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Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Favorite forecaster Leep still knows his weather

By Joe Henderson
Tribune columnist

Published:   |   Updated: June 9, 2013 at 02:23 PM

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When a big wind like Tropical Storm Andrea drops by for a visit, maybe you keep your television tuned to The Weather Channel for updates. You probably click on TBO.com for radar and tracking information. It's the modern way to follow these things.

But long before that, we had someone around Tampa who was just as reliable - maybe even more. It was Roy Leep, the face of weather for 40 years at WTVT, Channel 13 until he retired at the end of 1997.

If you weren't sure you needed to carry a raincoat to work, you checked with Roy Leep. If you wondered whether to stock up on canned goods, you'd first see if Roy thought the hurricane was going to turn.

Roy loved predicting and reporting the weather, and you don't just stop doing that because of something called retirement. So he is now the trusted source for weather information at University Village, a retirement center near the University of South Florida.

After moving there 10 years ago, he worked with management to erect a fully operational weather center located on top of one of the buildings. The center feeds constant weather information to the forecast center in one of the rooms at his apartment.

He has 10 computers there that track national forecast centers, radars and other sites. It's not quite the "Roy Leep Weather Center" at WTVT with the massive radar tower you can see at from Kennedy Boulevard, but it gets the job done.

The computers feed him enough information to keep University Village's dedicated weather channel updated with the latest forecast.

For hurricanes or big events like Andrea, he sends emergency updates to a network of several retirement centers around the state. Otherwise, he keeps the information specific to University Village.

The man is 80 years old and he does this for free.

"When you get to my age, you want to make sure you're thinking right," he said. "This keeps me mentally active. And besides, I love it."

I first heard about this through my in-laws, Gerald and Grace Patterson. They live at University Village. They told me how Leep meets with residents to brief them on hurricane or severe weather preparation. He sends email updates on things like total rainfall and other meteorological stuff.

Sometimes, when residents were on an outing, Leep would be there with his name tag, and it was like he was a rock star.

"People would be coming up to him and like, 'Are you Roy Leep? Can I get my picture taken with you?' It's amazing," my father-in-law said. "He is so well known."

People trusted Leep - well, him and his beloved Scottish Terrier named Scud, who helped him close out his nightly TV segments. He earned that trust. As far as I know, he was the only forecaster to predict snowfall for Tampa on Jan. 18, 1977. We all know it doesn't snow in Tampa, except when Roy said it would, it did.

That night brought Tampa's first snowfall in about 50 years, and the next morning the interstate system around here was closed.

Given his reputation for accuracy, it made sense to get his take on hurricane season. After all, just last week Tampa was named by The Weather Channel as the place most overdue for a hurricane.

"It only takes one, you know," he said. "Remember, if (Hurricane) Charley hadn't turned at the last minute (in 2004), it would have been catastrophic for us. If you think the damage from (superstorm) Sandy was bad in New Jersey, just think what would happen here if something like that hit here.

"In 1960, Hurricane Donna came ashore at Everglades City and if it hadn't we would have been under 15 feet of water."

The weather has been awfully cranky lately, as we see the damage wrought by the two recent EF-5 tornadoes in Oklahoma and other places. Is climate change making storms larger and deadlier?

Maybe not.

"We're measuring them better than before, we have more pictures than we used to, so I think we just know more about these storms," Leep said. "There were F-5 tornadoes before, but they were usually out on the open plains. As cities have grown larger, you're going to find these storms hitting populated areas more often.

"I think these things go in cycles. I think the weather is constantly changing by itself. I don't think much about climate change or global warming, to be honest. To me, that's a political football."

Meanwhile, the computers in his office were warning that a big storm was headed our way. Andrea said hello to us about 36 hours after our interview. I caught up with Leep again as the system began to wind down in Tampa. It had been a busy time, but that's how he likes it.

"I've been going strong," he said, "but maybe it's just practice for the big one."

When that day comes, University Village residents will be among the first to know. Roy Leep will make sure of that.

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