National Weather Service: The crew behind the radar
By Phil Schreck
Since the early ‘90s, it's become a familiar sight on North Minnesota Avenue near Joe Foss Field, the "soccer-ball" looking Doppler radar dome and the brick-covered National Weather Service Office.
But inside the building are some maybe not-as-familiar folks who have had an impact on most of our lives for a very long time. Guys like Joe Sheehan who is now in his 27th year of forecasting in Sioux Falls. Then there's Richard Ryrholm who recently retired after 30 years of service to our area. Meteorologist Todd Heitkamp started working here in 1994 and Greg Harmon, who interned here in the mid-70s, came back in 1990 and spent the next 20 years as the office's Meteorologist in charge.
You can bet that, in the National Weather Service, it's not the norm to have so many people in the same place for so long.
"Yes, it's fairly unusual to have an office as stable as this one," former meteorologist Greg Harmon said. "Everyone enjoys the weather challenges and each other, and I think that's what kept people here."
"The National Weather Service is not too different from the military. Three to four years and then you move on. But when people find out what Sioux Falls is like they usually stick around for a while," Warning Coordination Meteorologist Todd Heitkamp said.
Our constantly changing weather was a huge reason Richard Ryrholm stayed here for three decades.
"I like the variety of weather here. I had chances to transfer, but I wasn't too keen on moving after a certain time," said Ryrholm, who has lived in Sioux Falls for 30 years.
Richard says the thing he misses the most now is working during storm situations and the last big one he worked was the Christmas blizzard of 2009. But, for Heitkamp, who's approaching 20 years in the Sioux Falls office, it's the "Tornado Tuesday" outbreak in June of 2003 that remains top of mind.
"I remember calling my wife several times during that night because we thought tornadoes were moving toward Sioux Falls. I told her ‘I hope I see you in the morning and everything will be the same. It could have been a lot different and that will stick out in my mind for a long time,'" Heitkamp said.
Despite the record number of 67 tornadoes we had in South Dakota that day, there were very few injuries and no deaths. A big reason for that was the cooperation between the long-time severe weather experts at the National Weather Service and those of us in the media.
And, that tradition will continue because the forecasters who haven't been in our community quite as long follow in the footsteps from those who have.
"One of the keys is to learn from others that have been here a long time. We had a good mix of younger people and older, stable staff. And, you can learn a lot from those who have been here a long time," Harmon said.
And we surely can't forget about administrative assistant Diane Rinehart who has held this office together since 1998. In fact, Diane is only the second administrative assistant the local office has had in 42 years! From 1998 to 2010 the five member management team at the Sioux Falls National Weather Service office was the longest tenured management team in the country with 300 years of combined forecasting experience in our area.
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