Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Severe Weather Awareness Week

This week (April 16-20) is Severe Weather Awareness Week in Minnesota.  According to Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management, “The Severe Weather Awareness Week campaign helps teach Minnesotans about weather hazards and provides resources to minimize the risks associated with severe weather.”  In the past 10 years, more than 40 people have died and dozens more injured as a result of weather-related events in Minnesota (not including motor vehicles).  This blog post will present an overview on what to expect this week as part of Severe Weather Awareness, explain terminology used in weather alerts, and provide alternative methods to traditional media sources for receiving these alerts to stay safe during severe weather.

On Thursday, April 19th, sirens will sound twice as part of a simulated tornado warning.  Once at 1:45 PM, and again at 6:55 PM (all Minnesota counties in the evening except: Aitkin, Becker, Carlton, Hubbard, Itasca, Kanabec, Kittson, Lincoln, Norman, Otter Tail, and Yellow Medicine).  This will provide an opportunity to review action plans at work, school, and home in the event of a natural disaster, such as a tornado.  Sirens will sound for about three minutes.  When the sirens are activated, NOAA Weather Radios will sound an alert tone for a tornado warning.

So what does a watch and warning mean?  A watch means weather conditions are favorable for dangerous weather to occur.  In other words, a "watch" means watch out for what the weather could do, and be ready to act accordingly.  You may wish to alter or have a “Plan B” for any outdoor activities or travel.  A warning means the weather event is imminent or occurring somewhere in the defined warning area and that people need to take shelter as soon as possible.  In 2010, Minnesota had the most tornadoes of any state in the United States with 113.  Tornadoes can occur any time of day or night, but often occur in the late afternoon or evening.  A tornado watch is issued by the National Weather Service when weather conditions are favorable for tornadoes and persons should remain alert for approaching storms.  A tornado warning is issued when a tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar.  Take shelter immediately!  Whether a tornado has been radar indicated or confirmed, people should NOT be outdoors looking for the tornado.  There’s a chance it’s already on your doorstep, and by then it’s too late to take cover - leading to injury or possibly death!

How can I stay alert of the latest weather conditions?  I always believe that everyone should have two sources for receiving weather alerts other than outdoor sirens.  An outdoor siren was NOT designed to be heard indoors, and it should NOT be your primary means of warning to take shelter.  Counties and cities own the sirens and therefore decide how and when to activate them, not the National Weather Service.  All sirens are not the same.  There are many different policies by counties and cities.  Some will activate them across the entire county for a tornado warning only.  Others will activate sirens countywide for tornado warnings and all severe thunderstorm warnings.  Some will activate sirens across the entire county for tornado warnings and severe thunderstorms that have winds of at least 70 or 75 MPH, while others will activate sirens only for portions of counties.  Also, local officials may sound the sirens anytime they believe severe weather is a threat, even if there is no warning from the National Weather Service.  In the Twin Cities, Dakota County activates the sirens for any severe thunderstorm warning as well.  A severe thunderstorm warning is issued when thunderstorm winds are indicated or measured to be 58 MPH or greater, and/or contain hail at least one-inch in diameter.  Scott County will typically activate outdoor warning sirens if a tornado warning is issued, according to Chris Weldon, Scott County Emergency Management Director.

Quite frankly, every home should have a NOAA Weather Radio.  They are as essential as smoke detectors in homes.  This is potentially a life-saving device.  The alert technology has been around well before the Internet boom and cell phones, but with enhancements along the way.  Depending on the features, these radios cost anywhere between $20 to $200.  Most brick and mortar retail stores carry these radios (RadioShack tends to have the largest selection), and can also be purchased from online retailers, such as Amazon, using keyword search “weather radio”.  These radios with battery backup are designed to be loud enough to wake you up during a severe weather emergency in the middle of the night, and programmable to broadcast the alert text from the weather service.  Radios with SAME (Specific Alert Message Encoding) technology allow the weather radio to broadcast alerts only for counties you specify using a six-digit code number.  SAME codes can be found here.  It is recommended to select a weather radio with the “Public Alert” certification.  These radio have met certain technical standards and come with many essential features.

There are dozens of radio transmitters covering Minnesota for receiving weather broadcasts.  NOAA weather Radio broadcasts on seven different frequencies, which are pre-configured in most radios as channels.  Nearly every location in the state should receive a good signal.  The one exception is north of Bemidji in Beltrami County near Red Lake.

With the increase in usage of smartphones, apps are becoming more sophisticated.  For iPhone users, iMap Weather Radio is a highly recommended app to alert of approaching hazardous weather for any location using GPS tracking.  When an alert is received, a loud “chirp” tone will sound, and type of alert will be announced.  More details can be found in a review I did here.  According to app maker Weather Decision Technologies, an Android version is currently in development.

Speaking of phones, CellWarn from Convective Development sends weather watches, warnings, and advisories to your email and/or cell phone for free (carrier text message rates may apply).  The free service includes delivery options such as severe thunderstorm watches and warnings, tornado watches and warnings, winter watches, warnings, and advisories, and severe thunderstorm outlooks.

Social media is also a great way to stay informed.  My weather-related Twitter account, @ShakopeeWeather, and Facebook page post warnings for Minnesota as they come in from the National Weather Service.  Other accounts such as @iembot_mpx, posts all Twin Cities National Weather Service products, and @severewarn, posts warnings issued anywhere in the United States.  From my experience, most meteorologists are active on these social media sites during severe weather events, and are prompt with posting weather information pertaining to a dangerous situation.

As we get deeper into the severe weather season across Minnesota, I encourage the general public to start preparing this week for the thunderstorm season by establishing access to alert services and understanding the different weather alerts issued by the National Weather Service.  It will help eliminate any confusion during an actual emergency.  If you would like to get involved as a storm spotter in Minnesota (there are never enough), class schedules are posted here for outstate residents, and here for Twin Cities residents.

Additional information for Severe Weather Awareness Week:


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