From blizzards to tornadoes: 60 years of Kansas weather
The Storm Team 12 weather center is a silent contrast to the noisy newsroom a few yards away. Inside of one of the television studios at the station, bright monitors line the walls, tracking cloud and precipitation patterns that drift across Kansas. Day or night you can find Merril Teller, Ross Janssen, Mark Larson, Rodney Price or Dean Jones quietly studying maps and analyzing data.
But when the station first went on the air in 1953, like most TV stations, Channel 12 didn't have a meteorologist. "Back in the '50s you had weather readers”, said Storm Team 12 Meteorologist Merril Teller. Anchors would simply read the weather report as predicted by the National Weather Service. It wasn't until the late 1960's that stations began to hire people trained in weather science.
Cecil Carrier was the first meteorologist at Channel 12. But even when Teller came to the station in 1981, there were still no computers to create the forecast. "I had to go out to the National Weather Service office every day at noon before coming to the station," Teller said. "I had to look at their weather maps and create a forecast."
Graphics would be handmade on a paper map of Kansas using magic markers or colored pencils. Later, magnets that looked like warm or cold fronts were used on magnetic boards to show weather trends.
Radar initially gave meteorologists the ability to locate precipitation and see the intensity of the storm. But the breakthrough of Doppler radar in 1991was a huge jump forward, giving forecasters the ability to see wind and hail.
Weather science is serious business for those that live in Tornado Alley. "The main thing is to get the information right, so people that might be in danger are paying attention and taking cover," Teller said.
When asked about the worst storm he remembers, Teller immediately recalls the Andover tornadothat hit on April 26, 1991. The F5 twister was one of more than 30 tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest that day.
It started in southwest Sedgwick County near Clearwater and moved northeast. It damaged parts of Wichita, near McConnell and Andover, leaving 19 people in Kansas dead. "That was probably the worst day in my 30 plus years here because of the number of fatalities," Teller said.
Severe weather is one of the few live events that affect thousands of viewers at the same time. Some have criticized national news organizations for dramatizing weather but Teller says that local news is different.
"I think most of your TV meteorologists do a good job of not sensationalizing things," Teller said. "If you get on television and start making a whole big scene out of it, you don't want to scare people. You want them to listen and act."
Storm Team 12 Meteorologist Ross Janssen agrees that local weather is a more reliable source. In addition to critical live coverage by the weather team, KWCH's radar provides continuous updates and highly trained storm chasers help provide lifesaving information during severe weather.
"Radar can only tell a meteorologist so much about a storm," said Janssen. "But actual human eyes under the storm tell us exactly what is going on. Nothing will ever beat actual ground reports on what storms are producing."
The weather report leads the newscast during active weather, but Teller says on a normal day a meteorologist can loosen up and have fun too. Like having Janssen’s Corgi Millie the Weather dog on the set. Millie is so loved by viewers, people email and call the station asking to see more of her on the news.
But before Milllie, there was Weatherbee. "There were actually two of them over time,' Teller said. "This grey cat just showed up one day."
People at the station started feeding the cat and named it Weatherbee. The cat stuck around for several years but one day Weatherbee just disappeared. "We never knew what happened to it," Teller said. "Then about a year later, another cat that looked like the first one showed up." The new cat took over for the old Weatherbee and viewers didn't seem to mind.
Weather technology has changed dramatically since the 1950's but the way people get their information has changed too. Thousands of Kansans now get instant weather updates from the Storm Team 12 App and from KWCH.com.
Janssen says it’s hard to know how meteorology will change in the future but there will always be a need for local news and weather. Like it or not, Kansans know they will aways be in the path of some of the the most dangerous storms in the country.