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Two hurricane hunter planes and several National Hurricane Center officials were at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport on Wednesday for the 2018 Hurricane Awareness Tour. Crowds tour the WC-130 Hercules, seen behind, used for weather reconnaissance missions. The aircraft goes into storms and gathers data.

ROANOKE — The Hurricane Hunters are used to dealing with lashing rain and turbulent clouds during their long missions through monster storms.

On Wednesday, the weather was considerably more peaceful when storm-chasing aircraft from the U.S. Air Force Reserve and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made their first-ever visit to the Roanoke Valley.

At least 1,000 people lined up at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport to climb aboard the aircraft and ask the crews what it's like to get to the eye of the storm.

Two reconnaissance aircraft, parked side by side on a far corner of the tarmac, drew a steady line of students, members of the media, dignitaries and other visitors throughout the day.

NOAA's shiny white-and-blue WP-3D Orion and the Air Force's slate-gray WC-130J have similar functions and an identical mission: to make hurricane forecasts as accurate as possible.

What the cabins lack in comforts, they make up for with banks of wires, display screens and buttons, and a chute that fires instrument-filled probes down into the heart of each storm.

The planes also ferried in a slate of experts from the National Hurricane Center who depend on those airborne observations to predict when and where the storms will strike.

Instead of relaxing during the tropical off-season, they regard the year prior to June 1 as preparedness season.

The idea to have a hurricane-themed exhibition 220 miles from the nearest beach was quite intentional.

The deadliest and costliest natural disasters in Southwest Virginia history all began with swirls of clouds in the Atlantic, Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico.

And there will be more to come.

***

Sounding the alarm about inland flood danger is a priority for the director of the National Hurricane Center, Kenneth Graham.

"When you close your eyes and you think of a hurricane, you think wind, you think beach, you think coast," Graham said. "The reality is there are more fatalities from the inland impacts, from flash flooding, than there is on the coast."

Symbolically, three of the five stops on this week's East Coast hurricane awareness tour are in cities that are several hours away from the nearest ocean waves.

As Florence and Michael once again demonstrated last year, hurricanes are complicated beasts that can spread their dangers hundreds of miles inland and days after they've made landfall.

Constantly improving track forecasts and new storm surge-focused warnings are regarded as successes, but there's still work to do.

Graham said the National Hurricane Center is actively involved with social science research that aims to make its forecasts, graphics and warnings more relevant to the threats at hand.

The familiar, wind-based Saffir-Simpson scale doesn't convey flood danger, for example.

"There's no such thing as just a Category 1, or just a tropical storm," Graham emphasized.

In the past decade, Category 1 storms have been responsible for 175 deaths and $103 billion in damage across the U.S.

***

Everything came full circle on Wednesday for hurricane forecaster Mike Brennan, who gained a healthy respect for storms while growing up in the Roanoke Valley.

"My interest in weather was born here in Southwest Virginia," said Brennan, who now monitors the tropics from the hurricane center's Miami-area office.

A November 1985 flood caused by the remnants of Hurricane Juan washed away his grandmother's home in Salem.

Satellite and radar technology have grown up right along with his passion for weather.

But without the reconnaissance flights, the rapid changes that happen within storms like Irma and Michael would be a lot harder to anticipate.

"If you don't have aircraft data, the uncertainty bar gets a lot bigger," Brennan said.

***

Each year, the hurricane center plans awareness tours that alternate among the U.S. East Coast, Gulf Coast and Caribbean islands. Over the past decade, the nearest stops to the region were in Norfolk, Raleigh and Washington.

Not long after the gates opened to the public Wednesday, the organizers said that Roanoke's turnout surpassed the previous days' stops in Rhode Island, and Harrisburg, Pa., which drew about 650 people each.

The planes and the hurricane experts will make their way to appearances in Charlotte on Thursday and Brunswick, Ga., on Friday.

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Check Richmond.com/weather for John Boyer's videos and forecast updates. Contact him at JBoyer@timesdispatch.com.

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