CAMP SPRINGS – Growing up, Mike Schichtel was the kind of kid who used to run outside when thunderstorms and snowstorms blasted his neighborhood.
“I grew up wanting to do this,” said Schichtel, who was later a storm chaser in Oklahoma. “Now I get paid for it.”
He is one of a 42-member crew of meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s offices in Camp Springs who have been working around the clock to track Hurricane Isabel as it barrels down on the mid-Atlantic.
Their primary goal is to provide enough information to get people out of harm’s way — but many of the forecasters at the Hydrometeorological Prediction Center in Camp Springs admit to being thrilled by major weather events like Isabel.
“You’ll find people in the weather service get really hyped up about major weather events,” said NOAA’s forecast operating chief Robert Kelly. “This has the potential to be a big deal.”
This time, however, their interest is not just professional. Unlike the hurricanes they track in Florida or Louisiana, Hurricane Isabel is in their back yard.
“It definitely makes it real,” said James Hoke, director of the hydrometeorological center. “There’s a double concern for people in general and a very personal concern that your family is cared for.”
Schichtel said that while he is drawn to the center of the action, for example, his sons “are the opposite of me. They like to run away from storms.”
And despite the walls of maps and the intricate weather tracking programs at their disposal, it seems the NOAA staff is not immune to the storm frenzy that gripped other Maryland residents, buying groceries and batteries, installing storm windows or worrying about their boats.
For nearly 30 years, the Camp Springs office has been tracking snowstorms and tornadoes and creating weekly forecasts. It is the backup to the higher-profile Tropical Prediction Center, also known as the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
But while it is unknown to most people around the Beltway, the Camp Springs office is regularly called on by the White House, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the latest Hurricane Isabel update.
Their lower profile does not mean that the meteorologists in Camp Springs take their job any less seriously, however.
In a medium-sized, fluorescent-lit office without a hint of natural light, the crew has been pulling 10-hour shifts keeping tabs on Hurricane Isabel. But in interviews Wednesday, most said they enjoy the work.
“I’ve always been interested in science and the weather,” said Jessica Clark. “It’s great to be able to see weather patterns before everyone else.”
Clark, like Schichtel, is a medium-range forecaster who works on weather patterns five days in advance. While their colleagues kept a close eye on the hurricane Wednesday, they had a little more leeway — on their medium-range maps, Hurricane Isabel has already crossed the United States and headed into Canada.