by Rob Morris
Apr 05, 2012
Gary, Mike and Rick. No last names needed for these guys. The names have become as familiar to many residents of Moore and the metro area as the names of their own children.
When severe weather rears its threatening head, television sets all across the area are tuned to those local weather forecasters.
And for good reason: the weather can kill you here in Tornado Alley. That’s one of the reasons Oklahoma City television stations are considered a sort of “Mt. Everest” for young meteorologists.
“This is the most dominant weather market in the world,” says KOCO’s Damon Lane. “No one treats weather with the level of importance that the stations in the Oklahoma City market do.”
Lane is one of a trio of new faces that are making their presence felt here in the area, and his friendly competitors at KFOR and KWTV agree with Lane’s assessment of how highly regarded Oklahoma City is among the weather community.
KWTV’S Nick Bender said, “Throughout college, whenever there was a severe weather outbreak, I’d be watching Gary England from Penn State and thinking, ‘That’s where I want to go. That’s where I want to be and that’s the person I want to work for.’”
“Being in Oklahoma is a lot like trying to get my master’s degree,” said KFOR’s Emily Sutton. “Mike Morgan, David Payne and the crews here at 4 have been doing this for a long, long time, and they really know what they’re doing. I’m learning from the best, in my opinion.”
The trio of fresh faces have followed similar, yet different paths to arrive at what they all agree is the center of the weather world. Sutton grew up in a suburb of Chicago. Lane hails from just outside the Washington, D.C. area, and Bender calls Altoona, Pennsylvania, home.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the weather,” Sutton said. “I think that’s something all meteorologists share.”
From an early age Sutton has been interested in playing to crowds, but she quickly admits that weather wasn’t at the top of her list of career choices.
“I loved math and physics, but I was also drawn to the arts. I was very into musical theater and performing,” she said.
She was bitten by the weather bug during her freshman year at Missouri when she decided to take an interim meteorology course. Sutton aced the class and decided to declare a meteorology minor so she could join the school’s storm-chasing team. In fact, there was a moment of foreshadowing about her future during a chase in Kansas during her first year of college.
“I was showing David Payne and (KFOR videojournalist/stormchaser) Kevin Josefy a video from my freshman year,” Sutton said. “We’re in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas, and this white vehicle passes by in the video. We slowed it down, and sure enough…there’s David Payne in a KFOR storm tracker vehicle passing right by little college freshman, Emily.”
Sutton has been in Oklahoma for two-and-a-half years, arriving from eastern Tennessee just in time for the city’s massive Christmas blizzard.
“It was my first Christmas away from home. I love being outside in the elements and so three days after I got here, I found myself out in the snow reminding myself what station I was at,” says Sutton.
Bender’s journey to Oklahoma began in his hometown of Altoona. He says he never really had one of those “ah ha!” weather moments.
“I just always loved the weather,” he said. “I also liked helping people. My mom was a nurse, and I think I picked that up from her, so I always saw myself helping others.”
While Bender grew up loving snowy weather and especially remembers the Big Blizzard of 1993, he found himself fascinated with severe weather. As a youngster when most people were taking cover, he would go outside to look at thunderstorms.
Bender said, “I knew in grade school that I wanted to be a meteorologist, that I wanted to talk to people about the weather. I think they actually have me on camera at my 6th grade graduation saying, ‘I want to be a meteorologist.’ I never changed, never wavered on that.”
It became even more specific for the youngster on May 3rd, 1999. He remembers watching the coverage of the devastating tornado in Oklahoma.
“That was a defining moment for me. I realized that this was something big, something that can kill you, and you have to respect that,” said Bender, who came to OKC from Amarillo.
Bender says a meteorology degree is a difficult course of study. But he adds that nothing he experienced at Penn State can compare with what he’s learned here in Oklahoma City.
“I think I learned more my first year in Oklahoma City than I did all four years of college. Some days in Oklahoma you learn more than you’ll learn in ten years anywhere else in the country,” he said.
Lane agrees with the learning curve here in the heart of tornado country. He arrived at KOCO after a post-college stint at the ABC affiliate in Abilene, Texas.
“If you love weather, and all meteorologists typically do, here in Oklahoma is where the weather is,” he said. “I’ve learned so much from Rick during my time here. It’s kind of a badge of honor working here.”
Lane grew up in northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. He earned his communications degree at Norfolk and his meteorology degree at UNC-Asheville. But it was during his first tornado warning in Abilene that the deadly nature of weather really hit home.
“Being from the east coast, we don’t get a lot of tornado warnings,” Lane said. “And during my first tornado warning in Abilene, the storm killed someone. Reality set in, and I understood just how serious it was out here.”
If didn’t end there for Lane. After he moved to Oklahoma City, he purchased a home in Moore. He was working at KOCO last year on a high-risk weather day and watched as three tornadoes developed within the metro area.
“I remember the tornado coming out of Chickasha, he said. “It was going up the H.E. Bailey, and it seems that whenever you get a tornado going up the H.E. Bailey, it wants to hit Moore. I remember thinking, ‘Oh no! That’s where I live! That’s where my friends are! I’ve set my life up there! Is my house going to be there when I go home?’”
Luckily, the storm lifted just before it hit Moore and passed over the city. In spite of the close call, Lane says he’s come to love living in the area.
“Somehow I thought I’d spend a few years in Tornado Alley and then head back east. But somehow it has, pardon the pun, sucked me in,” Lane said.
All three of these relative newcomers are making themselves at home in Oklahoma. Sutton recently completed her first triathlon, a half-Ironman distance, as part of the Redman Triathlon.
“Joleen Chaney and I teamed up to do that. It was a 1.2-mile open water swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run,” Sutton said. “The most I’d ever done was a 10K. Now I’m hooked.”
She enjoys singing and has performed the National Anthem twice before Oklahoma City Thunder games. When she’s not singing at the Chesapeake Energy Center, Sutton polishes her singing skills in the karaoke arena.
Lane is an avid outdoors enthusiast and heads for the Rocky Mountains every chance he gets.
“I love adventure, love the mountains,” he said. “I try to do as much skiing, backpacking and climbing as possible. If I can’t get to Colorado or Wyoming, you’ll usually find me cycling in Cleveland County, out in the sticks.”
He’s also engaged and is counting down the days until his marriage on September 22nd.
And Nick Bender? He may actually be the most dangerous meteorologist in the Oklahoma City area.
“My dad was a taekwondo instructor and has his own school, so that was my sport growing up,” Bender said. “I participated on the tournament circuit up north, going to D.C., Pittsburgh and Philly to compete until about midway through college.”
Bender is a second-degree black belt. He also an avid fitness enthusiast.
“Weightlifting, boot camps, cross fit, running. I take every chance I get to do 5K’s, 10K’s, charity events and things like that,” Bender said.
Three young meteorologists. Three relatively new faces to Oklahomans.
While they’re not as familiar to local viewers as Gary, Mike and Rick, they are certainly working hard to earn their stripes in the toughest weather market in the world.