The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

Breaking News

CNHI Special Projects

May 12, 2013

Warning Signs: Technology speeds disaster alerts, response

Caitria O’Neill remembers her reaction to hearing tornado warnings on June 1, 2011. She went to the grocery store, she said, “because I live in Massachusetts, and we don’t get tornadoes.”

By the time she got home, hail the size of baseballs was falling. Even as she watched a lamppost blow past, what was happening didn’t register.

Fortunately, her father got her inside and into the basement before the tornado blew out the windows, ripped off the roof and knocked their house slightly off its foundation.

O’Neill, then 22, and her family emerged to devastation. Her town of 8,500 people, Monson, Mass., had just withstood an EF-3 tornado that destroyed more than 60 buildings including town hall, damaged 200 others, and would lead to one death.

Pressed into service, O’Neill helped organize volunteers gathering at a church across the street. What she observed about the process inspired her and her sister Morgan, an MIT graduate student, to start an online software company, recovers.org, to help people prepare for disasters and respond more effectively.



In a world that can be app-addled, it’s tempting to dismiss the idea that technology will solve all problems. Yet, technology has changed the way Americans get ready for disasters and respond to them – with more precise forecasts, personalized weather warnings and more efficient recovery efforts. And it will continue to help us be more prepared.

Recovers.org is a fledgling company with a web-based software that helps individuals and communities plan for emergencies, then after a disaster matches victims’ needs with volunteers and donations. Its technology can’t compare to major breakthroughs in forecasting that occurred in the 1990s, like Doppler radar, which lets us “see” tornadoes before they form. Or the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory model, the first computer simulation to successfully merge information about the ocean and atmosphere to predict hurricane courses and intensities.

But Brian M. Brooks calls the web software “a godsend.” The city manager in Forney, Texas, Brooks used recovers.org when a tornado outbreak destroyed about 20 houses, a business and a school in his East Texas community on April 3, 2012. Coordinating with Community Life Church, the city set up a registry of people who needed help and people willing to volunteer goods or services. Cooper Taylor, the church’s mission director, said the website greatly reduced unwanted donations and storage problems.

Recovers.org is one example of technology pushing preparedness and recovery into the hands of communities and individuals. Even small towns now use established databases and GPS mapping tools to do things like track private storm shelters. Communities can respond to disasters differently, too. The same GPS technology can be used to plot downed trees. At least one company sells a system that tags trees and other debris with bar codes to ensure haulers don’t overcharge local governments and FEMA.

Specific technologies don’t always succeed, of course. “The challenge with any software is the plan is only as good as people’s buy-in and people’s knowledge of how to implement it,” said Andrew Sachs, vice president of government services at Witt O’Brien’s, a consulting firm that specializes in public safety and crisis management.

But some technology only needs to spread to be effective. That’s certainly true for storm warnings, which now reach individual pockets and purses.

Since April 2012, the National Weather Service has been able to send alerts about weather emergencies to people with newer smart phones. (About 55 percent of Americans have smartphones, according to ComScore.) Messages can also be sent for local emergencies, AMBER alerts and presidential alerts during national emergencies.



Smartphone alerts are geographically tailored. The weather service also has devised a “polygon” warning system, tied to cell towers, to make warnings for things like tornados, floods and severe weather more specific than the old, county-based system.

Private companies also offer telephone-driven warning systems. For example, TechRadium’s Immediate Response Information System makes automated calls when the weather service issues alerts. In Royce City, Texas, officials are using TechRadium’s technology instead of warning sirens, which the city’s fire chief and emergency management coordinator, Richard Bell, said were more expensive and only worked for people who are outdoors.

The weather service is experimenting with social media, as well, to reach people who don’t watch weather on TV or own weather radios. In Oklahoma – where the weather service has 32,000 Facebook friends and the Twitter handle @nwsnorman has 13,500 followers – a test in March found that a Facebook message reached 200,000 people in just a few minutes.

Even those hyper-personalized alerts will not mean the end of long-time staples of weather warnings like radios and sirens. In part, that’s because cell phone networks can be overwhelmed by traffic or knocked offline in a crisis, said Kim Klockow, a PhD student in geography at the University of Oklahoma who is researching how people respond to tornado warnings. Klockow’s work after the 2011 tornadoes in Alabama and Joplin, Mo., confirmed earlier studies showing that people want multiple sources of information about storms. More than half of those she interviewed first learned of those tornadoes from sirens then checked other sources such as television news or their friends.

Nor has technology created major changes in the way storms are forecast, according to scientists, at least since the advent of Doppler radar and integrated models for hurricane forecasting. But a great deal of work has gone into making those models better.



