A chat with the creator of the weather podcast genre

For 11 years, Alabama broadcast meteorologist James Spann (ABC 33/40, Birmingham) and several of his friends in the weather enterprise have produced a weekly podcast (internet talk show) called WeatherBrains. It was the first in what has become a group of weather-related podcasts that are jointly celebrating the first-annual National Weather Podcast Month in March.

The weather brains normally record WeatherBrains on Monday evenings. Audience members can watch the discussion live on YouTube, watch it later on YouTube or download the program as an audio recording for listening at their convenience.

W9LW’s Ramblings had chance to talk to Spann about the show that started the weather podcast genre and now has an audience in the tens of thousands. Watch the 14-minute interview on YouTube or read it below. The transcript includes a few helpful notes and hyperlinks.

W9LW’s Ramblings: What prompted you to get into the podcast business?

Spann: I’m kind of an early adopter. I got my ham license when I was 14 and I just get into things early. And I saw some people doing these shows on the internet; audio shows. And I thought it was fascinating and thought, “Goodness, we ought to try this.” And, at the time, I really needed a creative outlet. Television weather is harsh. You’re on TV for two minutes, three minutes, you’re in, you’re out, it’s very structured. And I think everybody, I don’t care what you do for a living, you need some type of creative outlet. So, we gathered together some Weather Service people and broadcasters that do weather, very structured weather, and just started a 30-minute audio show, just to have a little fun. We never expected anybody to listen! I mean, you know, nobody knew what it was back then. But we’ve enjoyed it so much, we’ve met so many people and we’ve developed this family over the years, that it’s a joy. I look forward to it every week, even though it’s been on the air for 11 years.

W9LW’s Ramblings: How did you pick the first panel and how did you convince them to get involved in this thing?

Spann: Well the first thing, I didn’t want to be the host. I did not want to be the main guy, because my background is engineering and meteorology. My first major in college was electrical engineering and I finished in meteorology. I’ve never taken a class on how to be some host of a media show. So, we brought in a guy named David Black. David actually did weekends with me years ago, weekend weather, and David had a good background in broadcasting. So, he was the first host of the show, and I was just a panelist. We brought in my mentor, who worked for the Weather Service here for a long time, who was retired at the time, and a couple of other local guys. And then, we just decided to expand it, as we heard more people listening away from this (Birmingham) market, we thought, “why limit ourselves?” So, it has morphed from this little local show, to now, our people are in Oklahoma, in Texas, in Virginia, North Carolina, and it gives it kind of a national flavor.

W9LW’s Ramblings: How was the show different then than it is now?

Sometimes, in the weather enterprise, we need to talk. There are some big issues we’re facing right now. And I mean, big.

Spann: Originally, it was a 30-minute audio show. That’s it. Thirty minutes, audio, I mean, David wrapped that sucker up. He wrapped that thing up 30 minutes after we started. And now, it’s a two-hour, video and audio show. That’s the biggest difference. We kept pushing the time back because some of this stuff we need to talk about. Sometimes, in the weather enterprise, we need to talk. There are some big issues we’re facing right now. And I mean, big.  And it’s very frustrating for me, because my limiting factor is television. I have to go do the late news. And most nights on our show I’ll leave the post here and just let the other guys finish it out. So, we morphed into a two-hour show, that is audio – and most people still listen. I’d say about 75 percent, about 25 percent watch. We just, looking at the numbers, that’s the way it shakes out. We put it on video, because my boss here, wanted to put it on our local, digital weather channel. He thought it’d be a good supplement to that channel. So, we’re on the local television and cable systems with the show. So, it’s kind of a local TV show now, a YouTube show, but mostly, mostly still an audio podcast.

W9LW’s Ramblings: Why has it lasted so long? What have you guys been doing right?

I look forward to it every week. I can’t wait for Monday night.

Spann: I think, number one, we just enjoyed doing it. And of course, now, with social media, you can have creative outlets in different ways. But still, we love getting together. And the people that have come on the show over the years, we’ve met the most remarkable people in the weather enterprise that I didn’t know, and I’m old as dirt! I know most everybody, but a lot of these people I met along the way on this show and they’re marvelous people.

