Headed for more storms — PTC’s chief weatherman promoted to OK tornado lab
Peachtree City resident Lans Rothfusz is about to embark on a career move where he will help shape how the entire country gets its severe weather warnings.
In doing so, he will leave his position as meteorologist in charge of the Peachtree City National Weather Service office, commonly referred to as the Atlanta NWS office, which provides severe weather warnings to 96 counties in north Georgia.
But he is doing so in hopes that in working for the National Severe Storms Laboratory he can help find a way to diagnose the conditions that allow tornados to make contact with the ground.
New radar technology may be able to accomplish that goal, and if so it would help drastically improve the warnings given out by NWS offices across the United States, Rothfusz said in an interview Thursday.
His new title will be deputy chief of the warning research and development division of NSSL.
“It will be a major part of my job to make sure the best tools and the best warning techniques get to our field forecasters,” Rothfusz said.
Rothfusz is considered the co-founder of the StormReady program that is used by Fayette County and more than 1,900 jurisdictions nationwide to help prepare residents for potential storms. He also has folded in local amateur radio operators (known as hams) who work as sky spotters reporting actual severe weather as it happens.
Rothfusz waxes nostalgic for the times he has spent in front of radar screens transmitting severe weather warnings. Providing those warnings, to save lives, is what the NWS mission is first and foremost, he said.
Those warnings are issued with the cold reality that these storms could kill unsuspecting people who are unable to seek shelter in time.
“You just sort of take that in stride and work through it and do the best you can to keep people safe,” Rothfusz said. “That’s what it all comes down to, the safety of the public. And we take great pride in what we do, this whole office. There’s not a one who doesn’t take great pride in what we do and our mission to protect everybody.”
“What has always driven me, in everything we do, is the public safety: the fact that you can make a difference in somebody’s life,” Rothfusz said. “And if you can protect them from getting hit by the tornado or if you can educate them on protecting themselves so their lives are spared, that’s so much of what it’s all about. ... People rely on you.”
Rothfusz is quick to credit advancements to his team rather than his leadership and he is proud of what the office has been able to accomplish in recent years.
Forecasters and meteorologists have a closer relationship with the media thanks to webcasts in advance of significant severe weather and a live chat room open to emergency managers and media who can help spread the word immediately on a pending storm event, Rothfusz said.
Recently, the NWS office has launched an “integrated warning team” conference including the media, emergency managers, academics, public health officials, the private sector and the weather service to help improve weather warnings by streamlining the system and “making sure we’re all on the same page and remove obstacles” for publicizing severe weather warnings on a timely basis.
“The phrase is ‘we’re all in this together,’ and if we’re going to protect the public better we have to have our act together uniformly,” Rothfusz said.
The new gig requires a move to Norman, Okla., but Rothfusz said the decision was bittersweet given how much the family has come to enjoy Peachtree City, particularly through their involvement with Christ Our Shepherd Lutheran Church in Peachtree City.
“We’ve been very active in our church and that is probably the hardest part of the move for us right now is leaving the church family that we’ve been with,” Rothfusz said, calling the church a “tremendous blessing” to his family over the years.
Rothfusz and his wife Kathy helped start a contemporary praise band, Graceflock, with several others and the effort spun into a ministry for 12 years that sent them out on tour several times and involved the recording of several CDs as well, he noted.
The effort started out as a band to help with the weekly contemporary service but quickly became more. It was proof that “you never know what God has in store for you,” Rothfusz said.
The family came back for the second NWS tour here in large part because of the city’s quality of life and the excellent school system as well, Rothfusz said. As the meteorologist in charge of the office, Rothfusz has been here the past 12 years. But prior to that, he first got his taste of living in Peachtree City in 1994 as the deputy meteorologist in charge.
Rothfusz recalled first coming on board during tropical storm Alberto, which dumped 22 to 24 inches of rain on the area.
“People get trial by fire, well, I got a trial by flood,” Rothfusz said.
Leaving all that history behind may be hard, but the time is right because of the “tremendous staff” that he leaves behind in the Peachtree City NWS office, Rothfusz said.
“I couldn’t ask for more from them, from the quality and the professionalism they have,” Rothfusz said. “Central and northern Georgia is going to be in good hands even without me here. I have no qualms about leaving.”
There are 24 meteorologists in the NWS office in Peachtree City and an additional four at the air traffic control office in Hampton who have been able to make critical changes to improve weather warning safety for incoming and departing flights, as well as advancements to keep airplane traffic flowing smoother in and out of Hartsfield International Airport, Rothfusz said.
“We have prided ourselves on innovation here,” Rothfusz said. “... This office has the reputation for being on the forefront of new ideas and new technologies. Lots of good ideas. These folks are brilliant.”