By Michael W. Sasser
It isn't that KOCO 5 Chief Meteorologist Damon Lane didn't know that the friendly bedroom community of Moore, Oklahoma had a tragic history with tornados. On the contrary, the acclaimed weather expert and uncanny prognosticator was well aware of the town's history, even years ago while still in his native Virginia.
"Moore has been hit many times," Lane said. "The first time it was hit hard was May 3, 1999. I was back in Virginia at the time, and only knew Moore from the news reports. When I moved here, my realtor said that, for what I was looking for in a house, I should consider Moore. I thought to myself that an F-5 can't hit the same place twice."
Then, in 2013, came the tornado that devastated the small hamlet outside of Oklahoma City. When the storm struck, Lane wasn't in his home; instead, he was reporting on the storm as it happened. Meanwhile, his wife was home in Moore, having hurried home on Lane's recommendation.
"We had just gotten married, and my wife didn't have a key to the house yet," he said. "She had been going in and out of the garage door. Well, she just got home on time that day, because the power went off as soon as she walked in, and if she had not already gotten inside, she would have been stuck in the garage."
Instead of being exposed in the garage, Lane's wife, Melissa, made it into the family's tornado shelter even as the house was damaged and community was ravaged. Meanwhile, Lane continued on the air, bringing images that by now are indelibly carved in the memories of many Oklahomans.
"A lot of it was a blur," Lane recalls. "At first I didn't look at Moore getting hit differently than any other town. I had a job to do. I knew my wife was safe in the shelter, so I felt okay about that. The whole thing didn't hit me until I was driving home. Driving through town, I saw whole neighborhoods I had never noticed before because they had been tucked behind buildings that weren't there anymore. That's really when it hit me."
The enormity of what happened struck Lane again a year later when making a presentation at Ohio State University. As he showed participants images from the tornado of 2013, he felt his heart beating rapidly.
"I don't think I had really thought about it like that until then," he said.
Neither the storm nor the nexus of Lane's personal and professional lives diminished his enthusiasm for his adopted hometown.
"The house was hit hard, but I love my hometown, and I was not going to let a tornado ruin that."
If Lane has developed a strong bond with Moore, Greater Oklahoma City and the entire state, Oklahoma has also embraced the sincere meteorologist. Lane and the KOCO 5 First ALERT Weather team are certified as delivering the most accurate forecast in Oklahoma City by WeatheRate, an independent scientific organization that measures accuracy in weather forecasts across the country. Key components might be Lane's uncanny accuracy, finely honed instincts and distinct credentials. Lane is the only Chief Meteorologist in Oklahoma City who holds a degree in Atmospheric Sciences/Meteorology. He is also the only Chief Meteorologist in Oklahoma City to hold the CBM seal of approval from The American Meteorological Society, the highest-level certification from the nation’s top association for broadcast meteorologists.
Still, Lane said accuracy is as much art and instinct as it is science.
"A lot of the things you learn in school break down and don't work out here," Lane said. "I learned that years ago. For the first year I was out here, I decided I would just observe patterns and then apply what I learned from that in the future. That truly helped, and now I can look at patterns and trends and almost be certain. There is no 100 percent accuracy, but I have learned pretty well what to look for. The big storms that roll in are fairly easy to predict. However, the smaller ones that just pop up and can become very dangerous seemingly out of nowhere – those are more difficult. The weather here is much different than it was back East."
Lane was born and raised in Northern Virginia. He was drawn to science and weather from a young age, and holds two Bachelor of Science degrees. After graduating in less than four years in Communications/Mass Media from Old Dominion University, Lane moved to Asheville, N.C., and earned his second Bachelor of Science degree in Atmospheric Sciences/Meteorology from The University of North Carolina at Asheville. Previously, Lane served as Chief Meteorologist at KTXS-TV in Abilene, Texas, forecasting severe weather on the southern edge of “Tornado Alley.” While there, he was named “Abilene’s Favorite Meteorologist” three years in a row.
Although it was the science of weather that appealed to Lane as opposed to the broadcasting component, he has nevertheless adapted to the particular role that meteorologists often play in Oklahoma culture.
"People say meteorologists are rock stars here," Lane said. "Since the Thunder came to Oklahoma City, if you are a Thunder player or a meteorologist, people know you wherever you go!
"I know it is part of the job," Lane continued. "I love broadcast meteorology. I love putting a story together, and I love talking. To me, it is very gratifying when someone stops me and wants to tell me their story. It's part of the story. You have to listen, and I enjoy it. You have to have a heart. Whenever we have interns come in, I tell them that 70 percent of the job is behind the scenes. It really takes a lot of heart. You are in people's homes every night. You're the person telling people that there is a storm about to hit their neighborhood. People develop relationships with you through their TVs. So, when they see you, they feel they know you even if you don't know them at all. You get used to it. You have to always be prepared to talk, to listen and to be there. In this part of the country, that means a lot. On the East coast, people just want to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, and often they keep their heads down along the way. Here, the pace is slower, which is nice. People stop and want to talk. It's part of the culture."