And we’ve had very emotional shows. We had a show here after a horrible tornado outbreak six years ago. We had 252 people that died in one day here. And that show was hard, but it was healing for me and for the others on the show, because we were still in like this state of shock.

We’ve had shows that have been kind of bizarre, where there’s a little conflict, and you know, sometimes conflict makes for good radio, television, podcasts. So, we don’t necessarily agree, but we try and be straight shooters and give people a fair chance. The Mike Morgan episode: Mike is an Oklahoma City meteorologist. We gave him the chance to come on and share, after he took some criticism after the El Reno tornado out there. And he came on, and that was an interesting show.

But they’re all interesting, they’re all good. I look forward to it every week. I can’t wait for Monday night, mainly not for my participation, but just to listen to the guest we have on.

W9LW’s Ramblings: Have you ever felt like stopping? Has there ever been a week when you just didn’t feel like doing the show?

Spann: Nah, no. And again, you know, my job has changed. Television weather, we used to worry about being on television at night. Now, with social media, digital platforms, it doesn’t stop. I don’t sleep. I haven’t slept, really, since 1973. It’s just, I need that. I need to come in here for 90 minutes and have some fun, and laugh, and cut up a little bit, and just be yourself. I’ve never thought about stopping. I figure, as long as I’m on television, I’ll keep doing this. I want to work about eight more years. I’m 60, so I figure I’ll work maybe until I’m 68, maybe a little longer. And I’d like to hand it off to one of the other guys. We’ve got some younger guys on the show that would just be great, I think to take it and keep running. And again, my part is small. The only reason I’m considered the host is because I’m the guy with the football here. We do the show, and I’m the button-presser buy, I’m the producer, the engineer, the bottle-washer here, the sound effects guy, and if I’m not here, they really can’t do it right. So, I pretty much have to be here. But, again, I’ve never thought about stopping.

You know, sometimes we think about, “Are we gonna run out of guests?” No! There’s always somebody. There’s the new generation getting in this, in the weather enterprise. There’s always somebody new. And quite frankly, some of the guests we’ve had in years past need to be on a regular basis. Some of these are characters, like Chuck Doswell, goodness, I’d love to have him on every month, just to hear Dr. Doswell and some of the others in the weather enterprise. So no, we’re not stopping, we’re just getting started.

W9LW’s Ramblings: So, you’re just having a blast.

We try and make it technically clean. I think the big problem with podcasts is bad technology.

Spann: I am! And you have to have fun to do this. And the other thing, too, is that we try and make it not only fun and decent guests and good content, but we try and make it technically clean. I think the big problem with podcasts is bad technology, where people maybe have bad audio, or you know, it’s not clean, and there’s a lot of break up. And look, we’ve had our problems with our guests, that’s the main problem, because, you know, they’re having to you know, come on a show and they might not have one of these fancy microphones like this (pointing to the professional mic that he uses during WeatherBrains) and all this equipment. But we try and make the show clean, technically and I think that’s a help, too. People expect that. You know, they’re used to seeing broadcast-quality content and we think the content here should be the same.

W9LW’s Ramblings: Is there anything that the WeatherBrains podcast hasn’t achieved, that you’d still like to see it do?

I would like to do the show on remote a little more.

