“The storm hit without warning!” We often hear that phrase following a severe weather event by the media, storm victims, and even politicians. As an operational meteorologist responsible for the issuance of timely and accurate severe weather warnings, hearing this kind of statement is very frustrating.
Look no further than last week’s thewxsocial.com post on tornadoes that affected the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex following the Christmas Holiday. The common theme was a general lack of awareness. While surprise severe weather certainly makes for a good news story, it’s often not the truth. I can’t accurately state that damaging thunderstorms are always accompanied by a warning, but a large majority is. The statistics don’t lie; over the past 15 years, approximately 70% of all reported tornadoes occurred during a tornado warning with an average lead time approaching 15 minutes.
The problem with many of these claims of no warning isn’t that that the local meteorologists dropped the ball and missed a severe weather event. Often, a warning IS issued but the storm victim simply doesn’t get the message. Thus, what they usually mean is “I was not aware of the impending severe weather.” This could be for a multitude of reasons which could be an article in and of itself. What it usually boils down to is either the threat was poorly conveyed in the warning or the end user did not have a reliable method of receiving the information. Getting a message to the public is one of the biggest hurdles we face in the entire warning process. So how do we close this communication gap? Fortunately, there are several options which make potentially life-saving weather information readily accessible.
The official dissemination method for the National Weather Service (NWS) is NOAA Weather Radio (NWR). Warnings are issued by the NWS meteorologists that are then fed directly to the weather radio transmitters. Within seconds of issuance, the warning information is broadcast over the airwaves and the Emergency Alert System is enacted. NWR transmitters are scattered across the country, each having a broadcast range of up to 40 miles. While NWR transmitters actually cover about 90% of the population, it is estimated that only 5-10% of homes actually own a radio.
These radios can be purchased in many retail stores for as little as $20.00 and provide a reliable link to your local NWS forecast office. Weather radios broadcast routine forecasts and observations during quiet weather but will produce an audible alarm, even during the middle of the night, when a warning for life-threatening weather is issued for your area. Most of these weather radios are programmable, meaning you can pick and choose which counties set off the alarm. They also have a battery backup, so you can still receive valuable weather information even if the electricity is out.
Smartphone apps offer another method for receiving NWS severe weather warnings. The latest statistics show that approximately 64% of American adults own smartphones. There is a myriad of free (and premium) apps out there that will alert your phone whenever a warning is issued. Some of these apps can even use your phone’s geo-location services to only alert you of severe weather if you are included inside the warning. Given the number of free apps on the market, there is simply no reason to not have one set up on your smartphone. In addition to downloadable apps, many smartphone are now equipped with the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). These WEA messages send an alert to your phone when a tornado or flash flood warning is issued for your location.
Another tried and true method for receiving weather information is from your local television (and radio) media. Most broadcast meteorologists do a fantastic job of communicating severe weather information to the general public. These on-camera meteorologists are great at breaking down the threats associated with severe thunderstorms, providing a timeline for the storm impacts, and relaying actionable safety tips. During life-threatening weather, these meteorologists may interrupt the regularly scheduled broadcast to give minute-by-minute severe weather updates. This type of information can be invaluable during hazardous weather.
With these various methods available for receiving severe weather information, there is no reason anyone should remain uninformed when severe weather strikes. Meteorologists can provide the expertise to create life-saving severe weather warnings, but the onus remains on the general public to take the responsibility to see that these warnings do not fall on deaf ears.