Doppler radar stations, such as the one at North Webster, are key in tracking nighttime tornadoes
Meteorologist Mike Sabones says having a weather station in North Webster with Doppler radar technology might have been the difference between life and death five years ago for folks in Nappanee.
Fifteen years ago, area meteorologists lobbied the federal government to open a weather station in north central Indiana, claiming parts of the region were not sufficiently covered in the event of a severe weather activity.
Prior to the North Webster station, which opened in 1998, monitoring of severe weather came from National Weather Service offices in Chicago, Sabones said.
Forecasters in Chicago would have done a fine job, Sabones said, but there is more of a challenge when covering a distant area because of the curve of the earth makes is more difficult to see low level activity in storms, especially circulation patterns.
But on Oct. 18, 2007, the North Webster office, equipped with Doppler radar technology, was just 18 miles away when the Nappanee tornado ripped through the city.
Even though the EF3 tornado destroyed or damaged several hundred homes and businesses, nobody died.
“Having the Doppler radar technology was huge,” Sabones said. “If we did not have the Doppler radar technology, we would have never had the warnings out in time to give people time to take shelter and take action that I'm sure saved lives.”
The fact it hit after 10 p.m. meant the weather service could not rely on the traditional weather spotters who verify and track a tornado's movement.
The Nappanee storm is remembered by many as the tornado nobody saw.
According to Nappanee Mayor Larry Thompson, he doesn't know of anyone who actually claimed to have seen it.
Without spotters, the weather service had to rely on technology alone.
“Nighttime tornadoes are a challenge because you can't see them coming and it makes it hard. That's where having an effective warning becomes really, really important,” Sabones said.
The North Webster office serves an area stretching from Benton Harbor, Mich., to Lima, Ohio.
The biggest tornado tracked by the North Webster office was 10 years ago when a massive EF4 twister traveled more than 50 miles and passed through Van Wert, Ohio, southeast of Fort Wayne.
The storm killed four people, but could have easily killed hundreds, Sabones said.
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Find all these stories and more, including past coverage of the tornado, on our Nappanee Tornado: Five years later page.