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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 03/24/2008

Freedman: A 'Push' Beyond Weather Radio in Cities

By Andrew Freedman

The tornado that struck downtown Atlanta, Georgia on March 14 came perilously close to being a "worst case scenario" - packed stadium, downtown traffic, expensive real estate, little warning. City residents were incredibly lucky to escape without a single casualty and with only about $250 million in damages. The Atlanta tornado, together with other recent urban tornadoes, demonstrates the need to take a different approach to disseminating severe weather warnings in urban areas. After all, it's only a myth that tornadoes stop at city lines.

A major issue that the Atlanta tornado made especially clear is that the proliferation of communications technologies and lack of tornado sirens in urban areas means that it's even more challenging today than ever before to warn urban populations of rapidly changing and violent weather conditions. But in addition to the challenges, there are also significant opportunities for broadening the reach of weather warnings.

Atlanta residents had little if any warning that a tornado was about to strike on Friday evening March 14th. For the thousands of basketball fans who were sitting in the stands at the Georgia Dome, there was no inkling that a tornado would soon sideswipe the stadium with winds stronger than a Category 1 hurricane. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, there were very few tornado sirens that were activated in most areas of Fulton County. The main reason for the lack of sirens, the paper stated, was the absence of funds for maintaining extensive siren systems. However, it's doubtful that sirens would have done much good in a loud urban environment with offices, convention centers and sports stadiums. In that environment tornado sirens might blend in with other emergency sirens, such as police cars and ambulances.

In fact, once the tornado warning was issued for Atlanta, the city's first responders stepped up to the plate with their own improvised siren system. Kelvin Cochran, Atlanta's fire chief, told a fire and rescue publication that the warning prompted the city to order fire engines to leave their stations with their sirens and air horns blaring in order to warn those within earshot of the tornado danger.

"That was essentially the only warning residents had," Cochran said.

In addition to Atlanta, many of the cities that have been struck recently by tornadoes haven't had tornado siren systems. For example, authorities in New York City and Salt Lake City lacked sirens to activate when tornadoes struck those locations in the recent past.

According to Roger Edwards of the Storm Prediction Center, budget constraints and misconceptions about tornado risks are the main reasons why siren systems are not more prevalent.

"In conversations with emergency managers and spotter coordinators," Edwards wrote, "I have found that the two most common reasons for a lack of sirens are low budgets and the perception that tornadoes cannot happen in an area. The latter is false; and the former is a matter of fiscal priorities."

The National Weather Service doesn't require tornado sirens for tornado-prone areas, and instead leaves it up to local officials to decide whether or not to install siren systems. What the NWS does call for is for people to own and operate NOAA Weather Radios, which sound an alert whenever a severe weather warning is issued.

NWS spokesman Ron Trumbla told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that for the weather agency, warning dissemination is all about sirens and NOAA Weather Radio.

"We see the sirens as a good outdoor warning system," Trumbla said. "We see the NOAA weather radios as the ideal indoor warning system."

However, in a city NOAA weather radios may not be so ideal. For one thing, they're out of step with the communications landscape of urban areas. Instead of sirens and NOAA Weather Radios, efforts to improve the readiness of urban areas to respond to a tornado threat should instead focus on developing better "push" technologies to get warnings out via cellular phone networks and online services.

In short, NOAA needs to help move weather warning dissemination away from a core reliance on NOAA Weather Radio and into the Web 2.0 world.

People use a wide variety of communications technologies to get their weather information while they're at work, mainly through the Internet. For example, it's now possible for users of PDAs to get an email alert through the cooperation of the associated network that the user is on. People can already subscribe to services such as The Weather Channel's Notify! program to get warnings on their cell phone or PDA. Technology has even advanced to the point where it's possible to transmit basic weather information via umbrella. But such programs are limited, are not led by the NWS, and are often fee-based, which provides a disincentive to some potential users who might benefit from severe weather information.