Spann: I think, the one thing we need to learn, is the remote stuff, to do that a little better. We have taken the show to annual meetings, the National Weather Service annual meeting, we did the whole show in Norman, Oklahoma, a couple of years ago. And almost every major weather convention, we are live, somehow. Typically, it might be one or two of our folks, but some years, it’s everybody. And I think what we probably need to do is invest in a strategy to do that where it’s clean. I love a clean show, and it’s very hard to do that on location, especially when people are watching. At the NWA (National Weather Association annual meeting), we had, like this auditorium full of people, and we were on these big screens. And so that’s the one thing I’d like to be able to do, is to take the show on the road and do it in a more professional manner. And again, it was OK, I mean, you go back and listen to those shows and it was OK, but I don’t think it was quality the way I’d like it. And I’d like to do more of that. I’ll be speaking in Chicago in a couple of weeks (DuPage County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Advanced Severe Weather Seminar), I’ll be at Valparaiso (Great Lakes Meteorology Conference, Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana) in about a month. We’re empty nesters now. Our children kids are grown. And for years and years, I was at the ballpark in the spring. I couldn’t get out. I had to be there for the kids. And now, I’m free to do that. So, I would like to do the show on remote a little more.

We are on the verge of a collapse of the watch-warning system in this country.

And, again, I’d like to use it as a platform, to maybe, you know, push some topics that maybe we haven’t pushed. And people accuse me sometimes of being too hard on the guests, and sometimes I’m too easy on the guests. I don’t know what the right answer is. But we’re gonna have a show coming up soon, where these guys, they’re gonna start doing their own warnings, and they’re claiming they can do polygons down to one or two houses. We can’t do that! It’s not ethical to do that.

I’m telling you, we are on the verge of a collapse of the watch-warning system in this country. All the TV stations are about to start doing their own warnings. I’m telling you, that horse is leaving the barn. The train is out of the station. And if we don’t stop it, we’re gonna have mass chaos. And I’ve got empirical evidence, research in my hand from social scientists that will show that inconsistent messaging and confusion will lead to deaths. Period. And so, we’re gonna try and tackle this thing in the summer, but you know, so many of our shows are just fun, and they need to be fun. But every once in a while, we need to do the hard shows, and I think we need to do the hard shows a little more often, instead of doing the fluffy, easy shows. So, that’s something else I’d like to do. We’ve just got some issues. We’ve got some issues in the weather enterprise we have to tackle. And if our show can be an outlet for that, great.

And we know a lot of people listen. I mean, let me tell you what, if we make somebody mad, we hear about it.

W9LW’s Ramblings: How many are there? Tell me about the audience. What do you know about the audience?

The audio download’s running about 30 to 40 thousand every week.

Spann: You know that’s the other thing. It’s fuzzy math. Podcasting is fuzzy math. You get downloads. You don’t know if somebody listened for one minute, or the whole show. You don’t know! You just don’t know. And we’ve not tried to monetize this show. We all have jobs, we have a salary, we don’t need to. There are some expenses involved with it, but whenever we do a fund-raiser, like, we sold t-shirts and hoodies; that money goes to a scholarship fund to honor one of our panelists that passed away, J.B. Elliot. He was my mentor. So, we’ve done things like that. So, we really don’t care if one person watches, or you know, 10,000, or 50,000, 100,000. The latest numbers that I’ve seen, the people that watch on YouTube, that’s probably in the 5,000 range every week, after a month, after one month. A lot of people watch later. One thing we’ve learned, they will watch and listen weeks after you do the show. So, you have to remember that, that people don’t always listen the next day. It might be the next month, or even the next year. But about 5,000 on YouTube and the audio download’s running about 30 to 40 thousand every week.

You know, it’s creepy! You know we started this not expecting anybody to listen and you know it’s — there’s a lot of people that listen to this thing. And again, we don’t want that to bother us or, I don’t even want to think about it. We call it the digital mahogany table. We sit around, it’s like we’re sitting at a coffee table, just chatting about the weather. Again, will we ever monetize it? I don’t know, maybe, if I get fired, we’ll have to. In this business, you never, you’ve been in this business (referring to interviewer’s previous career as a TV newscast producer), you never know.

I support a lot of podcasts. I listen to podcasts driving down the road.

And again, there’s nothing wrong with monetizing these things. You’ve got the two big models. You’ve got the advertising model, and then the value-for-value model, which is where listeners just send donations. You have a Patreon account, or a Go Fund Me or something and people just send in some donations. It’s great. The people that need to do that, that’s great. I support a lot of podcasts. I listen to podcasts driving down the road. But in our case, I don’t think we’re gonna do that.

