Eyes on the sky: An inside look at severe weather coverage in La Crosse region

National weather service and TV meteorologists work together keeping people weather aware
Eyes on the sky

LA CROSSE, Wis, (WKBT) – Some people are cleaning up damage from Tuesday night’s storms. It is severe weather season and there are people here at News 8 Now and the National Weather Service working to keep people safe.

Most of us know the feeling when we break a sweat from that sticky wet air. It’s one of the main ingredients of severe weather season.

“I take great pride in trying to forewarn people,” said Bill Graul, News 8 Now First Alert meteorologist.

National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Shea said they look at models in advance to figure out if severe systems are likely to happen.

“We usually will see it developing a day, two, sometimes several days out,” Shea said.

These scientists work to get complex information to the homes of people in the La Crosse region.

“We might issue an ‘Alert Day’ to kind of make people focus on that day and make sure their extra weather aware, pay extra close attention.”

The tristate area is not a hot spot for big weather events.

“It’s fairly uncommon to get a real strong Tornado but it’s not unheard of,” Graul said.

May 22, 2011, is a date many people will remember. The national weather service in La Crosse totaled six tornadoes in the area, including three EF2 tornadoes. Some producing winds of 120 miles per hour.

Wisconsin had 33 tornados in 2018. Southern counties average 1-2 tornado warnings and 5-10 severe thunderstorm warnings each per year.

“I get a call saying, ‘Can you get into the station? And the minute I stepped off the bed the lights went out,” said Cory Malles, News 8 Now chief meteorologist.

Even though it’s rare, the possibility keeps these people working during these months.

“We might have to work extra hours,” Graul said. “We might have to do extra graphics, put in extra time. But you know what that’s one of our main jobs.”

Malles is coming up on 28 years at WKBT.

“I know a thing or two,” he said. “I’ve blown a couple forecasts here and there.”

His team knows how tricky this science is.

“The atmosphere is fluid so that makes it difficult to predict what’s going to happen down the line,” Graul said.

Malles said storm data is gathered in a unique way.

“The way we get our data is weather balloons are sent up all over the world,” he said.

Those balloons don’t go up everywhere because 71 percent of the earth is water. There is land where there are no people.

“So you have an incomplete photograph,” Malles said.

The First Alert team still has enough to make accurate predictions.

“All of that data basically is fed into a supercomputer, several supercomputers, that basically give us a snapshot of what the atmosphere is doing right now.”

First Alert meteorologist Michelle Poedel said the challenge is figuring out the percentages in an eight-day forecast.

“There’s a lot of different layers to the atmosphere and what we are looking at is how those layers are going to change over the next several hours or the next several days.”

Which is why they issue alert days three days in advance.

“We don’t want to get too specific and we don’t want to alarm people when it might not be necessary,” Graul said.

The days where the atmosphere is obviously flexing its muscles means there’s no time to waste.

“We rely on the broadcast side of things to get that message out,” Shea said.

The lead time for tornado warnings is 13 minutes according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.   

“Unfortunately mother nature doesn’t work on a 9-5 schedule,” Graul said.

The energy in the weather center wraps up when a system moves into the area.

“Not only are we doing cut-ins as needed on the air but we’re also updating our social media platforms,” Malles said. “We’re updating our website, our News8000 app.”

Poedel said they have to process a lot of things at one time.

“There is a lot going on and we have to stay very focused,” she said.

The First Alert team works with the National Weather Service to make sense of everything happening at once.

“They work great with us relaying information that they get,” Poedel said.

The work they put in Graul said is vital so people know when it’s time to seek shelter.

“It’s our job to make sure that warning, that information gets out to as many people as possible,” he said.

People’s lives depend on what they know.

“And of course recently, flash flooding has been a huge concern,” Graul said. “Especially over the past 10-15 years or so.”

For those who don’t think severe weather affects them, consider Graul’s 20 plus years of weather forecasting.

“That could be just that you’re lucky,” Graul said. “You’re fortunate that it hasn’t happened in your neighborhood or your location just yet. Or maybe it means that you’re due. The weather affects everybody.”

All of these experts will say, after every event, there’s room to improve.

“I think a loss of life is the ultimate failure,” Shea said.

Malles said there is a little talent required to get a forecast right.

“Meteorology is about 80 percent science and about 20 percent art,” he said.

Sometimes an extra 60 seconds is all it takes to get people to a safe place.

“I think we always think of ways that we could have done it better,” Shea said.

People can download the News 8 Now First Alert Weather App on the Google Play and Apple App Store. There is also information from the National Weather Service in La Crosse.