The Weatherman's Weatherman

The National Weather Service inspires bureaucratic images of temperatures and pressures broadcast in endless monotone, of fluorescent-lighted rooms teeming with beak-nosed grayhairs wearing glasses with lenses thick as Coke bottles. Clunky, institutional furniture, tables that hold banks of telephones, printers whining their dot matrixes across pages and pages of charts, maps, and more maps. People peering intently into boxy, outdated computer screens, oblivious while the storm outside rages.

But Noel T. Risnychok, a Weather Service specialist, doesn't fit the image. He comes to work at the office on South Dixie Highway wearing jeans, a khaki shirt, and black Keds. A thickset ex-Marine Corps sergeant and an eighteen-year Weather Service veteran, Risnychok is one of the Coral Gables unit's seven public-service staff members who monitor radar and detect potential storms within a 250-mile radius. He and his colleagues also have the task of broadcasting reports of climate conditions from the Service's radio booth and handling the tidal wave of telephone demands from local - and not-so-local - radio and television stations, newspapers, fishermen, farmers, hypochondriacs, and paranoids. Reclining in a high-backed swivel chair with his feet up on the radar room's battered old desk, Risnychok answers his phone with a contradiction: "Miami weather."

Although he mans the phones and regularly sends out statistical summaries, Risnychok's primary task is storm detection, scoping actual activity on the radar equipment. WSR-57, a hulking console of hardware, vintage 1957, was installed in 1962, according to Risnychok, the second NWS radar ever put on-line.

With a scope of 250 miles, each NWS radar station, whose imagery appears daily in computer-enhanced form on local television weather reports, overlaps its neighbor by 125 miles, assuring that power or equipment failures rarely affect the composite picture provided by a network that monitors the nation. After eighteen years spent staring, Risnychok is able to read radar without closing the office door, shutting out all extraneous light. From the weak greenish echoes of the radar screen's twelve-inch, 360-degree arc, he can point out what's ground clutter and what's not, that a line a few inches to the west running the vertical equivalent of several miles is a stand of Australian pines. That a fly-size smear of light is an airplane, and an irregular blip up near what he says is West Palm Beach isn't rain at all, it's "chaff," deployed by the military minds at Homestead Air Force Base. "Chaff," Risnychok explains, "looks a lot like a line of showers looks. Weathermen sometimes point to it when they do their reports and call it rain. I've seen them do it lots of times." But it's actually wisps of plastic polymer, he says, released into the atmosphere to cross up radar, most likely as a training exercise for Air Force personnel.

Except for peak panic times during hurricane season, the atmosphere inside the NWS office is a lot like the atmosphere outside. "We're graced with pretty stable weather," says Risnychok. "This is a subtropical zone, and that's why people gravitate here - because of the weather." But when changes are subtle, he adds, they can be difficult to forecast. "What is it they say about war?" Risnychok asks, searching for a metaphor to describe local weather work. "Long, long periods of stability interrupted by moments of instability. It's a laid-back group here, but the minute something happens, they all turn on their professional mode and get to work."

Risnychok, who grew up in Philadelphia, never intended to make a career of meteorology. After working in a factory, manufacturing medical instruments, he was studying tool design at the Springarden Institute of Technology in Philadelphia. When the draft became an inevitability, he joined the Marines. "On the application, under `Skills,' I put `metallurgy,' and they must have read it wrong." After taking the government's offer to send him to meteorology school, Risnychok lasted "about four days" in Vietnam, then spent the rest of his tour in Japan.

After he returned stateside, he says, he was a beneficiary of the U.S. government's interest in hiring veterans. "I was in Miami, visiting relatives, and they were recruiting me to work for the weather service. I was on vacation, but I was running out of money. I said I'd take the job; I figured I'd work for a few months and make enough to get back up north. I'm still here."

Eighteen years, though, is about enough, he says, and as soon as he sells his house in Kendall, Risnychok plans to move to rural North Carolina, where he's building a house. "I've applied for the best job in the Weather Service," he says, "driving around North and South Carolina, handing out rain gauges to farmers, getting them to be co-op meteorologists." If he got the transfer, he'd earn the same salary he does now, about $42,000, but he says he doesn't care whether it comes through or not; he's ready to quit. "I looked into weathercasting - Dr. Neil Frank left here to take a job in Houston, going from about $50,000 here to $270,000 there - but I just can't see doing it. Unless it was somewhere I knew absolutely no one in the audience. A long time ago I learned that I'm just not the type of person who wants to be on television or speak in front of a lot of people. We do a lot of speaking in schools and other places, on severe-storm awareness and stuff like that, and I do it out of a sense of duty, but also as practice."

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