Science
1:58 pm
Tue March 13, 2012

Tornado Tech: What If Dorothy Had A Smartphone?

Originally published on Thu March 15, 2012 10:44 am

For many, the only way they learn a tornado is approaching are sirens. In the spring and summer, tornado sirens go off a lot more when twisters roar across Alabama, which has been hit by 900 since 2000, accounting for a quarter of all U.S. tornado deaths.

"I am still surprised that so many people rely on just one source of getting warned, and that has to change," said Jim Stefkovich, meteorologist in charge of the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service.

James Spann, a longtime television meteorologist at Birmingham's ABC affiliate, says the reliance on sirens has led to dozens of deaths over the years. "In the siren mentality, it's the idea that you're always going to hear a tornado siren before a tornado strikes. And I believe it's a farce."

Sirens are decades-old air-raid technology from World War II that were designed, principally, to warn people who are outdoors of threats. Today, homes are built and insulated so well that outdoor warnings rarely make it inside. And since the killer tornadoes last year in Alabama, weather experts have ramped up educational efforts.

In Tuscaloosa, where a massive tornado obliterated part of the town last April, a dozen volunteers recently sat at tables inside a supermarket, programming $30 weather radios, which broadcast warnings when bad weather is near.

Experts say that every home should have a minimum of one of these radios. Hundreds of people showed up to purchase and learn how to use the devices. Among them was Martha Moore, who already owned a radio but was buying some for relatives.

"For some reason everybody thinks it's not going to happen to them, and then when it does, it's a little too late to make those preparations," she said.

Next-Generation Weather Alerts

Last year was the deadliest tornado season in the United States since 1917 — 550 people died. And even though the start of the traditional tornado season is weeks away, 49 people have already died this year in places like Henryville, Ind., West Liberty, Ky., and Birmingham, Ala.

Preparation, and the lack thereof, have gotten the attention of those in the weather industry and social scientists. Both groups are trying to learn what people were thinking during the storms and how they reacted.

Laura Myers, a researcher at Mississippi State University, says she and her team have conducted more than 2,000 interviews.

"[People] wanted additional confirmation," Myers says. "They wanted to know they were directly in the path of the storm. If they got it through the television, then they checked their radios. They checked their smartphones. They called people. Many people went outside to see if they could see it coming."

That kind of thinking has led some in the private sector to see opportunities. Weather radios warn people when bad weather approaches a county, but counties can be huge — hundreds of miles across — causing many to ignore warnings.

New technology aims to change that. One is a $10 smartphone application called iMap Weather Radio created by Weather Decision Technologies.

Forecasters now issue next-generation alerts that focus on much smaller geographical areas where bad weather is expected. Company Vice President Mark Taylor says this application uses the phone's GPS to determine whether someone is actually threatened.

"There's no reason at this point why people should die because they didn't know," Taylor says. "The day of not knowing that you were in danger — I think it's very frustrating that it still exists, that people say, 'We didn't know.' "

Of course, not everyone can afford a smartphone. Birmingham meteorologist Spann says he and his colleagues recognize their own limitations. "We're not as good as we think we are, and we have to accept that and work on it and be better, and admit the warning process has some work to do."

The National Weather Service is updating its radar sites across the country. It will help forecasters predict the weather better, but that doesn't mean people will pay attention.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Tornado season is approaching or maybe it's already here. So far this year, 49 people have been killed in tornadoes that tore through places such as Henryville, Indiana, West Liberty, Kentucky, and Birmingham, Alabama. That's after last year, which was the deadliest year for tornadoes in the U.S. since 1917.

Now the government and weather experts are trying to learn how to better protect residents, as NPR's Russell Lewis reports.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: It's the kind of sound no one likes to hear but that people want to hear: a tornado siren.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

LEWIS: Sirens like these in Birmingham, Alabama, are tested once a month, and in the spring and summer go off a lot more when tornadoes roar across the region. Since 2000, 900 twisters have hit Alabama, accounting for a quarter of all U.S. tornado deaths.

JIM STEFKOVICH: I'm still surprised that so many people rely on just one source of getting warned, and that has to change.

LEWIS: Jim Stefkovich is with the National Weather Service in Birmingham. You'd think people here would be some of the best to weather severe weather. But for many, the only way they learn a tornado is approaching are sirens.

James Spann, a longtime television meteorologist at Birmingham's ABC affiliate, says that's actually led to dozens of deaths over the years.

JAMES SPANN: In the siren mentality, it's the idea that you are always going to hear a tornado siren before a tornado strikes. And I believe it's a farce.

LEWIS: That may surprise even the weather-savvy. Sirens are decades-old air-raid technology from World War II, designed principally to warn people who are outdoors of threats. Today, homes are built and insulated so well, outdoor warnings never make it inside. So since the killer tornadoes last year in Alabama, weather experts have ramped up educational efforts.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is what your alert test will sound like.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And then it'll do that and then it'll start talking to you. He'll tell you what's going on. Anytime that you don't want to hear it anymore, just push this button right here.

LEWIS: A dozen volunteers sat at tables recently inside a supermarket in Tuscaloosa, programming weather radios. Tuscaloosa is where a massive tornado obliterated parts of town last April. Experts say at a minimum, every home should have one of these $30 radios. When bad weather is near, these devices broadcast warnings. Hundreds of people showed up to purchase and learn how to use the devices. Among them was Martha Moore. She already owned a radio but was buying some for relatives.

MARTHA MOORE: For some reason, they - everybody thinks it's not going to happen to them. And then when it does, it's a little too late to make those preparations.

LEWIS: Preparations and the lack of them have gotten the attention of those in the weather industry and social scientists. Both groups are trying to learn what people were thinking during the storms and how they reacted.

Laura Myers is a researcher at Mississippi State University. She and her team have conducted more than 2,000 interviews.

LAURA MYERS: They wanted additional confirmation. They wanted to know that they were directly in the path of the storm. If they got it through the television, then they checked their radios. They checked their smartphones. They called people. Many people went outside to see if they could see it coming.

LEWIS: That kind of thinking has led some in the private sector to see opportunities. Weather radios warn people when bad weather approaches a county, but counties can be huge - hundreds of miles across - causing many to ignore warnings. New technology aims to change that.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning.

LEWIS: This is an alert from a $10 smartphone application called iMapWeather Radio created by Weather Decision Technologies. On the day I visited the company's headquarters in Norman, Oklahoma, the region was under a fire threat because of high winds. Here's vice president Mark Taylor.

MARK TAYLOR: As you can see, it's a red flag warning. On the app, it actually denotes our location with a pin - our exact location. If I actually want to hear it, I hit the play button.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Red flag warning in effect from 11 a.m. this morning to 6 p.m.

LEWIS: Forecasters now issue next-generation alerts that focus on much smaller geographical areas where bad weather is expected. Taylor says this application uses the phone's GPS to determine if someone is actually threatened.

TAYLOR: There's no reason at this point why people should die because they didn't know. The day of not knowing that you were in danger - I think it's very frustrating that it still exists, that people say, we didn't know.

LEWIS: Of course, not everyone can afford a smartphone. Birmingham meteorologist James Spann says he and his colleagues recognize their own limitations.

SPANN: We're not as good as we think we are, and we have to accept that. And get in there and work on it and be better, and just admit the warning process has some work to do.

LEWIS: The National Weather Service is updating its radar sites across the country. It will help forecasters predict the weather better, but that doesn't mean people will pay attention. Russell Lewis, NPR News, Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.