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Entering a season of uncertainty

Karl Loeper always had an idea of what may happen next. Retirement has him guessing - and a little uneasy.

By JAMIE THOMPSON
Published May 4, 2004

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Karl Loeper, who collected data on the air and local rivers for the National Weather Service in Ruskin, is retiring after 44 years in meteorology.

RUSKIN - Anyone who didn't know Karl M. Loeper could probably guess his profession.

His house in Bradenton was, until recently, the only one on the block with a 5-foot weather vane on the roof.

When he walks outside, the neighbors always ask: "Hi, Karl, how's the weather?"

When he was sad about his son moving to England, Loeper told him, "You know, the weather is really bad over there."

For 44 years, Loeper has studied and predicted weather. Though forever changing, it has been his constant.

Last week, 61-year-old Loeper turned in his security badge at the National Weather Service in Ruskin and retired.

"I'm always wanting to know what's going on," he said. "I always have a feeling of what's going to happen next. But this has got me uneasy."

"Once you're retired," he added sadly, "you're retired."

* * *

The gated brick building where Loeper has worked the past 10 years in Ruskin bears little resemblance to the bunkers of the U.S. Navy, where he began his career.

The National Weather Service office has no hand-drawn maps or charts on the walls, no Teletypes clattering.

"This building doesn't even have an old Teletype room," Loeper says wistfully.

What it does have is a group of people who share Loeper's enthusiasm for the weather.

"It's nice to have something you really want to do, even as a kid, and get to do it," he said. "A lot of people get stuck in jobs they didn't want."

He spent a typical shift in a burgundy chair, rolling across the tile floor to monitor a variety of computer screens. He watched colorful swirls move across maps, studied rows of numbers that track river levels or rainfall. As a hydrometeorological technician, he was responsible for collecting data on the air and local rivers.

"I'm sitting there looking at the atmosphere 25 miles high, and anything can happen," he says. "You only hope to see what's coming, hope to forecast it. It's not like dentistry. It's not perfect. But it gets better all the time. "I could," he says, "study meteorology forever."

At the weather service, many of the "weather weenies," which is what they call themselves, have a story about the moment they got interested in the weather.

For Loeper, it was 1954, when Hurricane Hazel ravaged his Pennsylvania town.

* * *

As the wind wailed and thunder crackled, 12-year-old Loeper slipped outside on the porch to watch. The storm shattered windows and took at least one life in his town.

Still, Loeper thought it was beautiful.

Local schools didn't offer weather classes, but passing northeasters nourished his curiosity. And at 17 years old, when U.S. Navy recruiters told him about their meteorology school, he signed up.

During the next 20 years, he moved from base to base, reporting the weather, briefing jet pilots on how large the waves would be when they tried to land on the aircraft carrier.

On a base in Iceland, he sent televised broadcasts into the apartments of officers, who quickly nicknamed him "Fair and Warmer," because he was always saying it would be cloudy and cold.

From a base in Jacksonville, Loeper flew with the hurricane squadron, directing planes into the eyes of storms. One trip into a 130-knot hurricane almost shattered the plane and broke the leg of a crew member.

"It was maybe the only time I wondered why I didn't become a ditch digger," Loeper said.

Halfway through his Navy career, Loeper started dreaming of the National Weather Service. No military duties. Pure weather.

After he left the Navy in 1980, he got the job.

* * *

On a recent morning, Loeper walked outside in sneakers and khaki shorts, preparing to send a balloon into the air.

It's a task the weather service does twice daily all over the country, sending a sonde 21 miles high to collect data about pressure and humidity.

Loeper figures he has done this at least 4,000 times. Last week, with the balloon in hand, a co-worker snapped a picture of Loeper's last official flight.

The balloons are one of the few tools that haven't changed much since Loeper began his career. These days, a two-week vacation will leave you in the dark about some technological advance or the other, Loeper says.

He figures it's probably time to retire.

But when his water heater started leaking last week, and his air conditioner broke, and his mother-in-law was visiting, and he was completing plans to move, Loeper wondered what he would do during stressful times when he couldn't go to work.

"I feel like I'm being pushed over a cliff, a pig going to the slaughterhouse," Loeper said. "But it's too late. This is final. I can't go back now."

Loeper has always figured that when he retired, he would do it before the busy summer storm season, when even the biggest weather weenie gets tired of tracking the rivers and rain.

He figures one stormy afternoon this season, when he's settled into his retirement village near Ocala, he'll dial up his friends at the weather service. Then he'll open up a can of beer into the receiver and ask them what's going on.

And after a good laugh, he might get on the computer to check the river levels. Or maybe he'll just sit there with his beer, enjoying the rain.

- Jamie Thompson can be reached at 727 893-8455. Send e-mail to jjones@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 3, 2004, 23:22:05]


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