As the 20-foot radio antenna sitting above the Carter County Annex Building whips in the 40-mile-per-hour wind, Carter County Emergency Management Director Paul Tucker takes a seat in his captain chair, the epicenter of the war room as it’s called, eyeing the bright splotches of pink, white, red and green on the radar, ready at any moment to engage the sirens.
As the storm brews, spotters trickle in waiting for their marching orders. Some are ordered to their post, another makes coffee. One woman works the radios relaying the information from Paul, who’s keeping a vigilant eye on the storm.
After a puff from his vapor cigarette, and a sip of decaffeinated coffee, Tucker settles into his position as the quarterback of the storm spotting team.
It’s 8:30 p.m. and, for now, just a wind and heavy rain event.
But with each passing minute, his team valiantly rides out to face the storm, searching for funnels in the horizon. Meanwhile at home base, Tucker sits and clicks, reacting to the symphony of beeps, dings, and buzzers sending him on-the-fly information as the storm passes up through north Texas and into southern Oklahoma.
“It can be very stressful,” Tucker said. “But I wouldn’t be able to do it without the help of all these volunteers that we have.”
The volunteers in the war room are men and women of various ages, but all born from a similar ilk.
“For us, a tornado siren is a sure cue to get out on the porch and bust out a lawn chair,” one spotter joked.
These spotters, all working on a volunteer basis, are self-diagnosed adrenaline junkies who get their fix from severe weather while also helping keep their communities informed and, most importantly, their families safe.
Some spotters leave wives and children in the war room after they’re ‘activated’. It’s a safe place to be.
One spotter, Chris Haythorn, left home with an emergency bag packed just in case.
“When you get the call from Paul, you go,” he said. “I go to work.”
Haythorn has seen some hairy situations in his six years of spotting. It’s nothing new. Haythorn started out as a volunteer firefighter before getting into volunteer storm spotting.
He said though they’re all adrenaline junkies, no spotter is reckless. They have a job and they do it.
“If a ‘nader comes, if it starts flooding, if trees start coming up or if a telephone pole lays across the road, we got a backup plan,” he said. “I’m not chasing storms I’m spotting them, calling it in and getting out of Dodge.”
Tucker has earned his stripes when it comes to leading Haythorn and the team of volunteer spotters.
He got the job after years of spotting himself, starting in the year 2000.
After nine years driving out to the leading, and sometimes bleeding, edge of the storm, Tucker got the job as Director of Emergency Management in Carter County.
“I applied and got the gig,” he said. “It’s where I’ve been ever since.”
Though caffeine and nicotine help, Tucker uses humor to cut through the stress of the moment. Everyone in the war room cracks wise, but with each beep and alert, when Paul says, ‘Norman’s blowing sirens’ the laughter stops and their eyes are quick to focus on the next course of action.
“We have a serious job, but If you can’t joke about stuff when you’re working, God help us all,” Tucker said.
As of 9:30 p.m. Wednesday night the Director of the Carter County Emergency Services is met with relief — just rain and 80-mile per hour winds for now.
“It’s dangerous,” he said. “But it’s not a tornado.”
The storm won’t be over until the wee hours of the morning, and Tucker and the spotters will be on the watch. Hoping for the best, but ready for the worst.