Weather watchers wanted in the Highland Lakes

Volunteer weather watchers needed in the Highland Lakes

LEFT: The rain gauge in Hugh McCoy’s front yard in Burnet is so old it has markings that read 'USWB,' which stands for U.S. Weather Bureau, the forerunner of the National Weather Service. It still accurately measures rain up to 20 inches. Staff photo by Jennifer Fierro • RIGHT: Robyn Richter measures rainfall amounts on her ranch south of Marble Falls on the shores of Lake Travis. She not only reports measurements to the National Weather Service, she is also the Burnet County coordinator for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

Eighty degrees one day, 20 degrees the next with a chance of snow. That’s winter weather in the Highland Lakes, which is what excites amateur meteorologists Robyn Richter of Marble Falls and Hugh McCoy of Burnet. Both regularly record Burnet County weather data for the National Weather Service, which could use some additional help from local weather watchers like them.

When severe weather strikes, Richter, 68, stays glued to her television, her HAM radio, and her telephone. As the Burnet County coordinator for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, a weather spotter for the National Weather Service, president of the Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Club, commissioner for Emergency Services District No.6, and a member of the Marble Falls Area EMS Board of Directors, she has to stay on top of every atmospheric change. Each morning, Richter checks her rain gauge to report precipitation.

“I live on a ranch tended by my ancestors in the 1850s,” she said. “When I go out and walk around, I’m seeing land and trees my ancestors saw. During the 2011 drought, we lost so many oak trees. They were there when my ancestors were there. They were hundreds of years old. It hurts. I try to pay attention to the land. Keeping up with the weather is one way of doing that.”

McCoy, 80, sits in one of his two easy chairs and watches a Nimbus digital thermometer on a small table in his Burnet home. The machine is hooked to a tower light sensor next to his house that allows airflow, not sunlight, to come through. He measures the outside temperature to a tenth of a degree.

In the front yard is a rain gauge that measures up to 20 inches. The gauge is so old it has markings that read “USWB,” which stands for United States Weather Bureau, the forerunner of the National Weather Service.

McCoy records on paper the maximum and minimum temperatures, the rainfall, and the soil temperature by 7:59 a.m. each day. He submits the information to the National Weather Service at 8 a.m. sharp.

“Soil temperature is for the weather service,” he said. “Snow sticks or melts. If the temperature is 40 degrees, it won’t stick.”

By the end of the year, McCoy will fill a 3-inch binder with his daily reports.

Though the work of Richter and McCoy might go unnoticed in day-to-day local life, their efforts are hugely important to the National Weather Service and Burnet County.

“During the Bluebonnet Festival one year, it got rained out,” McCoy said. “The (Burnet) Chamber (of Commerce) insures against that. They came to me to get proof it rained those days. That (information) gets sent to the National Weather Service, so how was the insurance company going to turn the claim down? The National Weather Service says, ‘You don’t know how valuable this is for us, the stuff you’re doing.’”

Not only festivals insure against the weather.

“If you’re a rancher or farmer, you can get drought insurance if the rain isn’t what’s expected in your area,” Richter said. “Texas is a land of perennial drought broken by the occasional catastrophic flood.”

Richter sees all of her roles intertwined with daily routine and disaster response, while McCoy is more scientist and weatherman than rescuer. Still, both cultivated a love of the weather growing up in the Texas Hill Country.

Richter recalls hearing stories about the great Marble Falls flood of 1935 that took out the city’s first bridge. The next bridge lasted 70 years and was blown up in 2013 after the one drivers use today opened to traffic.

One of Richter’s favorite stories about the 1935 flood came from her dad, former state Senator Walter Richter. His tale tells of yet another example of Mother Nature’s strength.

“He grew up south of Marble Falls on the Colorado River,” Richter said. “There was a grove of pecan trees he described as, one by one, they toppled.”

On a daily basis, the conversations her grandparents had by telephone with family members and friends centered around one topic.

“Has it rained? How bad is the drought?” Richter said. “When I was in college, every time I talked to my dad it was, ‘Has it rained? Watch the rain. Pay attention to it.’ I’ve been aware of the weather my whole life.”

Fifteen years ago, she decided to get her HAM radio license because it operates no matter the weather. Richter can give real-time updates on emergencies with the HAM. It came in handy during the Marble Falls rain bomb of 2007 when 19 inches of rain fell on the city overnight.

“When we know bad weather is coming our way, we get on our radios and talk to each other,” she said, referring to other HAM operators. “Depending on how bad it is, we contact the National Weather Service.”

At that point, someone calls the NWS office in San Antonio. Since the National Weather Service never closes, they call whenever the need arises.

“The rain gauge is almost addicting,” Richter said. “I’m trying for 100 percent posting (annually).”

McCoy grew up on a farm in Joppa, where rain was equally important to his family. While attending Bertram High School, he became fascinated with the Bertram Enterprise newspaper’s printing press. He bought the press in 1969 and started his own company, Burnet Printing.

Retired from the printing business, McCoy keeps up his interest in science. His living room is lined with books on health, astronomy, nutrition, and more.

“It’s creative to see what can be done (in science),” he said. “It’s hard to describe why I was so interested.”

McCoy has rainfall records for the area that date back to 1893.

“Really, it hasn’t changed that much,” he said of the totals.

McCoy often wondered what the National Weather Service did with his reports. One day, he asked. They send it to the National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, North Carolina, he said.

“They told me, ‘One hundred and fifty years from now, you’ll have your writing in this climate center: Hugh McCoy was the observer for Burnet,’” McCoy continued. “That’s one of the biggest websites in the world. You can find that data for any city you want in the U.S.”

Anyone wanting to join McCoy and Richter and become part of weather history can do so by attending a SkyWarn weather training seminar hosted by cities and counties across Central Texas. Go to weather.gov/ewx/training to see where the next session will be held.

jfierro@thepicayune.com

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