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December 31, 2013

New Year’s resolution: Be more weather aware

A recap of some tornado stories from 2013 with a challenge to be more weather aware in the new year.

As one year ends and another begins, you might be one of the millions making New Year’s resolutions. Maybe you want to lose weight, quit smoking, live a healthier lifestyle, conserve energy, or be a better parent. All of those goals are attainable and worth the effort. Here’s another idea that most people don’t spend much time thinking about: being more aware of what’s going on around you, including the weather.

For operational and broadcast meteorologists, situational awareness is part of our daily lives. We wake up thinking about the weather. Well, sometimes we have a cup of coffee first before the questions of the day start flowing. What will the atmosphere be like locally? What are the regional patterns? What are the models showing? We walk outside, look up at the sky, and know what those clouds, or lack thereof, mean. On days when we expect the weather to turn nasty, we are constantly monitoring what is going on around us. Naturally, we hope that everyone would do the same. Unfortunately, not everyone does.

This was a relatively quiet year for tornadoes, but the ones that made the headlines were absolutely devastating. Probably the most notable was the El Reno, Oklahoma, tornado on May 31st, which was the widest tornado on record – 2.6 miles wide – and killed 18 people and injured 115 more. Motorists on the highways around El Reno were a part of that count and included famed storm chaser and meteorologist Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and their friend, photographer Carl Young, who all perished when their car was destroyed by the monster storm. That storm crossed several roads including Interstate 40 (three times!). Motorists were trapped and vehicles were destroyed. Had fewer people been on the road during that event, had they been more aware of the danger heading their way and the need to be inside a sturdy structure, maybe fewer casualties would have been reported. However, with a storm of that size and intensity, it would have been more than miraculous to have no deaths or injuries reported. Some storms are just too big to hide from.

Closer to home, and thankfully less devastating, we had some tornadoes in North Carolina. On June 18th, an EF-0 rated tornado touched down in Rolesville. While the storm had been warned on by the National Weather Service office in Raleigh, many were taken by surprised including a friend of mine who just happened to be driving on 401 with his family when it passed in front of them. On September 21st, an EF-1 rated tornado hit King, North Carolina. It was the only tornado reported in the entire country that day. How many in King were surprised that their little town was the target of severe weather at that moment? Did anyone see it coming? Two days before Thanksgiving, on November 26th, at about 10:15pm, a confirmed EF-2 tornado struck Atlantic Beach, injuring two and causing major structural damage to some condominiums.

The King, NC, tornado truly was a surprise, even to meteorologists. The storm’s updraft was relatively weak and shallow – below the thresholds used by the NWS to decide when to warn on storms. The rotation tightened quickly, spun up a short lived twister, and weakened just as fast. In fact, it was so fast and so low to the ground that it wasn’t even captured on radar. Witnesses and a subsequent tornado damage survey proved its existence.

Tornadoes, while headline grabbing and more likely to be shown on the national news, are not the only weather events to be wary of. Flash flooding is still one of the deadliest weather woes. It occurs quickly, can trap drivers, campers, and hikers alike, and is often underestimated as a potential danger. Lightning strikes, straight line winds, and tropical storm surge also cause casualties. In most cases, meteorologists do their best to alert the public to the potential dangers the weather has in store. Thanks to advances in technology, many of the biggest severe weather outbreaks are forecast days in advance, and warnings are made before the tornadoes or winds are reported as ground truth. The information is out there for anyone who wants it, and it is pretty easily accessible these days with options like the internet, television, radio, and even phone apps for getting your information.

In this day and age, there really is no good excuse for not being aware of the weather situation on a daily basis. Still, people are caught off guard by storms regularly, which is why I think being more weather aware (if you’re not already) does make for a good New Year’s resolution. Get informed and keep those around you informed, too.

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