W9LW’s Ramblings: Last question: What advice, if any, do you have for anybody who might be thinking about starting a podcast, whether it’s about weather, or anything else?

Be consistent. If you’re gonna do it, do it every week.

Spann: Be consistent. If you’re gonna do it, do it every week. Don’t do a show once a month, or once every two months. You’ve gotta do it consistent, on a consistent basis. I don’t think we’ve missed a week in 11 years. So be consistent, be sure the quality is good. Invest in a mic. You don’t have to spend money on this kind of thing (pointing to the Heil Sound model PR 40 mic that he uses during WeatherBrains), or even what you’ve got (referring to the interviewer’s CAD Audio GXL2200 mic). You know, spend at least 20 or 30 bucks on a decent, little mic, to make it sound good. And be sure your guests sound clean.

You don’t have to be some professional radio announcer guy, just be yourself!

And then, just be yourself. Don’t try and be somebody else. That’s the beauty of podcasting, you don’t have to be some professional radio announcer guy, just be yourself! And have fun and talk about what you have a passion for. Everybody has a passion, everybody loves something. In my case, it’s weather. I was born with it. I don’t know why. But just find a subject and follow your passion and talk about it. And if you do that, and do it consistently, you’ll be successful.

While it seems like there’s 10 million podcasts, and there probably are, I still think the door is open for some people to take some niches that maybe haven’t been filled, and do shows. So, it’s a fun thing to do, there’s no barrier to entry. Just go do it and have fun.

And promote it. Get on social media. And that’s the other thing, you know, with social media, now you’ve got free promotion. You’ve gotta be careful with that. That’s the one thing, you know, I dabble in it pretty heavily. But I don’t do politics over there, I don’t do anything but, if you follow me on Twitter, or any of those platforms, Instagram, Snapchat, Google+, whatever, there’s no politics, no volatile stuff, it’s just weather stuff. But build up an audience on social media and boom, there’s your promotion. You’re automatically able to promote yourself across your social media platform.

NWS plans website changes March 7 — Bookmarks must change

The National Weather Service (NWS) plans to change its website, www.weather.gov on March 7. When the change takes place any bookmark you’ve created to a specific forecast will no longer work. You’ll have to go to the home page at the URL above, enter the location for which you want a forecast and create a new bookmark for the page that appears. For more information, see the message below that the NWS sent to all Weather-Ready Nation ambassadors.

Dear Weather-Ready Nation Ambassadors,

As part of our continued effort to modernize weather.gov, the National Weather Service (NWS) is upgrading our point forecast, zone forecast, and product pages. Once these changes go live on March 7, all existing bookmarks to forecast.weather.gov will change. Links to a forecast page will display an error message that includes a URL to the new location. You will need to update your bookmarks to continue to access our forecasts quickly after the upgrade. After March 7, the new URL can also be found by searching for your location from forecast.weather.gov or www.weather.gov. These changes will not impact office pages located at www.weather.gov

If you run an automated process to get NWS data from forecast.weather.gov, you will need to switch to the new developer API by March 7. Specifications for the new API can be found here.

The primary focus of the upgrade is to make the forecast pages more reliable during weather events, but there are some new benefits of new forecast pages that include:

  • Addition of 7-day hourly forecast information to the point forecast page
  • A new mobile-friendly landing and graphical/tabular forecast page
  • Low-bandwidth optimization for all pages, on a partial roll-out at launch
  • Option to automatically detect your location on a mobile device
  • A new widget mode that allows you to customize the information on the point forecast

We overhauled the architecture of our application platform to provide a more stable and consistent service to meet the demand of severe weather events. The platform also introduces a modernized API that will make it easier for web developers to create high-quality applications and services to share NWS data. The updated web site now provides a complete mobile-friendly experience with optimizations for low bandwidth and customized weather widgets. We also have new data centers located in College Park, MD, and Boulder, CO, to provide 100% backup capability for the operational data used within the forecast process.

