In a room full of more than two dozen computer screens and radar readouts, the National Weather Service's Little Rock bureau has worked around the clock to predict and respond to Arkansas River flooding.
The office, located close to the North Little Rock Municipal Airport on a small hill, is a crowded building where 15 people keep a 24-hour watch on weather in and around central Arkansas. One screen in the building's main room shows the office's highest-priority weather events.
For nearly three weeks, the screen has shown the same alert: major flooding on the Arkansas River.
"The duration, I think, is one of the things that really sets floodings apart," forecaster Jeff Hood said Saturday. "You're always worried about different issues throughout a weather event, but when it's a tornado, it's maybe a few hours. This has been weeks."
The weather service has had to keep in constant communication with local emergency management officials and check in with sheriff's offices across the state to keep an eye on levees and water levels while gathering weather data from radar, satellites and more than 100 storm-spotter volunteers.
All the while, the office must continue to perform its basic operations and forecast weather for the state.
"You have to manage the workload while keeping our normal responsibilities intact," Hood said.
The Little Rock bureau is in charge of forecasting and issuing weather alerts for 47 of Arkansas' 75 counties, though Hood said it often receives calls from all parts of the state.
"When people hear Little Rock National Weather Service office, they believe we cover all of Arkansas," Hood said. "So we familiarize ourselves with pretty much all of the state, even what's out of our coverage area."
For the past few weeks, the National Weather Service has also sent a representative to the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management's daily hazardous-weather briefing, where the weather service updated state officials on the latest river stages and weather outlooks. There, too, the officials had to be prepared to answer questions about all parts of the state, Hood said.
Days in the National Weather Service office start early. At 5 a.m., forecasters who have been in the office since 11 p.m. the night before prepare for a weather balloon's daily 6 a.m. flight.
Each of the 122 National Weather Service offices in the country -- and multiple international weather services -- sail their weather balloons at a synchronized time to gather temperature, wind, moisture and air-pressure data, National Weather Service science and operations officer Christopher C. Buonanno said.
There are seven stations in the building's main office, each with four or five computer screens showing different raw data and predictions. At least two people are manning the call desks at any given time, and at each shift change -- 6 a.m., 3 p.m. and 11 p.m. -- the outgoing crew briefs the incoming forecasters to keep everyone on the same page. During a severe weather event, however, the number of people working the desk rises.
"I liken it to an emergency room," Buonanno said. "We have everything set up to where we can get the most accurate information as quickly as possible and, if necessary, start alerting people."
As the Lollie Levee near Conway began to deteriorate and threatened to burst last week, the National Weather Service team put together a flash flood alert that was ready to go with the click of a button, Buonanno said.
"You know our real goal is the safety of the public," Buonanno said. "That's what we're here for."
Buonanno described the National Weather Service's role in predicting flood conditions as being a "supporting partner."
"We're never going to tell you to evacuate or what you should do," Buonanno said. "We're not a law enforcement agency. We're going to give you the information you need to make an informed decision. That's all we can do."
When Buonanno first arrived at the bureau, the radar outputs and satellite images the office uses for forecasting each had their own machines. As technology has advanced, Buonanno said, everything a forecaster needs has become easily accessible from a desktop computer.
"We can notify people so much faster now, too," Buonanno said. "It's really helped us deliver information much more efficiently."
The flip side of that ease of access, Hood said, is that people can also receive misinformation much easier than before.
"Social media is great for us because we can get information out quickly, but it's so easy to look like a professional online when you really have no idea what you're talking about," Hood said. "We try to get you the information as soon as we get it, or you're going to go looking somewhere else."
Many forecasters -- like Buonanno -- work in multiple offices around the country throughout their careers. Buonanno grew up in Connecticut and worked in the Missouri, Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma National Weather Service bureaus before settling in 2001 in North Little Rock.
Rarely do forecasters get to work in their home states, but Hood said he was just lucky. Hood grew up in Mabelvale in Saline County, just south of Little Rock.
"My wife and our three kids, we're very close to grandparents, and that's really nice," Hood said. "It's rare. I think the Little Rock National Weather Service is really unique in that we actually do have a few local people."
Though Buonanno's accent remains northern, he feels at home in Arkansas after 18 years here, he said. The job is naturally volatile and presents a new puzzle every day, but Buonanno said he appreciates that facet of the work.
"This is a very challenging area to forecast due to the landscape," Buonanno said. "The amount of severe weather we have here is also a challenge, but it's a learning experience every day."
Metro on 06/10/2019
Print Headline: Flooding keeps weather service busy