MARSHALL - More than 100 people, including members of law enforcement, area fire departments and emergency personnel, came to Southwest Minnesota State University's Charter Hall on Thursday night to watch videos that never should have been made.
The occasion was the annual storm spotters training presented by Todd Heitkamp, warning coordinator meteorologist with the Sioux Falls, S.D., office of the National Weather Service.
A number of the videos of tornadoes and severe storms were taken by amateurs with videocams who should have been seeking shelter instead, according to Heitkamp.
"We're coming off the worst disaster year in modern history," Heitkamp said. "I never thought I'd see more than 500 deaths in one year from tornadoes."
One video Heitkamp presented showed a tornado approaching a residence, recorded by a man on his porch 35 minutes after the warning sirens sounded. Heitkamp said the man with the camera's wife shouted, "basement" before the storm struck.
"He was at the top of the basement stairs when the house was destroyed," Heitkamp said.
The course was given to teach volunteer storm spotters how to recognize the kinds of weather patterns that produce tornadoes and severe storms, and how to stay out of their way when they do see them.
"We're not taught to be storm chasers, we make fun of them," said Tammy VanOverbeke, Lyon County emergency manager. "The more eyes on the ground, the safer our communities are going to be. In past years when we've had severe weather you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a spotter."
VanOverbeke said people who've gone through the training are given a telephone number only for spotters to report their observations.
"Or if you call 911 and you say, 'I'm a spotter,' you'll be given credence," VanOverbeke said.
Many of those taking the course were professional firefighters and first responders, though the course was open to the general public as well.
"This is my first time," said Naomi Sahlstrom, a first responder from Amiret. "I love it, it's part of my work as a first responder. I like the responsibility.
Heitkamp presented examples of "risk signals," the kind and shape of could formations that severe storms and tornadoes form in, how to recognize them, and how to tell which direction the storm is moving. But some of the most important information he presented was about what is not true about tornadoes.
"I want to wipe out any old wives' tales about tornadoes," Heitkamp said, "that they never cross rivers, they all look alike, they're all black. Not true, they all look different."
Though severe storms can be terrifying, one of the most dangerous things about them is people just will not heed the warnings, said Heitkamp. People warned too often without result become complacent, and the question of when, how soon, and how often to warn of the approach of severe weather is a hotly debated topic in weather expert circles.
"We know people don't respond to us," Heitkamp said. "You don't trust us, we know you don't. We're a government agency, how many of you trust the government? That's part of the issue. How many risk signals will it take before you respond? We don't know."