We look forward to providing you with useful and timely information using our improved connectivity and new design.

For more details, please read our Service Change Notice.

Georgia tornado relief volunteer need increases

Operation Blessing Albany, Georgia tornado relief
Operation Blessing photo

The people of Albany, Georgia continue to need volunteer assistance to recover from last week’s tornado outbreak. One of my favorite relief organizations sent today the email message below, which explains why the need for volunteers from outside the area has increased. Please share this information with any congregations or others who might be interested in helping.

Operation Blessing International Logo

IMPORTANT: Please note that if you need lodging, please do not leave your home until you have received a CONFIRMED RESERVATION. Our field team cannot accept anyone who does not have a CONFIRMED RESERVATION

DEAR OB VOLUNTEERS,
As we move into “Week 2,” we often refer to it as “Phase 2,” because the local volunteer response begins to drop dramatically as businesses reopen, schools reopen and residents return to work. These factors significantly lower our volunteer numbers, which means that we need out-of-town volunteers even more now. We are writing you today to ask you to consider bringing a team to help us help these precious residents over the next 2 – 3 weeks.

VOLUNTEER INFORMATION:
Operation Blessing is accepting volunteers daily at 8:00 AM (Monday – Saturday) at New Birth Fellowship Church in Albany, GA. We have two orientation times each day. Orientation begins at 8:30 AM and 1:00 PM. Operation Blessing will provide everything you need – work assignments, tools, and lunch. All we ask is that you provide your own transportation to and from the work sites. No reservations are needed for daily volunteers.

New Birth Fellowship Church
2106 Radium Springs Road
Albany, GA
Onsite Volunteer Line: 757.374.0944

Volunteer Housing NOW OPEN (CONFIRMED Reservation is Required): Operation Blessing provides FREE volunteer housing in Albany. Operation Blessing will provide your lodging, meals, tools and work assignments, free of charge. All we ask volunteers to provide is their own transportation to and from the worksite each day. Volunteers must be 18 years old or older and serve in teams of at least 2 people. To get more information and to register for volunteer housing, please contact our National Volunteer Manager, Trudy Rauch, at 757.226.3407 or send your name, phone number, date you would like to come and number of volunteers in your team to volunteer@ob.org. We will call you back within 24-48 hours. We require that all volunteers needing overnight housing register 24-48 hours in advance. Please make sure you receive your email confirmation before heading to Albany because our field teams will not be able to accept anyone who does not have a CONFIRMED RESERVATION.

Volunteer Opportunities: Volunteers are needed to help residents sort their belongings to keep what is salvageable, help with debris removal (a lot of wheelbarrow work), chainsaw crews, serving and preparing meals in our mobile kitchen and installing tarps on damaged roofs.

Please feel free to call me with any questions you have and to register your team for overnight volunteer housing.

Sincerely,
Trudy

Trudy Rauch
National Volunteer & U.S. Programs Manager
U.S. Disaster Relief
Operation Blessing International
977 Centerville Turnpike | Virginia Beach, VA 23463
office: (757) 226-3407|
fax: (757) 277-0231 | web: www.ob.org

Operation Blessing International
977 centerville turnpike virginia beach, va 23463
office: 
(757) 226-3407| fax: (757) 277-0231 | web: www.ob.org

 

Indiana ham radio SKYWARN net changes name, scope

Allen County, Indiana SKYWARN net operations manual cover thumbnailThe amateur radio SKYWARN net based in Fort Wayne will undergo slight changes, effective Feb 1, 2017. Formerly known as the IMO SKYWARN Quadrant Two Net, it will now be referred to as the Allen County SKYWARN Net. The net will continue, however, to accept and relay reports from spotters outside Allen County, including stations in places like DeKalb and Defiance County, which were not officially part of the former quadrant net’s responsibility.

The de facto demise of the IMO SKYWARN organization led to the change. IMO SKYWARN’s fade from existence was symbolized by the recent disappearance of the organization’s website and further indicated by its board’s lack of activity for the past few years (a conference call in 2012 was the board’s most recent meeting).

