May 29, 2012

New chief of Weather Service branch had eye on sky early

Looking back on it now, Suzanne Fortin says she may have been predestined to land a prominent position at the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service.

Looking back on it now, Suzanne Fortin says she may have been predestined to land a prominent position at the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service.

Her great-grandfather was one of the first weather observers in the state, out in the Goodland area.

Apparently, her interest in weather was “in the blood,” Fortin said.

She was born in Stillwater, Okla., but her father was a pilot in the Air Force, so she was a nomad — moving perhaps nine times throughout her childhood. The one constant, she said, was her grandparents’ home in Topeka.

“It was an anchor,” said Fortin, who assumed her duties as meteorologist-in-charge of the Wichita branch of the weather service in late April.

Her grandmother’s birthday in 1966 proved to be a turning point for the young girl. For some reason, no one would answer the phone when they called to wish her a happy birthday on June 8 that year.

It wasn’t until later, she said, that her family learned a large tornado had torn through Topeka that day. Her grandmother’s house was about a mile from the damage path and was spared, but the tornado piqued her interest in weather.

“Grandma would send me clippings about Kansas tornadoes and weather, wherever we lived,” Fortin said.

She saw her first tornado in Kansas as a young girl one November as her family drove from Albuquerque to Topeka for Thanksgiving.

“I remember seeing it and I thought, ‘That was pretty cool,’ ” she said.

She discovered she had an aptitude for math and science, which was ideal for someone fascinated by weather because a meteorology curriculum is filled with math classes.

She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma. She went to work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1985, while still in college, and joined the weather service in 1990.

She has “moved up the ranks” in a career that includes stints in the Tulsa and Pleasant Hill branches of the weather service. Pleasant Hill serves the Kansas City metropolitan area.

When Dick Elder stepped down after 20 years in charge of the Wichita branch, Fortin said she was immediately interested in the opportunity.

Wichita has a strong reputation nationally among weather service branches, she said, and she could see why in a couple of recent visits — including one last summer for a conference that included the National Weather Association and the American Meteorological Society.

“I was just really impressed by the expertise and knowledge and just the organization of the conference and the attendance,” Fortin said. “There’s a really good dynamic here, an enthusiastic bunch of people.”

The work

She officially took office on April 24, but stepped in to assist in the field surveys following the April 14 tornado outbreak.

“It makes it easy when you’ve got people who do such great work,” Fortin said. “I just have to do the administrative part and they just do their job.”

There have been two recent examples of the forecasters’ exemplary work, she said: the outbreak on April 14 that saw a strong tornado strike Oaklawn and parts of south Wichita, and a smaller outbreak west and south of Wichita on May 19.

Despite a large tornado striking the metropolitan area, there were no deaths or serious injuries. People heeded the effective warnings issued by the weather service and took shelter, she said.

The outbreak earlier this month was “a very complex weather situation – very complex,” she said.

The storms that produced the tornadoes were not classic supercell thunderstorms, weather officials have said. As a result, forecasters were saying early in the event, any tornadoes that touched down would be weak and short-lived.

Indeed, many of the early tornadoes that Saturday didn’t stay on the ground long. But storms in Harper and southern Kingman counties intensified and produced two damaging tornadoes that were later rated EF-3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, meaning they had winds of between 136 and 165 miles an hour.

“They quickly adapted ... and did again just outstanding service during a challenging situation,” Fortin said.

How to improve

She is taking time to step back and look at opportunities to improve services and adapt to new technologies as more people rely on social media and mobile platforms to receive their weather information.

“It’s hard to change things when they’re working so well,” she said. “What things can we do to even provide better services for the public, to integrate technology and how we present information? That’s the very short-term goal.”

Fortin said she’s looking to see whether there are ways the agency can improve services for Mid-Continent Airport.

“There are some services that we could possibly provide that would allow them to improve and streamline their operations,” she said.

There’s “a lot of potential” in providing weather information for industries that have a strong presence in the Wichita area, such as agriculture, aviation and energy production, she said.

“I see a lot of things we could do,” Fortin said. “We serve the public. We can’t go out and serve business ... but if we provide good forecasting services, enhancing what we do,” it can help people in various industries make informed decisions.

Fortin said she’s also eager to nurture interest in math and science among children.

“I enjoy working with children,” she said, particularly helping them discover that science can be fun.

Science isn’t just something you do in the classroom or laboratory, she said, and meteorology is a perfect example of that.

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