Storm Stories

There’s so much going on weather-wise right now, and I really try to keep my meteorological musings to myself on most things.  However, there are so many severe weather misconceptions that have come out in full force the past few days that I just needed to get some thoughts out.  Maybe this is an opportunity to clear some things up.

The darn sirens are going off again!
Tornado sirens are part of an integrated warning system for many kinds of disasters.  I’ve heard people say over the years that they didn’t get fair warning on a tornado because they didn’t hear the siren while they were inside running the washing machine and vacuuming at the same time.  These sirens are primarily meant for outdoor notification of impending disaster – if you’re inside, you should have access to your weather radio, television, or other device that can warn you.  A lot of people can hear these sirens while indoors, but they’re meant as a warning to take shelter in the case of a weather emergency.  It’s rare that a severe weather outbreak occurs with no warning whatsoever – the Storm Prediction Center gives outlooks days in advance – but if you find yourself outside and you hear a siren go off (outside the normal testing cycle), it’s a pretty good indication that you should at least check to see what’s going on.

Argh!  Why can’t they just run a crawl or show a map?
TV stations have viewing areas.  Your neighborhood is not the only area that the station is responsible for – and in areas like Kansas City, the viewing area covers a lot of rural counties.  TV and radio stations work together to ensure all Emergency Alert System (EAS) activations are done with the safety of the public in mind – the stations themselves aren’t issuing warnings, only the National Weather Service does that.  But I hear time and time again – “Why can’t it just be a crawl?  Why does it have to beep and talk over programming?”  Well, the FCC actually requires that any warnings the TV stations choose to broadcast be broadcast both visually and aurally.  So there you go – that’s why it beeps and talks.

I heard there was a tornado in [insert city here]!
Especially right now, with the massive storms that have been pounding cities across the Plains, Midwest and Southeast over the past month, tension is high.  Coverage is nonstop – it seems as soon as it winds down for one deadly outbreak it starts up for another.  This has been an incredibly active year for severe weather, and people are on edge with every new warning and watch that gets issued.  What happens when the weather is bad?  People talk about the weather!  It only serves to make people more scared and upset when conjecture about storms turns into rumors about storms that are on their way.  Hyperbole is rampant in these situations.  Do everyone a favor and make sure whatever news you’re passing along has been confirmed.  Retweets and sharing links can spread false information like wildfire, and these outbreaks are scary enough without that entering into the mix.  If you have confirmed information, by all means share it, but in situations where people are packed together in a small area waiting out a storm with no cell signal and little information, speculation can start pretty quickly.  While those comments may seem trivial to you, to someone who has had a bad experience with a tornado in the past or just lost a friend or family member somewhere due to severe weather, that may just introduce unnecessary stress or worry.

Sorry, you can’t leave until the warning has expired.
A few years back, the National Weather Service revised how severe storm and tornado warnings are issued.  Instead of the old county-based system, they’re issued in polygons that better reflect the movement and direction of the storm and who is actually affected.  That said, weather radios are still programmed by county.  Any time a warning is issued for any portion of a county you have programmed into your radio, it will activate even if the warning is on the other side of the county.  Some counties in the KC area today had several warnings at the same time for different storms, but when one storm moved off, another lingered.   This caused the weather radios to continue broadcasting county-wide warnings despite the threat being mostly over for a majority of the county.  These radios are what a lot of organizations use for information to determine whether or not they can signal an all-clear after a threat has passed, so if you’re still in the basement for a seemingly ridiculous amount of time, that’s likely the source.  Emergency policies are put into place to address a lot potential disasters, but don’t shoot the messenger if company policy is to follow the weather radio.

More about the storm-based warning switch here.  Also, it’s not an F scale anymore, it’s an EF scale.  More about that here.

You go stormchasing?  Cool!  I’ve done that before too!
Nothing makes me wince faster than hearing people talk about what they have done while amateur stormchasing.  The rise of shows about stormchasing on multiple cable channels has made even the most uninformed think themselves an expert on chasing storms.

“I saw Reed Timmer get this close, so I’m okay!”  *facepalm*

If you don’t know the first thing about how storms form, or how to read radar, or have access to radar images and other information once you leave your house, you shouldn’t be out chasing.  Period.  I heard a story the other day from someone after I told them I had gone chasing over the previous weekend about how they went once with their friends and got stuck on a dirt road and had to walk for help as more storms were headed their way.  I appreciate how excited people get to share their love of weather with someone who knows something about weather (though I’m far from an expert) – but it is really, really hard to sit and listen to stories of people doing stupid things and be happy for them.  Please – don’t put yourself in danger just to see a storm.  Either know what you’re doing, bring someone with you who does, or just don’t go.  Stormchasing is dangerous, and even Helen Hunt’s leather belt won’t save you if you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Parting Shots
Severe weather is serious.  It’s easy to tune out from coverage fatigue when all the news seems to be about damage and death in the days after large outbreaks, but don’t let that keep you from paying attention when it matters.  Be smart and stay safe.  Below are some resources that I use if you want to keep track of severe weather as it’s happening – I know I posted some of these above, but here’s an aggregation of the links plus a few extras.

Storm Prediction Center – Find national severe weather outlooks days in advance, information about watches that have been issued and mesoscale discussions on current or anticipated severe weather threats.

SPC Storm Reports – A subpage of the above link, but this gives a more or less real time look at the reports that have come in to the local National Weather Service offices with occasional additional information.  On this page you can go back and search for storm reports from days as far back as 2000.

National Weather Service – This link is to the Kansas City (Pleasant Hill) office, but each metro area has one.  This is the best place for up-to-the-minute watch and warning information, as well as radar loops and local forecast discussions that give a little extra insight into the potential for severe weather.

Hydrometeorological Prediction Center – Another good source for national maps and forecasts.


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