Weather is constantly monitored in South Carolina by meteorologists for TV stations and the National Weather Service. But to keep people informed of—and protected from—threatening weather, Richland County has a unique advantage as the only county in the state, and perhaps one of few in the nation, to have its own meteorologist. Ken Aucoin is both the county’s meteorologist and an emergency manager, thus making the county uniquely positioned to respond quickly to bad weather.
Watching the Winds
“I’m here before the sun comes up,” Aucoin says, “so that when the emergency managers all arrive in the mornings, the forecast is already there.”
After Aucoin shares Richland County’s daily forecast, he collaborates with emergency managers to assess upcoming threats that might need to be specially addressed. To help identify threats, Aucoin also developed a series of weather stations across the county that gathers more detailed information to help pinpoint problems such as high winds. This type of network, known as a “mezzo-net,” allows Aucoin and his colleagues to study data from the strategically placed stations in real-time.
“If there’s a storm up in Ballentine that’s producing winds of 60 miles per hour and it’s holding together and heading for downtown Columbia, we can alert the citizens of Columbia, [and] gather our emergency resources to the affected areas due to what we know as winds of damaging strength,” says Aucoin.
The mezzo-net belonging to Richland County is aptly named RC Winds, but the information gathered by the system is shared outside the county as well.
Leonard Vaughn with the National Weather Service in Lexington County gives an example: “Say a thunderstorm sends out a gust front… We can see that on the radar, but a lot of times the radar estimates how strong those winds are and the directions they’re coming from.” But by using those mezzo-net sites, Vaughn explains, “We can actually get real-time data on the wind direction and wind speed, so if that were to approach the airport, we may have to tell the tower and they may have to readjust how they have the planes take off and land here.”
RC Winds has stations within three to four miles of every location in the county, but Aucoin wants to increase its accuracy even more. To do that, the system also needs to expand to other counties. Aucoin hopes to eventually expand RC Winds’ station count from 40 to 60 or more, and he said that several additional counties are already preparing to join the network.
“We also have Newberry County and Lexington County which are coming aboard, and Aiken County just recently expressed interest in joining into this program,” he says.
The increased accuracy of an expanded network could provide more capacity to predict and prepare for dangerous weather events. In particular, Aucoin emphasizes the utility of monitoring wind patterns to head off dangerous situations the average person might not expect.
One particularly valuable location of an RC winds station is on the scoreboard at Williams-Brice Stadium.
According to Aucoin, the high altitude of this station yields important data about how strong winds are higher in the atmosphere.
“Typically, the higher you go, the stronger the winds . . . so it’s very key for us to how this weather station not only in this location at Williams-Brice, but at this level in altitude, because it provides us with a unique vision of what the winds are doing at this level.”
A Weekend to Remember
The most high pressure situation Aucoin has had to deal with was the flood of October 2015, when massive rains were first forecasted four or five days ahead of the event.
“We stayed in constant contact with all of the entities here, updating them on the potential of getting a foot of rain in a short amount of time…and it just kept looking like it was not going to change,” Aucoin says.
Tensions mounted as forecasts for the devastating rain of October 3 and 4 began to solidify. Aucoin and his colleagues had countless meetings at Richland County's Emergency Operations Center, preparing for the floods to come.
“That Saturday, and that Saturday night when all the heavy rain started . . . it was all hands on deck at that moment. Of course, a lot of folks are going to remember that forever,” he says.
Aucoin spent the entire weekend at the station and many days after, collecting data from the event and trying to maintain a record of the historic event. This experience prepared his station to act in similar capacity the following year with Hurricanes Matthew.
With events as devastating as the floods of 2015, there’s only so much forecasting can do, according to Aucoin. He says it would be difficult for any community to adequately prepare for 20 inches of rain, but for Richland and the surrounding Midlands counties, every bit of warning creates more opportunity for South Carolinians to brace themselves. He believes it would benefit other hurricane-vulnerable counties to implement a similar system to Richland’s by hiring a dedicated meteorologist for the county, so that they might be better prepared, come what may.
“I think in time,” he says, “this may catch on.”