The beginning of meteorological spring, March 1st, is normally heralded as the start to “severe season.” While severe storms can happen any day of the year given the right ingredients, March is historically when they begin to occur with more frequency. The reason for this: this is the time of year when the polar jet begins to retreat northward, allowing the southern half of the country to warm and draw moisture in off of the Gulf. When that jet stream dips back down occasionally, it brings low pressure systems. The forcing associated with the system swinging through an area that has been primed with warm, moist air can sometimes kick off severe weather. Of course, there are more ingredients needed, but those are the basics for instability.
Why are we talking about this? Well, most weather forecasting offices use the first week of March as a Severe Weather Awareness Week to prep the population for the increasing likelihood of severe weather. We are going to do the same. The general absence of sensible weather today gives us the perfect opportunity to talk about severe weather preparedness. This is a topic I’m passionate about and one of the reasons I returned to school to pursue Meteorology. Giving the public the knowledge they need to remain safe during severe weather is absolutely vital. Even if you, personally, are aware of safety practices, someone you know may not be. Please share with them as we move toward a historically more active time of year.
I’ve compiled a list of ways to be better prepared for the threat of severe weather:
- Know Your Location
This sounds like common knowledge but you wouldn’t believe how many people can’t find their location on a map. This is vital information. Be able to not only point out where you live (with relative accuracy) on a map of your state, but know which county you live in and the names of the counties surrounding yours. Warnings are generally issued by counties. Knowing the counties surrounding you will help you know if you are next in line for weather heading your way.
Now, while the weather is quiet, is a good time not only to review this yourself, but to teach your children. They should know the same information on your location that you do. It may save their lives someday.
2. Know the Difference Between a Watch and a Warning
The difference between a watch and a warning often gets confused. I’ve created a graphic (above) to help explain it a bit better.
A watch is issued ahead of an anticipated event. Watches are posted when all the ingredients for severe storms/tornadoes exist but have not combined to produce the effects just yet. In best case scenarios, watches will be issued hours ahead of any adverse weather. In worst cases, they are issued only minutes before events occur. Regardless of when they are issued, if you reside in an area within the watch, you should remain weather aware for the full duration. Just because nothing is occurring at that exact moment doesn’t mean it can’t at a later time. Weather is often pleasant ahead of severe events.
A warning is issued when the event is occurring. Typically, this happens when winds reach the threshold to be classified as a severe thunderstorm, or damaging hail is occurring, or there is tornadic rotation detected by radar, or a tornado is already on the ground. A warning means you need to take immediate action to protect your life until you are given the all clear or the warning expires.
It’s important to mention that severe thunderstorms can be just as damaging and dangerous as a tornado. Though not always the case, straight-line winds can pack a punch and knock over trees and powerlines and damage homes in the same fashion. It is always a good idea to shelter during a severe thunderstorm warning just like you would for a tornado due to the similar damage they are capable of causing.
3. Have MULTIPLE Ways to Receive Warnings
I’m going to preface this section with this: Tornado sirens are NOT a reliable way to receive warnings!!
Though that fact is an unpopular one in some regions, it is 100% true. Tornado sirens were made to be heard outdoors, not in your homes. They are an outdated mode of issuing warnings and there aren’t enough of them to be heard everywhere in a region. Furthermore, if you reside in an area with more varied topography (northern AL, northern GA, TN, NC, VA etc), if there is a hill between you and the siren, the sound gets distorted or even blocked and you may never hear it.
Reliable sources include:
- NOAA Weather Radio
- Wireless Alerts
- Smart Phone (Local) Weather Apps – your local news station’s weather department often has it’s own app that will push watches and warnings out to you
Every home and business should have a weather radio. This is the most reliable source as it does not need power to function (can be battery operated) and does not rely on a cell signal to receive data. Cell towers can be taken out by a tornado and vital warnings may be missed if you’re relying on your internet connection.
4. Identify and Prepare a Safe Space
Having a safe space ready to go is important. Though the NWS strives to give long lead times in their issuance of a warning ahead of a tornado, sometimes people have mere minutes to to shelter. You don’t want to waste that time scrambling to find things you need or figuring out where to go.
Identify an interior room on the lowest level of your house without any doors or windows. Stock this room with hard sole shoes, helmets to protect from flying debris, and a whistle to alert rescuers to your location if the worst occurs. If you have pets, keep their carriers or leashes ready to go near your safe space so you can protect them as well. Keep a weather radio in this safe space to ensure you continue to receive any additional warnings.
Some of the worst places to be during a tornado warning are: in a car, outside, or in a mobile home. If you find yourself in any of these places during a warning, do your best to get to a secure place if it is safe to do so. Most counties will have designated public tornado shelters. Now would be a good time to identify and map them out in the event that you need to make use of them.
Do your best to remain as aware of the daily weather as possible during this season. Check your local news, national weather, and, of course, check here too. Jacob and I are dedicated to informing you of any possible severe threat either through our daily blogs or in the tweets/posts we send out. For watches and warnings, rely on your local branch of the National Weather Service. Stay safe this season and make sure your friends and neighbors are safe as well!!