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.
“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.
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.
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.
Sirens still relevant
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.