Eye on the storm: Todd Heitkamp marks 25 years with National Weather Service
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Todd Heitkamp has heard every old wives' tale about the weather and gives little credence to predictions based on the thickness of the silk on the corn ears, the rings of an onion or even the "Old Farmer's Almanac." As a meteorologist, he puts his stock in the science of weather, even though it's not always predictable.
"A lot of people ask me what it's like to be a weather guy and get grief all the time," said Heitkamp, who recently celebrated his 25th anniversary with the National Weather Service. "My family is my worst critics. They say it's pretty good when you get paid for being wrong 50 percent of the time. But I have a thick skin. No one can offend me. I see it as an opportunity to educate people about weather is, and it's not what's in the 'Old Farmer's Almanac.' I don't make the weather. I'm just the good Lord's reporter."
Weather has been a source of fascination for Todd since he was a youngster growing up in Adrian, the son of Alice and the late Jim Heitkamp.
"It was mainly lightning at that point in time," he said. "Obviously, we didn't have cable TV at that time. There were three stations, and you couldn't get your fix of watching storm chasers on the Discovery Channel. You went outside and watched it yourself. I can't think back about what exactly fascinated me about lightning. I just loved watching thunderstorms."
It's no surprise that when it came time for Todd to pick a career, he chose meteorology, even though the only weathermen he was familiar with at the time were Dave Dedrick and Ken Hirsch, rival forecasters on the Sioux Falls stations.
"There was no doubt in my latter years of high school, the college that I was looking at was one that offered meteorology," recalled Todd, a 1982 graduate of Adrian High School. "So I settled on the University of Wisconsin. Back then and still now, UW is one of the top five schools in the country for meteorology. It was a very popular program, but the professors would tell you that not all of you are going to be around four years from now. They would purposefully try to weed people out."
Graduating from a high school with 45 senior students, Todd was "absolutely shell-shocked" to find himself in his first class at UW - numbering 1,250. But he adjusted to the sea of people and persevered in his desire to earn a degree in meteorology.
"Most people, when they talk about being a weatherman, ask what station you work for. They think you're going to be on TV. I have a face for radio," joked Todd, who had envisioned a career with NWS. "But as I got into my junior and senior years, the federal government had budget cuts, so getting into the NWS didn't look like a possibility, so I took some journalism classes in case that would come to be."
But being an on-air weather personality wasn't in Todd's forecast.
"One day before I was supposed to report for duty at McDonald's, I got my first job with NWS in Waterloo, Iowa," said Todd. "I already had my McDonald's uniform and everything. I gladly turned it back in."
The Waterloo position was a forecaster internship.
"I would take observations of the sky cover and temperature and then also be responsible for briefing pilots and watching the radar," described Todd of his duties. "I stayed there for three years, and then in 1990, I got my first forecaster position in Denver, Colo."
The Denver post exposed Todd to different types of weather patterns.
"When I first applied for it, I remember thinking, 'Do I really want to go out west?' But it was probably the best move I made to expose me to more weather. A lot of people around here will say, 'If you don't like the weather, wait a minute,' but it really can change that fast in Denver. It gave me a better appreciation of the weather, mountain weather, and living in a bigger city."
Heitkamp might have stayed in Denver longer except the climate became a health issue with his family. He and wife Roxanne have three children: daughter Courtney, now 24; and sons Nick, 22, and Josh, 20.
"My youngest son had infant asthma, and the doctor told us that if we wanted him to get better, we needed to get him away from Denver, away from the brown cloud, so to speak," recalled Todd, referring to the smog that settles over the city. "This job in Sioux Falls opened up in 1994, and I transferred here."
The Heitkamps hadn't really planned to settle so close to their hometowns and didn't intend to stay for more than a few years, but they found a lot to like about living in Sioux Falls.
"We both grew up around this area -- my wife's folks live here, my folks were here, and once we came back, the roots went into the ground pretty quick."
Todd's official title with NWS in Sioux Falls is warning coordinator meteorologist.
"The easiest way to understand it is I'm more like a media and public liaison person. I still forecast, but not as often as I used to. I'm part of the management here in the office. I put a face on the NWS."
Todd is also the guy who goes out and does public presentations and training sessions for weather watchers throughout the region.