Still, being beamed into people's homes with critical information is a tremendous responsibility, even if broadcast meteorology is changing with the advent of technology.
"The industry is changing, basically because of cell phones," Lane said. "It is not so much forecasting now as 'impact forecasting.' Just a weather forecast from your phone might give you basic details, but it does not tell you how to handle the weather situation. Now, we give more advice on the severity of weather, preparing for it, etc."
It isn't always the big picture responsibility that can weigh on a meteorologist.
"Last year was pretty quiet in terms of weather," Lane said. "But one Tuesday afternoon, I got an email from a woman who was getting married on Saturday. The wedding was supposed to be outside, so she wanted to check the forecast certainty. That was the most stressful forecast I gave all year. It was complicated, so I asked her to call me."
Lane said that on that Thursday, he called the woman and advised her that Saturday's rain would probably be clearing just about the time the wedding would be starting. The happy couple opted for indoors and, sure enough, the rain stopped just when Lane had suggested it would: disaster averted.
"That was stressful, being responsible for someone's big day," Lane said.
When he first arrived in Oklahoma City, Lane did not know how long he would be in the state.
"When I came here in 2009, I was doing weekend morning weather, and was the fifth person on the team," he said. "I had no idea how long I would be in Oklahoma City, but a position opened up ahead of me and I moved up."
Lane and Oklahoma appear a good match. He and Melissa love to hike in the summer and snow ski in the winter, as well as travel. Lane also loves aviation, which he once pondered as a career, and one day might get back to training as a pilot in one of the nation's great private aviation states.
Today, Lane is firmly rooted in Oklahoma. In early February, the couple welcomed their first child into the family, which already includes two rescued dogs.
"Now that I am Chief Meteorologist, I love it here," Lane said. "I'd love to build on my career and retire here. I never want to be in a Los Angeles or a San Francisco or some place like that. This is the weather center of the country. For a meteorologist, there is no better place to be."
Tornado Preparation Tips
The City of Oklahoma City provides a handy tornado Q&A, basic facts and advice online at its website, www.okc.gov.
Key tips for preparing a household for tornado season include:
* If you have a tornado shelter, make sure to register it with the city.
* Have regular tornado drills with the entire household. Designate an area in your home as a shelter, and have your family regularly practice going there as if there were a tornado. Make sure your family knows the difference between a "tornado watch" and a "tornado warning."
* Have emergency items always on hand. These should include: flashlight and extra batteries, portable battery powered radio with extra batteries, first aid kit and manual, emergency food and water, non-electric can opener, essential medicines, cash and credit cards, sturdy shoes, keys to all vehicles, personal identification, and a camera with multiple rolls of film for documenting damage.
* Develop an emergency communications plan. Have a plan for getting back together in case family members are separated from one another during a tornado. Ask an out-of-state relative or friend to act as the family contact. After a disaster, it's often easier to call long distance. Make sure everyone in the family knows the name, address and phone number of the contact person.
During the storm:
* If you are at home, go to the basement, storm cellar, or the lowest level of the building. If there is no basement, go to an inner hallway or a small inner room WITHOUT WINDOWS, such as a bathroom or closet. Get away from windows. Go to the center of the room. Stay away from corners because they tend to attract debris. Get under a piece of sturdy furniture such as a workbench or heavy table and hold on to it. Use your arms to protect your head and neck.
* If you are at work or school, go to the basement or to an inside hallway at the lowest level. Avoid places with wide-span roofs such as auditoriums, cafeterias, large hallways, or shopping malls. Get under a piece of furniture such as a heavy table or desk and hold on to it. Use your arms to protect your head and neck.
* If you are outdoors, if possible, go inside a building. If shelter is not available or there is no time to go indoors, lie in a ditch or low-lying area or crouch near a strong building. Be aware of the potential for flooding. Use your arms to protect your head and neck.
* If you are in a car, get out of the car immediately and take shelter in a nearby building. Never try to outdrive a tornado. Tornadoes can change direction quickly, and can lift up a car or truck and toss it through the air. If there is no time to get indoors, get out of the car and lie in a ditch or low-lying area away from the vehicle. Be aware of the potential for flooding. Do not take cover under a bridge!
* If you are in a mobile home, take shelter in a building with a strong foundation. If shelter is not available, lie in a ditch or low-lying area a safe distance away from the unit.