NEW UNDERWOOD | Nathan Rambo climbed a 100-foot tower north of here Tuesday and went inside an object resembling a giant Ping-Pong ball.
"You don't want to run into birds up here, they will scare the heck out of you," he quipped.
As an electronics technician for the National Weather Service, it's Rambo's job to perform maintenance on the weather radar tower. At least once every three months, he climbs the steel staircase and makes his way into the giant white ball above the surrounding farmland.
This week, Rambo is working at a small outbuilding just below the tower with two technicians from a Nevada-based company to make sure this radar station has a long life ahead of it. The radar tower gives an accurate picture of incoming weather, from Gillette, Wyo., to Chamberlain, S.D.
The maintenance project, called the Service Life Extension Program, is part of a $150 million, seven-year joint endeavor by the NOAA National Weather Service, the U.S. Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration to refurbish the 159 weather radars across the country. The tower outside New Underwood is the first in the state to receive the upgrade.
"This radar is 20 years old and it can go for another 20 years, but it just needs some upgrades," Rambo said. "As opposed to going out and purchasing a new radar, this will save the government a lot of money."
The weather service radar system is vital to being able to predict severe weather before it strikes. One example Rambo mentioned was giving people advance notice in the case of a flash flood.
"We can see not only the storms coming in, but we can see how much rainfall is going to hit an area," Rambo said.
The data the radar collects is used to issue tornado warnings in the summer and spring, and blizzard warnings in the winter.
Inside the small outbuilding Tuesday morning, the technicians opened up a large electrical box and rewired the unit. Red labels are plastered all over the tan box with warnings for high voltage, gamma rays and radiation.
"This thing will kill if you aren't careful," Rambo said with a laugh. "Even though we have the power off to the unit, we still follow strict safety measures."
The technicians worked on replacing old breakers and cables with new ones. The rewiring is the second phase of the Service Life Extension Program, which is expected to be completed by 2022 at all 159 weather radars nationwide
While the crew is working this week, the New Underwood radar station won't be operational, but others in Nebraska and Wyoming will be able to cover the area.
"We will still be covered if a thunderstorm pops up this week," Rambo said.
He expects the radar to be up and running again by Friday.