion “allows us to emphasize the more significant thunderstorms,” he said.

By issuing fewer warnings, Ruthi said, there’s a better chance people will take them more seriously.

“If they recognize that when we put a warning out that something bad might really happen, they’re more likely to respond to it,” he said.

Elder has also been active in discussing with emergency managers and members of the media better language to use in watches and warnings so residents will take appropriate action as needed. Officials hope to use language that gives residents a clearer idea of what kind of damage a threatening storm could do.

That seems particularly timely, weather officials say, given 2011 recorded the most deaths from tornadoes in decades.

“This year, we all got our trees shaken,” Butler County Emergency Management director Jim Schmidt said. “We all found out maybe we are not as safe as we thought we were...there’s just so many things we’re going to have to look at.”

All about preparedness

As far as he is concerned, Elder said, his mission as a meteorologist was defined by the tornado that struck the Wichita metropolitan area less than a year after he arrived as head of the Wichita branch.

A tornado that eventually grew to EF-5 strength touched down on April 26, 1991. It tore through parts of Haysville, Wichita, Andover, McConnell Air Force Base and unincorporated Sedgwick County. The tornado killed 17 people, injured about 225 and caused more than $250 million in damage.

“Since that day; all I’ve ever done here is try to get us prepared,” he said. “If something like that happens again, are we ready for it?

“I still think back to Andover like it was yesterday. I’m sure there’s vivid memories that you take to your grave. That’s first and foremost for me – just how devastating it was.”

Just three weeks after the Andover tornado, another twister touched down and began following almost precisely the same path. It was the first tornado Elder had ever seen in person.

“All I had to do was look out the window” of the weather service office, he said.

The tornado lifted before reaching Wichita’s city limits.

Schmidt praised Elder for his dedication.

“When something bad happens, it’s personal” for Elder, Schmidt said. “’Did we do it right?’ You just can’t give him enough information. ‘Did we get the warning out in time?’ ‘What do we need to do better?’ ”

Butler County didn’t even have an emergency management office when that massive tornado struck Andover in 1991. Schmidt said Elder was instrumental in changing that by articulating the need and assisting in planning and training.

“They bent over backwards (to help) when we got started,” Schmidt said.

The office now has state-of-the-art equipment, including a monitor dedicated solely to NWS Chat, an instant-messaging system linking the weather service with emergency managers and local media.

“That’s turned into a powerful, powerful tool” allowing storm reports and evolving storm conditions to be shared within seconds, Schmidt said, and Elder was an early and strong proponent of its use.

“I feel very spoiled because we have such a proactive, strong-leadership National Weather Service Office,” Schmidt said. “That’s Dick’s style. He surrounds himself with good people, and then he lets them do what they do best.”

That was the advice Elder received when he first took over the Wichita office – and it’s what he plans to recommend to his yet-to-be-chosen successor.

“One of the things great about the weather service is, by and large, they’re the NFL of the meteorological world,” Elder said. “These are the top guns. They’re here because they love weather and they love what they’re doing. So let them run.”

Elder has no intentions of propping his feet up and idle away his retirement years.

He and his wife have already agreed to go to New England next summer to help the region’s recovery efforts from the flooding and hurricane that struck earlier this year. They went to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina and spent time building houses in Joplin and walking fields in search of tornado debris.

Elder calls it “seeing the other side” of severe weather.

“I’ve watched these storms for years on radar,” he said. “Here is what they really do — how they really impact people.

“That really brings it home and makes it real.”

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