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Of Character: Childhood fascination with weather led to career of providing weather information for the safety of residents

Mike Foster
Meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service Norman Forecast Office
Mike Foster Meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service Norman Forecast Office BRYAN PAINTER - STAFF WRITER

The eye of a hurricane in Puerto Rico, “snow canyons” in New York and a Kansas tornado.

Mike Foster witnessed all three in the mid-1950s.

A fascination with and respect for the strengths of weather began stirring within Foster.

He would go on to work 27 years for the National Weather Service, a career that included leading the Norman forecast office as the meteorologist in charge from 2000 until his retirement in 2012.

Foster, 68, of Norman, learned, helped develop and used the technology found in weather forecasts and warning efforts. But he always stressed that the focus was using that technology to help protect others, including Oklahomans whom he described as “resilient.”

“On too many occasions like Moore and Lone Grove, I met people standing on the site where they lost nearly everything,” Foster said, “yet the handshakes were firm and the faces showed great determination to stay and rebuild.”

Earliest memories

of severe weather

Foster was born in his parents’ hometown of Oswego, N.Y., a community along Lake Ontario. But the family moved a couple of years after he was born.

“My father was a pilot during World War II and after returning to civilian life for a couple of years he decided he wanted to make the Air Force his career,” Foster said. “So I was raised in a military family, moving several times over the years.”

Foster’s earliest memories of severe weather came in the form of thunderstorms during the 1950s when his family lived in Lubbock and Fort Worth, Texas.

“Then we spent three years in Puerto Rico during which time I saw waterspouts and Hurricane Betsy in 1956,” he recalled. “It was the classic hurricane experience with the storm intensifying for several hours as it approached, then suddenly abating as the eye moved over.

“I went outside in calm winds and observed towering clouds along the eye wall with blue sky overhead. Then a short while later the storm resumed with as much intensity as before.”

Upon the family’s return to the mainland, they visited Oswego while on the way to Topeka, Kan.

“We got to Oswego a couple of weeks after a record-setting snowfall and experienced driving down streets that were literally snow canyons,” Foster said. “That was quite a shocking transition from three years of warm, Caribbean weather.

“A few months later in Topeka I saw my first tornado.”

A need for change

It took a few years before Foster acted on his fascination with the weather.

He was in the Air Force for four years and ended up in California, where he graduated from the University of California-Riverside with a bachelor’s in economics.

“After a few years of business and government work I felt a need for change,” he said. “On the morning of April 11, 1979, I opened the local paper to see a front-page photo of the large tornado that struck Wichita Falls the evening before. That was the spark that reignited my passion for the weather.

“My wife and I took a vacation train trip across the Plains to Norman and spent a few days in town and around the campus. We liked what we saw and decided to resign our jobs in California and make the move.”

By 1985, Foster had a master’s in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma and the beginning of a career with the National Weather Service.

“Ongoing developments in science and technology led to very significant advances in precision and accuracy of weather forecasts and warnings,” Foster said. “But with the new knowledge and tools comes increasing complexity in providing useful weather information to the public and decision makers. It takes a team of people working well together to harness the promise of knowledge and technology and developing a team requires supporting and encouraging individuals.

“The NWS is the best weather service in the world because of the passion and character of the people in each of its offices serving the public in every community in the country. Together with meteorologists in the media and private firms, the American weather enterprise gives the people of the United States the best weather information in the world.”

David Andra is the current meteorologist in charge at the Norman forecast office. Off and on, Andra and Foster worked together for about 15 years.

“Mike was always dedicated to excellence and providing the best possible outcome for the communities we serve,” Andra said. “This commitment fueled his drive to improve the operational tools and techniques used to make forecasts and provide warnings for dangerous storms. His impact changed the profession for the better.

“Mike always gives of his time to provide advice, help solve tough problems, and is gifted in his ability to focus on the essence of an issue. He has high expectations of himself and others to improve and do better the next time around. In weather, and science in general, the solution is not always clear and I think Mike’s strong principles help guide his decisions and those that surround him.”

Time in classrooms

During his career, Foster spent a lot of time in classrooms talking to young people about weather and using it as an example of why science and mathematics are so important.

“Since retiring I have been working to catch up on projects set aside while I was busy at my NWS career,” Foster said. “Weather is still my great interest and is at the center of my love of travel and photography.”

Bryan Painter

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