"I talk to anyone who wants to listen," he said. "The main thing I do in the spring is I go out and train the public about what to look for when it comes to severe weather. Maybe I can give them our warning, but I can also let them know what they're looking at , see some of the signs before the tornado hits. We offer these classes every spring, and there's one in Worthington every year. If anyone wants a listing, they can go to our website, www.weather.gov/sioux falls, and there will be listings of those days and locations of training, and it's absolutely free.
When he does engage in weather forecasting, the process is a bit different than it was when Todd was fresh out of college.
"Forecasting hasn't changed, the tools and technology definitely have," he reflected. "When I was at UW, I went around with a box of colored pencils in my backpack to shade in the weather maps. We still draw weather maps, but we don't use colored pencils; we use computers. Also, with the technology of the Doppler radar, we have a better understanding of what causes certain weather patterns to evolve, what's conducive to severe weather and heavy snow."
Meteorologists also have the resources to provide advance warnings of when inclement weather will strike.
"The warning system has gotten better, more accurate than ever before," he said. "The big challenge is the communication of that threat, the understanding of that threat. We can use social networking -- Facebook, Twitter -- but it's still a matter of a person believing that they're going to be impacted by that weather. That's the message that I've been preaching, is that it comes down to personal responsibility. We can do the best job we can, but it's up to that person to decide when to go to shelter."
That message can be difficult to get across to stubborn Midwesterners.
"We think that we're self-sufficient," Todd noted. "We're hard to the core, most of us, and not just here. The general public will not respond until they get their information from someone they trust or see it for themselves. That's the challenge that we now have. The warning system has gotten better, but our response hasn't gotten better. We need to make sure that everybody understands the threat and the consequences of not reacting."
In his 25-year career, Todd has seen examples of what can happen when people don't react or seek shelter in time.
"I've been a tornado chaser since I was 15 years old, and I've seen more than 100 tornadoes in my lifetime, and there are three that will stand out in my career," he said. "One of the first ones was when I was in Waterloo. I'd issued a storm warning for somewhere in northeast Iowa, in advance of that tornado developing. There were a grandfather and grandmother at home on the farm with their grandkids. They heard the warning, but instead of seeking shelter, they tried to outrun the tornado. It pulled the grandkids out of the back of the pickup truck and killed them. Since I had issued the warning, it was a humbling experience that I will never forget.
"The second one would be a tornado in Limon, Colo., that resulted in a few deaths, showing up there and doing the damage survey, and the smell of death. It's not a smell I will ever forget; I can recognize that smell right away. It was my first taste of being on the scene of a deadly tornado."
Since moving to Sioux Falls, there is a date that is imprinted on Todd's brain -- July 24, 2003.
"That was what we call Tornado Tuesday here in eastern South Dakota," he said. "Sixty-seven tornadoes occurred that night and tied the all-time record. I can easily say that stands out in my mind."
Being a native of the area has helped Todd in delivering his weather message. Many people, particularly in southwest Minnesota, are familiar with the Heitkamp name.
"I kind of use it to my advantage, too," he said, "but it takes more than a name to get people to listen to you. It takes credibility. The National Weather Service has built up credibility that we didn't have 15 to 20 years ago. ... As the warning coordinator meteorologist, I get to go out and educate the people I grew up with and now their kids. Growing up here, I guess, gives me street cred."
In addition to his NWS career, Todd also has a sideline business -- one that's also somewhat dependent on the weather. He owns and operates Dakota Angler, a bait and tackle store located at 605 E. Benson Road in Sioux Falls.
"It's all connected with the weather," he said. "People come in looking for a weather forecast as well as a fish forecast."
Todd traces his love of fishing to early angling experiences with his grandfather and father.
"But I didn't ever dream I would own my own business," he said. "I just wanted to have a chance to raise my family and give them a different type of work ethic."
The dual responsibilities take up a lot of Todd's time, but he feels it's worth it.
"I don't usually get home until 7:30 at night, but I wouldn't change a thing. My family and I have had great times, great memories. When I look back on 25 years, time has really gone fast. Hopefully in 25 years, I have made some difference and will continue to make a difference.
"I'm not a person who could go into a manufacturing plant and do the same thing day in and day out," he added. "With my job here, each day is different with the weather. Even if it's sunny and 80 degrees for the next five days, there's always something different that we can talk about or emphasize, or what's going to happen down the road. Every day is different, and that's what I enjoy about my job."
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers
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