Dark skies and sirens

Springtime in the USA brings dangerous, violent storms. Keil Hubert discusses how early warning technologies have saved many lives.


It’s springtime in Texas, and that means we get to endure a bunch of severe storms. Here on the Southern end of the Great Plains, we tend to get clobbered by tornados every May and June. This year has been worse than most. On the night of 15th May, a tornado ripped through the town of Granbury, Texas [1] killing six and injuring over a hundred people. On 20th May, the town of Moore, Oklahoma was darned near obliterated. CNN said that the storm left 24 dead, 237 injured and 2,400 homes destroyed. 2013 is going to be remembered by a lot of people as an awful year for natural disasters.

Moore’s had its fair share of tragedy – back in 1999, it was ravaged by a tornado featuring the strongest winds ever measured on the planet. 36 people died that afternoon. Final tally on the damage was somewhere between 1.1 and 1.5 billion dollars.

Two years before that, my wife, son and in-laws were caught up in the storm that destroyed Jarrell, Texas. I remember being caught on the motorway as the sky turned to pitch, the rains made movement impossible, and the roar of the storm winds started. We’d just left a funeral where the sky had been clear, the sun scorching, and the wind non-existent. That storm front seemed to come out of nowhere.

Depending on the strength of the tornado, a direct hit may not be survivable.

Depending on the strength of the tornado, a direct hit may not be survivable.

Violent spring storms are common enough that folks who live down here get someone blasé about the threat. No one ignores them, mind; rather, they the storms are so common that people thoroughly understand what measures are necessary for having any hope of survival. It’s pretty simple: get inside a strong structure so that you’re not killed by all of the flying debris. [2] You want to find the part of the building featuring the strongest walls (preferably concrete) that’s well away from windows and doors. Then you hunker down until the storm has completely passed and hope against hope that you don’t take a direct hit.

What’s encouraging is that more and more people are surviving every year because of advanced warning. When I was a wee lad growing up in Kansas, we didn’t know that a tornado was forming in our area until the community alert sirens started to wail. By the time the sirens went off, the twister was usually on top of us. We usually didn’t know how strong the storm was, what direction it was moving, or anything else about it. There were times where we’d actually go outside onto the lawn to scan the sky in order to try and judge the risk. [3]

The United States has invested steadily throughout the eighties, nineties, and aughts in order to better predict when tornados will form, where they’re likely to go, and how bad they’ll be when they get there. We still have warning sirens, but they’re largely a secondary or tertiary warning measure. When a major storm blows in, every television station in the local area will start broadcasting live radar pictures featuring computer-drawn probability cones over a map of the area. All of the local radio stations interrupt their broadcasts with detailed warnings. People see the radar maps or hear the radio alerts and scramble to take shelter wherever they happen to be at the time.

This warning effort is staggeringly effective when it works, and it’s a huge improvement over what we had even a few years back, but it isn’t nearly as comprehensive as we’d like. Case in point: back around 2006, I was driving home from work when a major storm blew in. I heard the emergency broadcast over my car radio. Knowing that my wife and kids were at a Scouts outdoor summer camp at the time, I called my wife on my mobile [4] and warned her about the storm – the staff at the camp didn’t know about the storm or that they were in its path. As I drove, I kept my wife informed of the storm’s speed and direction while she hurriedly arranged a mass evacuation of the camp. Fortunately, everyone got out all right.

Leave it to the passengers. Fumbling with your mobile phone while driving in bad weather is more likely to kill you than the storm is.

Leave it to the passengers. Fumbling with your mobile phone while driving in bad weather is more likely to kill you than the storm is.

Things have improved since then, but they’re still not optimal. On 25th May, I took my family to see the new Star Trek film. [5] On the way out of the theatre, we cold tell that a large storm was blowing in: the southern sky was an angry grey and the wind was picking up. As we hopped in the car and stared for home, I had my wife fire up her mobile and check the weather reports. Several radar stations showed that we had heavy rain incoming. Most gave speed and direction, so we knew we were about to take a direct hit. None of them suggested that conditions were right for tornado formation. That gave us the information that we needed in order to continue homewards rather than dart into the nearest structure. [6]

Having up-to-the-second situational awareness is fantastic and quite welcome. Mobile phones have given us this capability, and we’re grateful. The only way to make use of this capability, though, was to have my passenger check her phone; I was completely occupied with trying to drive through a construction zone in a heavy downpour. Had I been alone in the car, there was no way that I could have safely or effectively used my mobile to perform any weather research. That’s the next major hurdle that we have to overcome: getting timely alerts to people who can’t take their attention off what they doing at the time.

We have the technical components needed to close the gap between perceiving the threat and sounding the alarm. We all have mobile phones now, and most people have smart phones. We have location services that track where we are to within a few meters. We have location-specific storm tracking services running 24/7. What we need next: a community service that pushes a warning to take shelter to every mobile phone user inside a dangerous storm’s probability cone.

As we were stuck in the car getting pummelled by rain, I argued that such a warning service shouldn’t be a job for specific app or even for a given phone carrier; it should, I thought, be a community service, just as the old warning sirens were back in the seventies. If you’re physically in a given affected area, you should get warned. The objective is to save lives, which makes it a pubic service.

From a radar pulse to a computer model, then from an analyst to a million mobile phones. Weather warnings are getting faster and more accurate every year.

From a radar pulse to a computer model, then from an analyst to a million mobile phones. Weather warnings are getting faster and more accurate every year.

It looks like the U.S. government agrees with me and are already on the case. While I was putting this column together, I stumbled onto a article from last spring where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that they were working with mobile phone carriers to introduce a new Wireless Emergency Alert service. If the system works as-intended, it’ll be exactly what we need out here on the plains: timely warning to take shelter no matter where we are or what we’re doing at the time. I really, really hope that we can make this idea work. Hundreds of lives could be saved and thousands of injuries prevented every year.

Americans love to complain about paying taxes. It’s a treasured national pastime, like baseball and deep-frying everything. Still and all, I’m damned proud of NOAA for trying to build this WEA service, and I’m quite happy to contribute some of my income to advance its construction. In fact, I’m fairly sure that the NOAA doesn’t need to go to Congress for an appropriate to fund this: if they’d just put it up on Kickstarter.com, those of us who live down here in Tornado Alley would almost certainly fund it all on our own in a matter of days. We have a vested stake in its success – the life it saves may well be our own. That’s certainly worth pitching in for.


[1] Granbury sits only forty miles southwest of my town. It’s a popular place for the well-to-do to live when they want an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. I’ve been there a time or two, and several people in my office live there, have family there, or grew up there. It’s surreal when a place you know get surveyed by a helicopter news crew and all you can see is acre after acre of destroyed homes in a place that you recognize.

[2] Strong tornados can pick up lorries and fling them like a toddler flings a toy car out of a pram. It’s both surreal and terrifying to watch – and impossible to survive if a storm flings one at you. This video footage shows what it looks like – when you get to about one minute twenty seconds into the video, pay attention to that object getting lifted up and flung: that’s a bloody truck.

[3] Health & Safety would like to remind you that going outside to survey an oncoming tornado is unbelievably stupid and should not be attempted by anyone, ever.

[4] Health & Safety would also like to remind you that it’s unsafe to use your mobile phone whilst driving. On the other hand, freaking tornado heading for a camp full of schoolchildren. So, on the balance, we’ll let this one go with a mild rebuke.

[5] Go see it if you haven’t already.

[6] One local weather app in particular irritated us to death: it told us that we were experiencing “clear” conditions, even through we were – at that moment – getting pounded by rain. Bloody useless.

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

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