Severe Weather: Staying Safe 2018

By Leslie Potter | 2/20/18 8:30 AM

As storm season approaches in Kentucky, emergency management coordinators want citizens to be prepared and stay safe. Fortunately, with improved technology and communication tools, staying abreast of severe weather concerns is easier than ever.

Chris Allen, weather director for WBKO in Bowling Green, led a panel discussion with four experts: Michael Dossett, director of Kentucky Emergency Management; Joe Sullivan, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service (NWS) in Louisville, Steve Hensley, director of Kenton County Emergency Management, and Andrea Clifford, public information officer for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s Department of Highways – Louisville District.

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Distributing Information
The goal of the various weather and emergency related agencies is keeping citizens safe, and they do this by gathering the best information they can and distributing it to the locations where it is relevant.

Dossett explains that there are five levels of activation in emergency management. Level one is a day with no severe weather risk. Level five is exceedingly rare and indicates very dangerous conditions. At the time of broadcast, flooding conditions in 13 Kentucky counties had Kentucky Emergency Management (KYEM) operating at a level four.

“That means we’re there monitoring the weather,” says Dossett. “If there’s any impact, we’re there to push the information out and possibly push state assets out to assist.”

The Louisville NWS office is one of five that operate in Kentucky and serves as the liaison office for the state. They are responsible for coordinating information from all the offices and getting it to KYEM.

“Just getting the message out and communicating is the most important thing,” says Sullivan. “Today’s age, with misinformation on the internet, you want to make sure that the correct message is getting out and by getting it through Kentucky Emergency Management, there’s no question that it’s valid information.”

Winter weather and flooding are of particular concern for drivers, and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is charged with bringing weather alerts to motorists when bad conditions occur. Clifford explains that the Cabinet gathers information about weather conditions through the NWS as well as monitoring the cameras on interstates and parkways around the state.
“We have electronic message signs on many of our interstates,” says Clifford. “We can put messages up there about tuning to highway advisory radio. We put information up on our site.”

Clifford adds that drivers can’t look up that information while they’re behind the wheel, but passengers can, and from that site they will be able to find current information about road and travel conditions. The system that allowed people to dial 511 to hear weather information was discontinued over a year ago, but all of the information can now be found online.

Social Media Weather Monitoring
“Before there was fake news, there was fake weather,” Sullivan quips, pointing out that false weather reports can spread quickly on social media. However, the National Weather Service has embraced Facebook and Twitter to reach people in the path of severe weather, and by following legitimate local NWS accounts (@nwslouisville, @nwsjackson, and @nwspaducah), users know that they’re receiving real information about local weather.

Communication via social media is a two-way street for weather services.

“Whenever anyone uses the hashtag #kywx…we’re going to see whatever report they have, whether it’s damage or snowfall or hail or a picture of a funnel cloud,” says Sullivan. He explains that this system of using a state’s two-letter postal code followed by “wx” in a hashtag wasn’t an official initiative but rather something that appeared organically among Twitter users. It has become so useful that local meteorologists monitor the hashtag to see what’s going on in the region.

“We try to educate through our social media: ‘Turn Around, Don’t Drown,’ and that sort of thing,” says Hensley, referring to a public information campaign to prevent motorists from driving over flooded roads.

Clifford says the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has partnered with Waze, a navigation app that brings user data into its system to provide crowdsourced information to drivers.

“We push information out to [Waze] about construction and maintenance and also about road conditions and road closures due to weather events,” she says. “We also get information back through Waze users. When we see a large cluster of reports of an accident and we see the speed of the roadway has gone way down, we verify that information.”

Tornado Safety
During the call-in segment of the show, a viewer brought up a common question: If I have no interior rooms, where is the best place to seek shelter because of a tornado threat?

“The rule of thumb is to put as many walls and floors between you and the tornado as possible,” says Sullivan. “Basements are better because you’re underground. But in a three-story house, the second story is safer than the third and the first story is safer than the second. If the storms are coming from the west, get as far away from the western walls [as possible].”

Regarding whether or not you should open your windows, Sullivan says it doesn’t matter—just leave them however they are and stay away from them when the storm hits so that you don’t get in the path of flying debris or broken glass.

Severe Weather Sirens
If you can’t hear the storm warning sirens from your home, the panelists say that you shouldn’t worry.

“The rule of thumb is, outdoor sirens are for people who are outdoors,” Dossett explains. “They are not intended to warn citizens who are in houses.”

“Those sirens are intended to alert you when you’re outside to get indoors,” says Hensley. “You get in, you take action, you tune in, you take cover. We certainly recommend that you have one of those [weather alert radios], because that will wake you up in the middle of the night whether you hear a storm warning siren or not. That will save your life in the middle of the night.”

Budget Cuts and Mesonet
Under the governor’s proposed budget, one of the 70 programs that would lose all state funding is the Kentucky Mesonet, a network of automated weather monitoring stations around the state developed by the Kentucky Climate Center at WKU.

“Mesonet is very important to what we watch every day in the commonwealth,” says Dossett. “We can go up on the mesonet and see the inches of rainfall for a particular area and better judge what the rainfall is going to do to a saturated area. There are a number of areas in several counties that do not have mesonet coverage, and then we rely on satellite projections for snowfall and rainfall, and they’re not as accurate. This comes into play when we’re ramping up all the data and all the figures from our partners and from mesonet and the weather service and we’re putting all that together to submit a disaster declaration request. So the mesonet is a very important network to us.”

“When you combine [mesonet] data with the road data that transportation department gives us, it gives us a real-time picture of where things stand,” says Allen. “Especially in the wintertime when we can see what we call these meso-scale events, the really small events, that could have a high impact.”

“Seeing the air temperatures and the pavement temperatures tells us when to start treating [the roads],” explains Clifford. “Part of it is being out there and seeing things, but having that [information] in advance can really give our crews a leg up to be prepared and stage on their routes.”

The Upcoming Storm Season
Will the 2018 storm season be a tough one for Kentucky? It’s impossible to know for sure, but there are some indications that it might be an active year.

“We’re in what’s known as a La Niña situation,” says Sullivan. “Typically in La Niña situations you do not have a lot of snow in the wintertime, so we have not had a lot of snow this winter. But think back on the years that we have. 2008 was a La Niña year. We had the big super Tuesday outbreak. [In 2011] we had more tornadoes in that year than any other in the state’s history. 2012, the tornado in the southern part of Kenton county. Those were all La Niña years. I’m not saying that we’re going to have massive tornadoes this year, but we have that risk. We’ve been lucky so far, but La Niña years are not friendly for us.”