NOAA's reliance on NOAA Weather Radio doesn't take into account the need to warn urban residents during the day or during a commute time when they can be more easily reached via online push technologies. Take Washington as an example. How many legislative assistants on Capitol Hill, lobbyists on K Street, or diplomats in Foggy Bottom have a NOAA Weather Radio on standby at their desk? My guess is very few. Most urbanites don't listen to NOAA Weather Radio at work, in their car, or on the Metro. Nor do the majority of them have a portable NOAA Weather Radio on standby at a Wizards, Nationals or Redskins game. The radios are probably more commonly used at home rather than at work or in transit.

One potential drawback to a push system that was made clear to me after trying out an early version of a warning dissemination program via text messaging, is the high rate of false alarms. It's likely that if the NWS were to move towards more push technologies that individuals would receive far more false alarms than verified tornado warnings, and this could backfire and actually increase complacency as warnings are consigned to junk mail status. Hopefully the benefit of receiving a timely, accurate warning will outweigh the cost of nuisance false alarms, but it's not clear that would be the case for everyone.

Local emergency management officials and sports stadium owners/operators are likely candidates to lead the charge for creating more disaster-resistant urban communities, and for recognizing the distinct nature of how urbanites communicate compared to those in rural areas. Stadium security is a gaping hole in tornado risk management and general emergency management in this country, and this was made more evident by the Atlanta tornado that managed to frighten but not injure those in attendance at the college basketball tournament game at the Georgia Dome.

In addition, the Atlanta tornado and other recent urban tornadoes should be enough to convince management officials and the general public that the notion that tornadoes don't strike cities is just a myth. If downtown high rises and skyscrapers deterred tornadoes, why hasn't every small town in Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas scrambled to build a skyscraper for tornado protection instead of another storm shelter?

The truth is that tornadoes don't respect manmade structures, nor are they deterred by most natural boundaries, such as rivers, hills, lakes, etc. As Kevin Myatt of the Roanoke Times put it in a recent column, "Tornadoes sometimes even skip over trailer parks."

The scenario of a large tornado striking a major city was simulated in a study by the North Texas Council of Governments and the National Weather Service. The study transposed the major tornado event of May 3, 1999 that affected the Oklahoma City area onto the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex. The result: If the May 3, 1999 outbreak had occurred over North Central Texas, the potential damages could have exceeded $3 billion, with a loss of life in the hundreds or thousands.

And closer to home, the Weather Channel devoted an episode of their scare tactic of a TV show "It Could Happen Tomorrow" to a D.C. tornado scenario. The real-life version of that scenario almost played out with the deadly College Park, Maryland tornado of 2001. That event featured a brief and weak tornado touchdown near the Pentagon.

According to Roger Edwards' online tornado FAQ, since 1997 there have been seven tornado strikes on central business districts of major population centers in the United States, with more if the definition of an urban area is widened to include surrounding areas. Two of those tornadoes, one in Nashville and another in Little Rock, ranked as F-3 twisters, while the others were weaker.

In summary, in order to avoid a major loss of life when the next tornado strikes an American city, NOAA officials should work with tornado prone cities and telecommunications providers to reshape the warnings communication landscape for urban areas. This would be a far more preferable and productive path to take than simply relying on NOAA Weather Radio.

By Andrew Freedman  | March 24, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Freedman  
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The DC Government operates a pretty decent email/SMS alert system that includes weather alerts (and other major city-like incidents) -

But your correct in discussing false alarms. Most of the weather alerts I've seen may have been technically true (the winds were the speed the alert said, or the rain was the number of inches in the alert) but ended up not really being a "major" problem. But since the weather alerts are not too frequent, I ended up reading them - and if one said "a tornado is coming - run for your life" I'd start running!

Posted by: Stephen | March 24, 2008 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Good thing my wife's Subaru Forrester has the weather radio option, cause I can't find mine after so many moves.

Posted by: Mark1 | March 24, 2008 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Winter is not over yet. I there is a 90% chance this wont happen but since its the BEST snow solution I've seen all winter on the models I had to post it....sorry

Posted by: Conman | March 24, 2008 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Oh and by the way if it panned out..We would be looking at feet of snow....)

sorry for the hype folks...

