Severe Weather Safety
My journey with storms began some 40 years ago, and I have learned many lessons that can help others protect themselves, their friends, and their families from the hazards of severe weather.
Storms are fascinating, and part of everyday life in many parts of the world. North America just happens to be one of the most dynamic places on earth for severe weather. For example, significantly more tornadoes occur in the United States than in any other country. The unique combination of atmospheric ingredients required to produce tornadoes just happens to come together here more often than anywhere else. The biggest contributor to this scenario is the Gulf of Mexico, which provides much of the warm, moist air that contributes to developing storms. Strong upper level winds and boundaries such as cold fronts, warm fronts, dry lines, and outflow boundaries from other storms play large roles as well.
A significant portion of the severe weather experienced in the U.S. comes from a type of thunderstorm called a supercell or “mesocyclone,” a very powerful and complex storm. A supercell is defined as a thunderstorm with a persistent, rotating updraft. It can produce damaging tornadoes, giant hail, prolific lightning, powerful straight-line winds, and deadly flash flooding. Other weather hazards we experience include hurricanes, winter storms, intense heat, and dense fog. The U.S. is truly a colorful place when it comes to weather.
Charles Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” He was right. Those able, or willing, to adapt to their environment are the most likely to survive. We live in a dynamic region for severe weather. If we adapt, we can live safely with these hazards.
There are three keys to adapting to severe weather: Prepare, Monitor, and Act.
The “Prepare” stage can begin hours, weeks, or even years ahead of a severe weather event, in fact, the more “lead time,” the better. It requires identifying a safe place long before the threat arrives. It may also include stocking up on supplies, and it always includes a plan of action.
“Monitor” means to watch and listen to TV, radio, the Internet, or Weather Radio to be aware of the possibilities of severe weather hazards in your area.
“Act” is the final stage, and the key to your survival. This is when you carry out your plan of action based on what you heard while monitoring severe weather information sources.
The Integrated Warning System (IWS)
The IWS is a chain of information developed by various government groups, such as local emergency managers and the National Weather Service (NWS), to warn the public about dangerous weather. Trained storm spotters and emergency managers alert the National Weather Service, which then issues warnings or other statements to the media and NOAA Weather Radio to disseminate to the public. It is up to each individual to act on the information they receive.
The Psychology of Severe Weather Safety
Experts can create watches, warnings, and guidelines to help make life safer for people, but severe weather safety is often a clash of atmospheric physics and human psychology. The public is the last and weakest link in the Integrated Warning System due to the complexities associated with human behavior. How do people react when severe weather threatens? I believe that most people respond in a reasonable and safe manner. However, there are behavioral obstacles including:
Complacency – It is important that the National Weather Service, media, and other information outlets not “over warn” in order to avoid developing a complacent public. For example, if several tornado warnings are issued for a city over a period of time, and no tornadoes actually occur, then people may not take future warnings seriously. This is why NWS now uses warning polygons to alert only areas directly affected by a storm.
Storm Psychosis – “Psychosis” is a generic psychiatric term for a mental illness in which a person has lost touch with reality. When severe weather threatens, people with storm psychosis may exhibit irrational behaviour and an unhealthy level of urgency. This seems to be especially common with tornadoes. Unlike a hurricane or blizzard, a tornado is something that can be viewed in its entirety with the eyes. It can take on strange shapes and exhibit mesmerizing motions. People with storm psychosis may run traffic lights and speed dangerously just to “get” a tornado, or even scream frantically when they see a tornado even if they have seen many of them prior. Some may go as far as to deliberately drive into a tornado or even giant hail for the thrill of capturing video for YouTube. They lose touch with reality and may become frantic and blind to reason. It’s vital to note that people in this category are not real storm chasers, even if they refer to themselves as such. Their mode of operation is far different. The vast majority of storm chasers are responsible, safe citizens.
Storm Phobias – There are named phobias for several weather hazards including one for tornadoes and hurricanes, floods, snow, ice, heat, and fog. Astraphobia is the fear of thunder and lightning, or “thunderstorms.” Fear of thunderstorms is common in children and is not generally considered a phobia until adulthood. One should have a healthy respect for severe weather but not fear it. Seek to understand the truth behind this common element of our environment, and transform a fear into an interest!
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio: “The Smoke Alarm for Severe Weather”
I am always surprised at the number of people in volatile regions who don’t own and maintain an NOAA Weather Radio with the alert feature. It is essentially a smoke alarm for dangerous weather and other hazards. It costs about the same as a good smoke alarm, makes a loud sound like a smoke alarm, and requires a fresh battery on occasion, like a smoke alarm. Every home should have one.
Most weather alert radios sold in the U.S. feature a technology called “SAME” (Specific Area Message Encoding). This allows the user to set their location so they receive watches, warnings and other alerts only for their specific county. This technology cuts down on the frequency of unnecessary alarm activation.
I would advise that you purchase a radio that is just a weather alert radio. These single-tasking devices tend to be the simplest to program and maintain. Avoid weather alert radios that are also AM/FM radios, alarm clocks, etc., if you can. Personally, I have a NOAA Weather Radio with the alert feature and SAME technology at home, at my office, and a weather alert app on my smart phone.
Watches and Warnings
A “watch” means conditions exist for certain types of dangerous weather such as tornadoes, thunderstorms, flash floods, and winter storms. When a watch is issued, it is time to listen and monitor TV, radio, the Internet, or NOAA Weather Radio to be ready for severe weather hazards in your area.
A “warning” means that dangerous weather has been detected or is imminent. When a warning is issued, it’s time to act on your plan.
Martin Lisius is a veteran storm chaser and cinematographer who has produced several documentaries for public television, including “The Chasers of Tornado Alley”. He produced “StormWatch” for the National Weather Service which uses it to train storm spotters nationwide. His book, “The Ultimate Severe Weather Safety Guide” covers ways to prepare, monitor and act for severe weather hazards including: intense heat, lightning, straight-line winds, hail, flash flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms, avalanches, blizzards, and fog.
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