The weather service is rolling out changes to Doppler radar called dual-polarization, which distinguishes between hail and rain. It’s also testing phase array radar, used by the U.S. Navy, to see if it improves tornado forecasting. Traditional radar involves a dish that spins, but phased array radar uses panels that measure atmospheric volumes in about one-fifth the time as current radar, said Harold Brooks, senior scientist at the weather service’s forecast research and development division in Norman, Okla.

Phase array radar might make it easier to forecast tornadoes a week or two in advance, as can happen with hurricanes, or even make it possible for communities to have tornado days, like wintry areas have snow days, said Brooks. Phase array also could consolidate multiple radar systems – such as those used for air traffic, defense and weather – into one.

Growth in computer power alone is improving hurricane forecasting, and models are improving in their ability to predict the paths of storms. Progress is slower at predicting intensity of the storms, which is driven by ocean temperatures. In particular, the models don’t do a good job predicting whether hurricanes will go through rapid increases or decreases in force.

That uncertainty can weaken public attentiveness and ultimately cost money, said George R Halliwell Jr., a research oceanographer at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami. Halliwell has developed a model, currently in testing, that he hopes will help address the issue.

The difference between a Category 1 and Category 3 hurricane is substantial. And while a Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf Coast should trigger evacuations, if such a storm degrades to a Category 1 a few hours later, said Halliwell, “people just wasted a lot of money” evacuating.

Even with advances in technology, forecasters, scientists and emergency officials still face a dual challenge: When storms and disasters loom, they must convince a sometimes skeptical public of possible danger. Even before that, they must coax people – like Caitria O’Neill before the tornado hit her town in Massachusetts – to prepare for the unthinkable.

1
Text Only
CNHI Special Projects
  • Electric-grid attack fuels sniper-versus-hacker threat debate

    U.S. energy regulators' efforts to harden the power grid against snipers and terrorists are fueling a debate over whether they're diverting resources from other threats, like cyber attacks.

    March 14, 2014

  • VIDEO: Oklahoma high-speed chase ends in crash

    Authorities in Oklahoma City, Okla. say a man who stole a pick-up truck led police on a high-speed chase reaching nearly 120 miles per hour before crashing into a mini-van and two other vehicles.

    March 14, 2014

  • Screen shot 2014-03-14 at 12.39.21 PM.png Spring Madness: 3 apps to help manage your schedule

    Spring is imminent, and as you welcome the warmer weather, it's time to start thinking about home maintenance, school events and everything else you put off during the winter. These three apps will help you manage your schedule, no matter your organization style.

    March 14, 2014 1 Photo

  • 20140309-AMX-SNAKES094.jpg Researchers tackle mystery of how some snakes can fly

    Flying snakes sound like creatures from a bad B-movie, but these serpents are elegant gliders that have evolved a special skill that sets them apart. In two new studies, engineers have used simulations to try to decipher how the wingless reptile manages to remain airborne despite its lack of flight appendages.

    March 11, 2014 2 Photos

  • ERIC-HOLDER.jpg Holder: Heroin deaths an 'urgent and growing public health crisis'

    Attorney General Eric Holder, calling the rise in deaths from overdoses of heroin and prescription painkillers an "urgent and growing public health crisis," is outlining a series of efforts by the Justice Department to combat the epidemic.

    March 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • plane-skydiver.jpg VIDEO: Skydiver, pilot treated after midair collision

    A pilot practicing take-offs and landings got tangled up with a skydiver in Polk County, Fla., but amazingly, no one was seriously hurt.

    March 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • missing-plane.jpg In this tech age, how can a plane go missing?

    Call 911 from the side of the road, and GPS satellites can tell dispatchers exactly where to send help. Airline passengers have access to detailed maps that show exactly where they are during their journey. Hop onto WiFi, and somehow Google knows whether you're logging on from Lima or London, and will give you detailed suggestions about what to eat.

    March 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 10.45.45 AM.png VIDEO: Penguin sweaters save birds trapped in oil spills

    A wildlife group in Australia is inviting volunteers to knit sweaters for the penguin population it conserves, because it says the sweaters can actually save the lives of birds caught in oil spills.

    March 10, 2014 1 Photo

  • Most deadly fraternity scraps initiation for new members

    Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the largest U.S. fraternities and the deadliest, said Friday it will ban the initiation of recruits, citing the toll that hazing has taken on its newest members.

    March 10, 2014

  • VIDEO: Michigan woman's death, mummified body hidden by auto-pay for six years

    The mummified body of a Michigan woman was discovered in the backseat of her car approximately six years after her death. The body was only found after the bank that foreclosed on the home ordered work on the property.

    March 10, 2014

Front page
Clinton Herald Photos


Browse, buy and submit pictures with our photo site.

Poll

What are your plans for the weekend?

Enjoying the outdoors
Staying in out of the heat
Traveling
Other
     View Results
AP Video
Olympics 2014
Featured Comment
Featured Ads
Blue Zones Project
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.