The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

May 12, 2013

Avoid apathy and panic during storms

By Kim West
kwest@athensnews-courier.com

— Several layers of protection exist to buffer people during severe weather through both traditional and tech-savvy methods.

Waves of warnings are issued through the media, websites, phone messages and wailing sirens. None of these alerts can be 100 percent effective when a storm transforms from a red area on the radar map into a twister on the ground within a matter of seconds.

The ruthless and stealthy nature of severe weather means people must remain vigilant and be proactive in seeking refuge from everything to lightning and flooded roadways to hail and winds exceeding 100 mph.

“If we’re under a tornado watch, then people don’t need to be in a vehicle. Visible warning signs would be if they start seeing traffic signs moving back and forth, turning and twisting around, or trees are doing the same thing,” said Daphne Ellison, spokeswoman for the Limestone Emergency Management Agency.

Traditional alerts

Turbulent weather can be tracked through televised reports, weather radios, ham radios or even word-of-mouth if phone service becomes unavailable.

Limestone has 73 functioning weather sirens, including 27 operated by the EMA, and 47 by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Lightning likely deactivated the county’s siren at Miller Lane and Alabama 251 in Ardmore prior to the monthly testing conducted on March 11. The county will seek to replace the siren through an insurance claim.

The EMA, which has helped train storm spotters for at least 20 years, has a dozen spotters who volunteer at the agency, a mobile command center equipped with four satellite phones and a backup generator.

Tech-savvy

Smartphone users can access the NWS mobile website at www.mobile.weather.gov, or tap applications such as the Tornado App developed by the American Red Cross.

The National Weather Service can already send phone alerts to smartphone owners, and a weather app is being developed, said Stephen Latimer, a meteorologist with the NWS in Huntsville.

He said an app produced by the NWS or the Federal Emergency Management Agency has legal ramifications and red tape to sort through before being approved.

“We’re different than most government agencies, with perhaps the exception with FEMA because they issue bulletins. We have a lot of different information coming through — radar data, warnings and advisories — and our information changes so rapidly,” Latimer said.

Common sense

But perhaps the most effective protection isn’t an app or a radio, but rather the willingness to heed watches and warnings for thunderstorms and tornadoes. People can avoid going out during inclement weather when possible, and they can form an emergency plan ahead of time to determine where to seek shelter.

“People just have to use common sense and just think about what they’re doing. We don’t want people to be scared but we do want them to pay attention to the weather, keep a radio and television on and have a plan ready,” Ellison said. “A severe thunderstorm warning is when a tornado can pop out, and that’s the time to be paying attention. Don’t stay in a mobile home, and talk to family and friends if you don’t have a safe room.”