Sunday, February 1, 2009

"25 years ago..."


It all started in the Fall of 1986. I along with a few friends my high school created the "Conestoga Weather Service." I had been practicing TV weather forecasts with our school studio and district news cable program, T/E TV News. (That's Tredyffrin/Easttown School District in Berwyn, PA). Starting that January, we began preparing forecasts for the morning announcements. On Wednesday, January 21, 1987.. a weather forecast changed my life.

My friend Chris and I met in the library each day before school from about 6:45 to 7:30, and typed our forecast. We also had a unique little computer program I ordered seen in a magazine. It was contained on a 5 1/4" floppy disk program, and inserted into an IBM PC 2 with a whopping 30 meg of memory. We plugged in just standard observations from that morning taken from ABC'S "Action News" on Channel 6 and The Weather Channel, then still in it's infancy. I'll never forget what happened next.

The computer whirred and churned for a minute or so, then began spitting out the 3-day forecast on the glacially slow dot-matrix printer. For the Philadelphia area the following day, it said: "heavy snow, windy and cooler." My friend and I were stunned and amazed. We quickly checked the daily newspapers for any evidence of this. We listened to NOAA weather radio, and he ran back to the TV studio to check The Weather Channel. Nothing. Even Accu-Weather's forecast for the following day was "Partly Cloudy, high of 40." Time was running out, as the 7:25 bell had rung and we needed to finish the forecast, print it, and get to the main office in time for the announcements. Chris and I said to each other, "How do we explain this to people who will ask us why?"  We decided the real answer was simply that a giant Arctic high would nose in to the area right before the storm strikes, and other agencies were not picking up on this.

I grabbed a file of NWS pamphlets on Winter Storms. As my friend Chris typed, I read their description of heavy snow: "4 or more inches in a 12-hour period." So it was settled. That Wednesday in January 1987, as a Junior in high school, I went on the air with 1,400 listeners, and announced a forecast that probably remains the most memorable one of my life: "...and for Thursday: 6 to 12 inches of snow, windy and much colder." The entire school was electrified the rest of the day, and the administration was not pleased in the slightest. I'll never forget the shocked expression on our AP's face as soon as I handed him back the microphone.

Thursday morning, right on schedule, the snow began. Most schools had learned of the impending storm overnight, and closed on the first sign of snow. We were closed again Friday. The total accumulation at my house in Paoli, PA: Fourteen wonderful inches. A second snowstorm (a Miller B for you powderhounds) developed on the heels of that one  and smacked the Mid-Atlantic again Sunday night, closing schools on  MONDAY. Well, you can imagine what happened when Chris and I got finally back to school. 

Thus began this weather forecasting adventure that led to an internship at the Philadelphia National Weather Service (before it moved to Mount Holly, NJ), acceptance to Penn State in where I worked the 5AM Monday shift at the PSU Campus Weather Service, teaching Weather Merit Badge at Boy Scout camps, writing articles for PSU student newspapers and gaining Science Teacher Certification in 1999 from West Chester University. A June 2001 phone call changed everything. A Dr. Kim Stephanic of  "Dundalk High School" said in the voicemail message: "I'm trying to contact Rich Foot, I have a one-year old resume here but was wondering if you would like to come down for an interview..."  

And here we are.

# 2 - FEBRUARY 2003 
THE PRESIDENT'S DAY STORM 2003  FORECAST. Two years later, at Dundalk High School, a fellow science teacher asked me if our class would be preparing a  snowfall forecast for President's Weekend. I was reluctant, but knew the liquid equivalents were tremendous, so I put the student to the task. To this day, there are still countless  witnesses in Baltimore County, MD to that impromptu request, the  forecast and the results. Some of them are still employees in the Baltimore County school system and could attest to what was said and posted that historical day. So what DID we say?

On Thursday, February 13, 2003, my 10th grade Earth Science classes and I settled on 18-24" of snow for Baltimore by Monday. Observed by 2/17/2003 in Dundalk was 24" exactly, with 28.2" at BWI airport. Even if NOAA and the NWS revise those numbers downward in the 10-year climate data reanalysis, hard to argue with history.

# 3 - SEPTEMBER 2003 
 HURRICANE ISABEL: ORIGIN OF THE FIRST "FOOT'S  FORECAST" WHICH BECAME A LIFE LESSON.  The details of this story, and the February 2003 storm are related in a PowerPoint which we will post via a link in this section. A preview: Many coastal dwellers in the Mid-Atlantic, who had survived or heard tales of previous tropical cyclone impacts on the East coast, knew that someday, "the one" would take aim again. My family had a small and quaint cottage on the Elk River in Cecil County, and the property had been in the Foot name since 1934. On Saturday, September 12, 2003 we randomly turned on The Weather Channel, and saw a giant orange ball in the Atlantic  that was then Category 5 Isabel. I called my Aunt at the cottage and said, "We're coming up tomorrow to take pictures...because this is 'The One.' "   Stay tuned for the powerpoint...

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