High and dry: Local weather, water guys MIA

And so the days of drought dragged on, growing ever drier. Fear grew in the hearts of every man, woman, and child, until, like twin beacons in the night, two men among us stepped forth to lead.

Now, both pillars of strength have vanished like puddles on a hot summer day, leaving Charlottesville struggling with the question: Where on earth did Larry Tropea and Robert Van Winkle go?

When Tropea took over the top post at the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority in October 2001, he brought years of water management experience with him. And yet, after just 18 months as chief, including weathering a severe drought, Tropea suddenly resigned last June without much explanation.

Even more mysterious: Six months after his sudden departure from the public spotlight (his lawyer cited lack of support by the board), none of his former colleagues seem to have any idea about his whereabouts or current employment plans at least none they're willing to discuss.

His one-time home phone number rings endlessly until a mechanical voice announces "The machine is off." His cell is busy, and there's no information offered either online or from directory assistance.

He's been spotted at a recent UVA football game, and some people say they believe he's still in town. But the mystery remains. The only thing certain is that Tropea is missed.

John Martin, a Free Union resident who's been involved in local water issues for the last several years, says Tropea's arrival as executive director improved tense relations between citizen groups and the RWSA.

"He turned us right around," Martin recalls. "It was the most hopeful period."

Meanwhile, Robert Van Winkle is no needle in a haystack. A quick Google turned him up at NBC 29's Florida-based sister station, NBC 2.

"It's certainly sunny and warm down here," says Van Winkle in true weatherman style when we reach him at his new gig in Naples.

While Van Winkle gave only one weathercast each night here in Charlottesville, down south he has three: at 5, 6, and 11pm.

The larger market proved too good an opportunity to turn down, Van Winkle explains.

"Some days, you just wake up and say, 'I've got to get moving in my career," he says.

And while he says weather in Naples was calm this fall during hurricane season (while, ironically, Virginia was getting hammered by Isabel), Van Winkle will be ready if there's a cold snap.

"I stole a red Storm Team vest," he laughs. "I guess I'm going to have to give it back."

Larry Tropea

Robert Van Winkle still has a red jacket