IMO SKYWARN originally formed to implement an organized system to get reports from trained SKYWARN storm spotters to the Northern Indiana National Weather Service office via amateur radio. That system continues to exist. An amateur radio station at the NWS office (WX9IWX) can still simultaneously monitor four repeaters, including one in Fort Wayne, although recent difficulty staffing WX9IWX with volunteer hams has hampered the system. IMO SKYWARN also organized biennial advanced spotter training seminars in the past, but has not produced such an event since 2011.

Amateur radio continues to be an important resource to the NWS SKYWARN program as evidenced by a memorandum of understanding between the ARRL and the NWS. Spotter reports to many local ham radio nets, however, no longer travel all the way to the NWS via amateur radio. Instead, many local nets send their reports to the NWS via a private NWS internet chatroom known as NWSChat. In fact, our local net has used that method during several activations when WX9IWX was not on the air, including the August 24, 2016 tornado outbreak. Despite the popularity of NWSChat, the leadership of the Allen County SKYWARN Net intend for the net to remain a viable alternative in the event of internet failure, assuming WX9IWX can be staffed at such times.

Speaking of net leadership, it remains in the hands of the same people, with former IMO SKYWARN quadrant director Jay Farlow, W9LW, continuing the functional role of net manager, and the following experienced hams continuing as designated net control station (NCS) operators:

  • Rich, Andrew N9HRA
  • Chad Beach, W9GGA
  • Fred Gengnagel, KC9EZP
  • Steve Haxby, N9MEL
  • Bernie Holm, K9JDF
  • Brian Jenks, W9BGJ
  • Jim Moehring, KB9WWM, Allen County ARES Emergency Coordinator
  • Joel Tye, KB9RH
  • Woody Woodbury, KC9CGN

The net continues to seek additional NCS’s. Contact Farlow at the email address below for more information.

Other than the net name, the only change operators might notice is that the net repeater might enter “standby mode” less often. As a quadrant net, it entered standby mode for any severe thunderstorm watch or tornado watch that affected any of the 11 counties in its quadrant, if an NCS was available. NCS’s will continue to have discretion about when to enter standby mode, but revised net procedures will no longer require standby mode for watches that do not include Allen County. To repeat, however, the net will continue to accept reports from any station that can reach the net repeater, regardless of location. And spotter traffic from a nearby county may continue to prompt a directed net, even if severe weather isn’t threatening Allen County.

Anyone who’d like to see details of how the net will now operate may download an updated net operations manual from the FWRC website. Persons with questions about the net are encouraged to direct them to Farlow, w9lw@arrl.net.

Believe it or not, some snowstorm forecasts on Facebook are bogus!

Snowfall forecast map from the European numerical weather prediction model run on Dec. 16, 2013 for the forecast period Dec. 22-23. What actually happened Dec. 22 and 23 wasn't even close to this!
Widely shared snowfall forecast map from the European numerical weather prediction model run on Dec. 16, 2013 for the forecast period Dec. 22-23. What actually happened Dec. 22 and 23 wasn’t even close to this!

Winter weather is just around the corner in Indiana, which means so are authentic-looking but bogus long-range snowstorm forecasts on social media.

It won’t be long before we see claims that a storm a week or more away will bring huge snow accumulations. Many will have official-looking forecast maps, like the one above (which turned out to be wrong, by the way).

But these posts won’t be the work of professional meteorologists. Many will be the creations of school kids, passing themselves off as weather experts.

This is Winter Weather Preparedness Week in Indiana, so it seems like a good time to prepare readers for the ominous-looking but unreliable snow forecasts they’ll soon see.

To understand what amateur weather enthusiasts put on social media, it helps to know something about the computer programs that professional meteorologists use to guide their forecasts. These programs are called numerical weather prediction models. They simulate Earth’s atmosphere by describing it in a complex series of very complicated mathematical formulas.

The programs built on these formulas run several times a day on supercomputers around the world. Much of the output of these programs is available on the Web, in both numeric and graphical form.

