Getting to Know

A Silver Lining

Paul Wilkerson’s interest in local weather proved essential this season.

By Jody Rathgeb ~ Photos Courtesy Paul Wilkerson

Lots of people come to the Turks & Caicos and fall in love with its turquoise waters. Paul Wilkerson went further. The American meteorologist extended his love to the TCI’s clouds, winds, rains, dry spells . . . and particularly to its people who live in this special climate. For them, he created a Facebook page that focuses on local weather, not knowing how popular and essential it would become during Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Meteorologist Paul Wilkerson provided an important service during the hurricanes.

Paul Wilkerson and his family first visited the Turks & Caicos Islands from their home in Arkansas in 2014. “We realized we really loved the people and the Islands,” he says. “Feeling like that, I naturally wanted to find a way to help with weather.”
That season brought a tropical storm that solidified his purpose. “I had been monitoring a few of the local Facebook pages and many were discussing how they were caught off guard and were frustrated with the lack of information they could receive. I figured I could provide a connection point for solid, reliable information if they wanted to use it.”
He knew he was the guy for the job because of his regular paying job: non-commissioned officer in charge of the Arkansas National Guard’s 154th Weather Flight unit, a position he has held since 2007. He has worked in meteorology for 23 years, completing the requirements for a Bachelor’s Degree in the field at Mississippi State University and the United States Air Force weather observing and forecasting course. He also worked for the U.S. federal government as a civilian meteorologist from 2001 to 2007.
“While my primary profession is military, the weather page is something I do in my free time when I am not at work,” Wilkerson explains. He was already running a Facebook page devoted to his area of Arkansas when he decided to perform a similar service for TCI.

Sourcing, sharing
He named the page, naturally, “Turks and Caicos Weather Info.” At first, followers were people who lived in the Islands, but the word spread. “Over time the page has morphed from a community information page to include travel weather information.” He says he tries to post a five-day forecast about every three days, although he will add posts to make corrections or discuss severe weather. He does the updates around his working hours, using his lunch break or posting before or after his office hours. “This is a personal page so I take care of it on my own time.”
Wilkerson says the information on the page comes from many sources, including the National Hurricane Center, the Bahamas Meteorological Agency, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and satellite photos of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. The Turks & Caicos are considered a “data sparse region,” so gathering as much information as possible is important, as well as having a meteorologist’s instinct. He can get fairly specific, he notes, able to say, for example, “Hey, it should be raining over on Grace Bay, but Salt Cay, you guys are seeing mostly sunny skies.” He also pays attention to feedback on the page. “I always like to get ‘on the ground’ information,” he says. “It helps increase the accuracy of forecasts, while also getting the people involved.”
The meteorologist notes that he does not mean to replace weather information provided by the government through its Department of Disaster Management and Emergencies (DDME). “While I do provide relevant information, I always stress the importance [to Islanders] in listening to their local government officials as well as official sources of information,” he says. “The government has their own operation channels, and they are there to provide for citizen safety.”

Irma and Maria
Having multiple sources of information proved to be invaluable during the hurricanes of 2017, and it was during those stormy times that Wilkerson’s Facebook page soared in popularity and added to its mission. “During the run-up to Hurricane Irma, the web page saw astronomical growth within a matter of three weeks due to people looking for information,” he says. “Prior to the hurricane, our monthly reach overall based on the site statistics was nearly 40,000 or so. The month of September alone, our reach was over 819,000!”
Still working full time, Wilkerson met the challenge of the storms. He watched as the barometric pressures in models of the first disturbance over the open Atlantic Ocean stayed extremely low, indicating that a powerful storm was forming, and he says his heart sank when he saw the forecast tracks showed the Islands in the bull’s-eye. “At that point, about five days out, it was time to start moving fast. After I would get off work, I spent the better part of six to eight hours at home doing nothing but weather and updates. I was getting up at 3:30 AM each morning so I could spend about three hours providing updates prior to heading to work. On the evening it hit, I believe I stayed up most of the night to provide information up to the point it was just passing near West Caicos. I got a few hours’ sleep, then was up checking on friends and anyone I could.”
He praises the support of his family during that time. His wife, Brande, was screening messages, getting information to him, helping to fix errors in posts and continuing to run a busy household with two daughters and multiple animals. “It was an absolute team effort between us,” he comments. “It was very special to me having her helping me and the Islands through her dedication, too.”
Meanwhile, at the other end of the Facebook page, followers were checking their feeds frequently to get Wilkerson’s updates and sharing them with both Islanders and relatives and friends in other countries. Many in the U.S. were thankful to get information that their usual sources, such as The Weather Channel, were not sharing until the storm got closer to Florida.
Then, after Irma hit the Islands, Turks and Caicos Weather Info became more than a weather page. People were using it to find out about the status of island buildings and businesses and about the safety of family and friends. Wilkerson found himself a clearinghouse of information as well as a meteorologist. “That can be hard because you have to sort through all of the information and try to determine what is real and true, and what is fodder and folks trying to capitalize for the sake of scamming or giving misinformation,” he recalls. “I tried really hard to vet everything and ensure that only accurate information was getting out through our channels.”
Yet he was still doing weather as Hurricane Maria was approaching. “I monitored Maria as often as I could and tried to give timely updates. [The two storms] were similar in that they developed in very good environments and took very similar tracks. And as we know, unfortunately Puerto Rico and others of the Leeward Islands suffered much worse from Maria. TCI was very fortunate that Hurricane Maria made the turn when she did. TCI could have had a large number of deaths had Maria made a direct strike due to the amount of damage and compromised structures Irma left behind. Thankfully that didn’t happen.”

Funding relief efforts

Much of the TC Weather Info hurricane relief fund purchased supplies for South Caicos.

The widening mission of Turks and Caicos Weather Info now included a relief fund that the Wilkersons began. “We had all of these new followers, and [we thought] it might be the right platform to try and help. It’s funny because at first, I think I had my sights set on $2,000 and Brande, I think, said $5,000. We would consider that a success. If you had told us at the beginning that our page would raise nearly $43,000, I might have laughed. But it shows you the compassion of people.”
The fund drew more than 270 donors, and the money was spread across many needs. Donations went to Pampered Paws, the Provo Rotary Club (to distribute to schools), TCI Boat Club (to help the elderly), Wellington Williams (early food distributions) and the TCI Reef Fund.Large portions of the fund purchased such items as flashlights, mosquito repellent, sanitizer and feminine care products, which were sent to South Caicos via ferry, as that island was deemed most in need. Shipping and delivery efforts were helped by Tito and Atekah Seymour and Tom and Kate Tewksbury on Providenciales, and Earleen Elliott on South Caicos. Again, Wilkerson adds Brande to the list of helpers, as she was co-administrator of the funds.
Wilkerson continues to monitor TCI weather and regularly update the Facebook page, and he and his family continue to visit the Islands, staying at various places beyond the usual tourist spots. He says he would like to visit all of the country’s islands eventually. And as for weather, he notes that information for the TCI is improving all the time. He was impressed with the DDME response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, including shelter and utility information. “Information from multiple reliable sources is key to overall success,” he notes.
Drops of moisture in the air are just small things, separate and almost insignificant. But when a lot of them come together, they are a cloud. Likewise, people who come together, particularly in an emergency, are a community, a family. Given that, the Wilkersons of Arkansas are most certainly a part of the TCI family.

Jody Rathgeb is a long-time contributor to Times of the Islands. She spent the hours before, during and after Hurricanes Irma and Maria monitoring the Turks and Caicos Weather Info page on Facebook and sharing it with others. She made many new Facebook friends!

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