ST. LOUIS (AP) — Tasked with publicly sounding the alarm when violent weather is imminent in the region, the National Weather Service crew in suburban St. Louis isn't immune from making the uncommon and agonizing decision to abandon the front lines of storm tracking and scramble for safety.
As severe weather rumbled through Friday night, meteorologists — including 46-year-old Mark Britt — noticed the radar showed a storm's tight rotation perilously close to their office in Weldon Spring, west of St. Louis.
The roughly 10 workers opted to bolt for a copy room with reinforced walls and hunker down, marking the first time in two decades that staffers chose to make a hasty retreat from their high-tech weather-watching tools, Britt said Saturday from the office that covers much of eastern Missouri and St. Louis' Illinois suburbs.
"We recognized immediately it was going to be an imminent threat," he said. "Since we were in the safe room, I wasn't overly worried. When we go in there, we know we're safe."
Leaving nothing to chance, the weather service has built-in redundancies for such an event: The Weldon Spring crew called upon their Kansas City-area colleagues to monitor the area and issue any public warnings for the region, Britt said. That proved "pretty seamless," Britt said, noting that severe weather alerts were issued while the St. Louis crew took cover.
Once clear of danger, "we knew we had to get back and do our job," Britt said from the office that ultimately escaped harm. "We had some damage close to the office, so it was pretty wise we took shelter."
Weather service crews on Saturday confirmed that the storm was nothing to mess with, classifying the damage as the work of an EF3 tornado, which has winds between 136 and 165 mph. No one was seriously injured.
The weather service post has had close calls before, most notably during what locals call "The Good Friday Tornado" of April 2011. That EF4 twister was the area's most powerful tornado in 44 years, packing winds of up to 200 mph that damaged or destroying hundreds of homes and pummeled Lambert International Airport.
"We almost took cover then, but we decided not to," Jayson Gosselin, Britt's fellow meteorologist, said of the 2011 storm, which came within a few miles of their office.
No one died in that tornado, and officials credited the local weather service with providing ample warning — more than a half-hour's worth — about the storm's approach, prompting warning sirens to blare at the airport where security officers and other workers herded people to stairwells and bathrooms.
"The bottom line is the 34-minute warning and the heeding of that warning by the citizens has saved countless lives," Gov. Jay Nixon said afterward.