By Trevor Bach
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By Michael E. Miller
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By David Villano
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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 People peering intently into boxy, outdated computer screens, oblivious while the storm outside rages.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."
As it does every few minutes, the phone rings, a continual punctuation to activity in the office. "Every day the Sun-Sentinel calls, wanting to know the records, or the St. Pete Times," says Risnychok. "Every day at around the same time, they'll say their machine went down and they need to know something." He says he's got nothing against TV weathercasters, and he realizes that the Weather Service has access to a great deal more resources than would otherwise be available. "The ones we like are the ones who only come to us when they need us," he says, "not the ones who call us every day because they don't know what they're talking about."
The telephone number, 665-0429, is listed in Southern Bell's white pages, under "U.S. Government, Commerce, Department of, Travelers and Other Weather Information 24 Hours." Anyone with access to a phone can call anytime from anyplace and talk about the weather with a real live human being.
Not every city's National Weather Service is within such easy reach. "I've got a guy calling from Louisiana, wanting to know the water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico," says Risnychok. "It's easier to just give him the info he wants, if I have the time and can find it, rather than try to hunt down a number and a person he can call there - wherever he is. I think one of the reasons we get some strange calls is that we're one of the few places with a public-service staff." Half of the NWS's 72 staff members are forecasters who spend their time pondering data and fashioning climatological models, but this office is unique; because it doubles as the National Hurricane Center and attracts inquiries from across the U.S., the Coral Gables branch employs a corps of specialists to deal with the public.
"One of our biggest drags is when we get a call from the Herald - we know exactly what to expect. Some editor's said, `Gimme three inches on the weather.' I know, I talked to an editor over there once and he told me that when they get a rookie they put him on the obits or the weather. And so they call us."
Most of the calls he handles, though, are from "people who're going to Tampa for the weekend and they want to know what it's going to be like. It's kind of strange that they bother to call at all, because even if you tell them the weather's going to be bad, it doesn't change their minds about going." Other callers, equally predictable, are a little less ordinary. "We had an old lady who used to call, back in the Seventies. In those days we'd turn on the phones every morning at 7:30. You'd switch on the phone, and it would ring, and it would be her. `Temperature and humidity in North Miami Beach,' she'd say. Every day. For years. `Temperature and humidity in North Miami Beach.' One time I gave her an adverse forecast, for storms or something, and she said, `That's not what the man at Northwest Airlines told me.' I hung up and we called Northwest, and the guy there said, `Oh, Lucy. We've got a memo up on the board here that says we always have to give her good weather.' The guy said her husband called them and threatened to sue if they gave her a heart attack or something by telling her the weather was going to be bad. Then one day we turned on the phone at 7:30 and it didn't ring. Lucy never called again. We knew she'd died."
From a file drawer, Risnychok pulls a T-bone-thick sheaf of papers, communiques he's accumulated in the past two decades. A man named Emil with a penchant for pornography who's running for president of the world. Simplistic diagrams of machines guaranteed to dissipate hurricanes and save the world. And a ten-year case history in letter form, sent to Risnychok and his colleagues by a man in Arizona who claims to have a magnet in his head that gives him the ability to track felons and virgins around the globe.
"Why do they pick us? I don't know," says Risnychok. "There's this guy who calls - a lawyer. If the temperature drops below 40 degrees, he'll fly south. He starts to cry if it gets too cold. I guess it's a legitimate phobia. I've had him call, heard him actually sobbing on the phone. He'll go, `Noel, I gotta get out of here,' and he'll be crying." Risnychok pauses. "I haven't heard from him in a while," he says, "but the weather's been pretty good lately.