Posted by: Conman | March 24, 2008 1:13 PM | Report abuse we go with the long range models again.

How far into spring will we continue to see these posts this year?

I'm gonna go with April 25th this year.

Oh, and winter IS over.

Posted by: Ivan | March 24, 2008 1:28 PM | Report abuse

thanks conman! :)

Posted by: missy | March 24, 2008 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Ivan, Lighten up bud.

Posted by: Conman | March 24, 2008 2:25 PM | Report abuse

I am wondering if you folks have some good advice on the best type of home weather radio/notification system or severe weather like the tornado in Atlanta...what if there's a warning in the middle of the night?

Posted by: missy | March 24, 2008 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Surface temps wouldnt support snow on the 4th. This is April 4th, not January 4th we're talkin' here...the sun angle does different things at the surface in regards to those temps up at 850mb. That would be rain. Coolish 44 degree rain, but rain hype here!

Posted by: Dulles ARC | March 24, 2008 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Hi Missy: In my view, the most reliable and cost-effective warning/notification system for the home is NOAA Weather Radio. The radios that are sold today can remain silent but "wake up" when a warning is issued for your area. Some information on NOAA Weather Radio is provided here. There are many private companies that provide warning notification services as well.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | March 24, 2008 3:13 PM | Report abuse

April 4 will not be a snow storm. Cold rain maybe, time to put the Ghost of Snows Past to rest, until next winter.

Posted by: VaTechBob. | March 24, 2008 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Re: models
See comment in next thread.

Posted by: Steve, Capital Weather Gang | March 24, 2008 4:17 PM | Report abuse

According to the AJC , there is now one death that is likely to be attributed to the Atlanta tornado.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | March 24, 2008 4:20 PM | Report abuse

No casualties???

I thought that some time over the weekend recovery workers found a body in Atlanta while clearing tornado debris. They saw a hand sticking out while clearing some wreckage.

Posted by: El Bombo | March 24, 2008 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the info Andrew.

Posted by: missy | March 24, 2008 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Missy if you want to be woken in the middle of the night for every warning that the NWS puts out then go buy the weather radio. If there is a flood warning two counties over and you live nowhere near a creek or a river then it does you absolutely no good.

Posted by: Steve | March 24, 2008 5:56 PM | Report abuse

In Loudoun, you can subscribe to an email service that sends you one if there's a warning. As a person who checks his email rather often, it's a very helpful thing.

Posted by: Model Monkey | March 24, 2008 7:35 PM | Report abuse

You guys are putting too much emphasis on tornado warnings themselves instead of a far more important matter.....getting people to LISTEN to those warnings and TAKE ACTION.

You can lead a horse to water, but.........

Posted by: Mike | March 24, 2008 8:32 PM | Report abuse

So Steve is there some kind of happy medium? I'd rather not be awakened for the next county's flood dilemma, but for sure won't be checking my email in the overnight hours. Can you set the NOAA radios only for certain types of warnings?

Posted by: missy | March 24, 2008 9:16 PM | Report abuse

Missy, the NWS is now issuing more targeted warnings rather than warning entire counties as a rule. Also, I believe there are ways to set what warnings you want to be alerted to on some models of NOAA Weather Radios.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | March 24, 2008 9:46 PM | Report abuse

Atlanta chief describes response to downtown tornado:

In response to the issue of NOAA's reliance on NOAA Weather Radio, I am a major supporter of these push technologies for receiving warnings (i.e., cell phones, pdas) but the reason why the NWS is not able to fund these types dissemination is because of the cost of maintaining the NWR network and keeping it running. There has also been a hunge amount of stakeholder support that has gone into this network. It is not in the best interest of NOAA to abandon weather radio even though I think we can all admit that it is old technology and hardly used by urban populations. And in the days of budget shortfalls and maintenance costs...the days of NWR are far from over.

Posted by: A | March 25, 2008 9:03 AM | Report abuse

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Posted by: bqmivrpd fpnj | April 28, 2008 7:10 AM | Report abuse

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