The output of computerized atmosphere models is inherently inaccurate for several reasons, including:

  1. It’s not yet possible to completely describe our chaotic atmosphere in mathematical equations and
  2. The programs don’t have access to enough data about what our atmosphere is doing at the time they run (e.g. what the temperature, wind speed and wind direction are 10,000 feet over any given part of the planet).

Nonetheless, these programs kick out predictions of what the weather might be at any location at any time, as far in the future as 16 days, despite that fact that no computer or human can reliably forecast the weather that far in advance.

Now, imagine a young weather enthusiast who craves attention and loves snowstorms (because they get him out of school). When he sees an indication of heavy accumulations in the output of a single computer model, he might paste that model’s map into a Facebook post in which he writes a dire forecast of impending doom. Such an amateur forecaster might not be aware of (or care about) the model limitations described above. But she’ll love all the “likes” and shares her post receives!

So how do I know what to believe? First, I’m automatically suspicious of any social media post that forecasts specific snowfall amounts more than a couple days in advance. Second, I ignore any forecast that doesn’t come directly from professional sources I trust, such as:

  • The National Weather Service.
  • Local, degreed broadcast meteorologists.
  • Certain commercial weather forecasting companies.

If that ominous snowstorm forecast didn’t come from one of the above, I won’t share it on social media. I hope you’ll join me in that practice.

Louisiana flood victims still need volunteer support

Damage in a Louisiana home from the August, 2016 flood. Operation Blessing photo
Damage in a Louisiana home from the August, 2016 flood. Operation Blessing photo

You might not have thought much lately about the disastrous flooding that hit Louisiana August 12-14. You might have assumed that now, three weeks later, the communities there have recovery pretty much in hand. You’d be wrong.

Operation Blessing photo
Operation Blessing photo

Today, Christian relief organization Operation Blessing put out a new plea for volunteer assistance in Louisiana. As you’ll read, the organization is even prepared to provide lodging for volunteers who travel from outside the area.

Please share this information with anyone you know who might be able to help.

Dear OB Volunteer:

More than 1,500 volunteers have already joined the effort to help and restore hope following the catastrophic floods in Louisiana this past month. With an army of faithful volunteers we have served over 13,500 meals, sent 5 semi-truckloads of emergency relief supplies, and have helped numerous homeowners clear away the flooded debris from their homes – giving them hope to start the rebuilding process. But there is still much more to do!

Volunteers are urgently needed to help sort through and salvage belongings, clear away flooded debris, and mud-out and gut homes – tearing out soggy sheetrock and flooring – so families can start the rebuilding process. Operation Blessing invites you to recruit a team and help restore hope to those who have lost so much.

Operation Blessing is sending volunteers out Monday – Saturday now through September 30. Volunteers who are local to the area (and do NOT need volunteer housing), can go directly to Volunteer Check-In each day at 8:30 AM or Noon. (Please arrive 15 minutes early to complete your volunteer registration.)  Volunteers should wear long pants and hard-sole shoes. Operation Blessing will provide tools, safety equipment, a safety briefing, t-shirt, and lunch.

Volunteer Check-In
Monday- Saturday at 8:30 AM
Healing Place Church (Denham Springs Campus)
569 Florida Avenue SW
Denham Springs, LA 70726

Volunteer Housing: For volunteers traveling from outside the area, Volunteer Housing is available. You can request housing by sending an email to volunteer@ob.org. Please include your name, telephone number, the number of team members, and the dates you would like to serve. You can also call 757-226-3407 to reserve housing. Reservations must be made 48 hours prior to your requested arrival time.  Operation Blessing will provide your lodging, meals, tools, and make work assignments. All we ask volunteers to provide is their own transportation to/from the work site each day.

Please note: all volunteers must be at least 18 years old and serve in teams of at least two people.

Thank you for your support and heart to serve those in need. If you have any questions or would like more information, please call 757-226-3407 or email volunteer@ob.org.

