PEKIN — Two winter outbreaks of tornadoes were fresh in the minds of more than 200 area residents as they flocked to an annual storm spotters class Wednesday at the Par-A-Dice Hotel in East Peoria.

National Weather Service in Lincoln Meteorologist Heather Stanley said people need to be prepared for threatening weather. The class is for anyone interested in storms, though storm spotters are needed to help keep people safe. 

The class was aimed to teach students the role of a storm spotter: thunderstorm development and features; types of thunderstorms, especially in Illinois; type of tornados, landspouts and gustnados; non-tornadic severe weather; sources for storm spotters; spotter safety; and effective spotter reports.

“If they were only to take away a couple of things (I would want them to) recognize a threat and knowing how to act,” said Stanley. “(How they should react) depends on the threat.

“There are many safety rules and the best thing to be is in a safe shelter away from windows and doors, with doors and windows shut wether it be a tornadoes, wind, lightning — any of the threats that are out there. Don’t chase it. It is incredibly dangerous. We don’t recommend that at all. This is a spotter class, not a chasing class,” Stanley said.

Weather is a constantly changing course of study, a puzzle with pieces that have to be assembled, and even the pros learn new things all the time. 

“After 14 years of doing nothing but weather, we, as meteorologists, are constantly adding new pieces to that puzzle and getting a deeper understanding of how the atmosphere works,” said Stanley. “We can only know so much, and as far as technology has come, radar can only tell us so much.

“So, we actually need you guys on the ground telling us what you see. It helps us understand how things are working. And quite frankly, it helps us make that warning decision. So, quite literally, as spotters, you’re information is helping me decided whether or not to issue a tornado warning or severe storm warning.”

Illinois is fifth in the nation for tornados. It is prime tornado country because of the cold coming down from Canada, the winds coming from the mountains in the west and the warm air coming up from the Gulf of Mexico, said Stanley.

The crowd’s reasons for being at the class varied, but all had a definite interest in storms.

Marcus Smucker, of Eureka, is an “active storm spotter since I was old enough to drive.” He watched the Washington tornado as it went through the area, he said, but not as a spotter that day. He also watched the Washburn tornado on Feb. 28. He said he has always been interested in weather.

“I try to come every year to  see if there’s something new,” said Smucker. “Every now and then they surprise me with new stuff out there.

“It’s always important to stay up to date. I live just outside of Eureka. I’m generally in that area most of the day, so that’s where I’m at. I also used to be a storm chaser, so I’ve had a lot of experience. I’ve had some success. A lot of failures. It’s not an easy thing to do. Of course, nowadays, with the phone aps and stuff it seems like everybody who can run an ap thinks that they can do that. Really, it’s dangerous. I have a family now and I don’t get out as much as I used to.”

Bill Salsman, of East Peoria, wanted information to protect his family and others. He has chased storms several times in his life.

“I just want to know the nature of the storms, how they develop, learn how to track the paths and see what kind of damage they can potentially do,” said Salsman. “I’ve been doing it for years. ... It has just always excited me, but I want to get more in-depth with it. I’d like to get some general knowledge of what it’s all about and hopefully become a spotter for the  local area so I can go out and help people with the early warnings and save lives.”

Salsman has first hand experience with the destructive force of a tornado.

“The Washington storm that went through a few years ago actually went through right behind my house,” said Salsman. “My daughter actually watched it go across the field and hit her friends house (up on Bloomington Road in East Peoria). ... It does pay to be a little bit afraid of them because they can do a lot of damage in a hurry if you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s like dealing with snakes. You always want to be cautious.”

Matt Kelly, of Mapleton, said he is new to his study of weather, but was in several tornados in Louisiana.

“We live in the country out by Mapleton, and so we have a nice view of things coming down by the river,” said Kelly. “I’m wanting to learn a little bit more so I know more of what’s coming up at me.

“I’m more one who would chase them. When I get bad weather I kind of go out on the porch and watch them. I never have been afraid of them. All I want to do is get the information on what to look for. I’ve kind of got a general idea because I’ve been in three or four. I just want to confirm everything I’ve learned in the past so I can make sure that’s what’s going on here.”

Follow Sharon Woods Harris at Twitter.com/sharrispekin