God Bless,

Kerry

Kerry L. Dodson
National Volunteer & U.S. Programs Manager

U.S. Disaster Relief
Operation Blessing International
977 centerville turnpike virginia beach, va 23463
office: (757) 226-3407|fax: (757) 277-0231 | web: www.ob.org

How new friends changed my attitude about storm chasers

Storm chasers on a storm
Photo by Michael Enfield, used with permission

For some time, I’ve looked at amateur storm chasers with some disdain. I believed that too many were putting themselves into too much danger, just to see, photograph and/or video record tornados. I doubted that many chasers were truly motivated by improving public safety and even fewer were doing real science, no matter what they said. I was concerned that many chasers set poor examples for the general public and that their “antics” encouraged lesser informed people to take uneducated and unwise risks.

I’ve been a SKYWARN storm spotter for more than a quarter century. When talking to friends, family members and even journalists about my volunteer service to the National Weather Service (NWS), I was careful to make sure they understood that I’m not a chaser, like the people they’ve seen on TV or on the Web. My ultimate goal, I’d explain, isn’t to see tornadoes, it’s to help protect my community from possible storms by staying close to home and relaying valuable information to the NWS.

So it was with some trepidation that I attended an event in November, 2015 called INChaserCon, a one-day convention in the Indianapolis area for storm chasers. I’m glad I went. Some of the people I met there subsequently changed my thinking. They are admittedly driven by a desire to see tornadoes. But my subsequent experience with them demonstrated that they’re also very passionate about getting reports to the NWS.

After the chasers learned that I have access to NWSChat – a private, internet-based text chatroom run by the NWS – they invited me to join them on Zello, a smartphone app with which they communicate with each other—so I could relay their reports to the NWS via NWSChat.

That’s exactly what happened during the August, 2016 tornado outbreak in Indiana and Ohio. As a tornadic storm moved east from Kokomo into the county warning area of my local NWS office, storm chasers John Tinney, Eric Lawson and David Buell reported wall clouds, funnel clouds, etc. via Zello. I relayed those reports via NWSChat.

Then, a storm over my own home in Fort Wayne, Indiana received a tornado warning. Storm chaser Michael Enfield immediately headed toward that storm. Via Zello, he promptly reported a wall cloud, then funnel clouds and then a tornado for me to relay via NWSChat. The NWS survey report recorded the time of the tornado’s initial touchdown as 5:27 p.m. – the same time as Enfield’s report, confirming that he saw and reported the tornado when it first touched down. That storm eventually did EF-3 damage to a rural part of Allen County, Indiana.

Throughout the event, any time the chasers had something to report, if I wasn’t immediately available on Zello, they’d keep trying until I acknowledged their reports. Getting reports through to the NWS was clearly very important to them. By the end of the event, I had typed 50 reports into NWSchat. All but about 15 of those came from storm chasers on Zello. The rest came from storm spotters via ham radio.

By aggressively chasing storms, my new friends put themselves in positions to immediately report weather that was not near any traditional SKYWARN spotters at the time. By religiously reporting, they played significant roles in protecting people in the paths of the storms.

A Facebook post by Lawson sums up pretty well how this particular group of storm chasers sees things:

“I noticed a developing supercell heading towards Kokomo was looking really strong and rushed out the door. By the time I was on interstate 69 southbound the strong EF3 was already in progress and heading towards the town in which I have spent many days of my youth, and is home to many great friends and their families. Hearing reports of the devastation in progress on the radio made my heart sink. I was rushing south in horror wondering if anyone I knew had been hurt. This is the moment that things really changed for me, I felt less excited about seeing tornadoes, and much more concerned with providing accurate information to keep people informed.”

I have no doubt there are other storm chasers out there who rarely report their observations to the NWS. There are likely some that don’t care about anything but the excitement of seeing a tornado.

But I’m convinced that the storm chasers I know are not among these. They’ve changed my attitude about chasers.

Mobile phones, TV play major roles in tornado warning

Tornado damage in northeastern Allen County Indiana. NWS photo.
Tornado damage in northeastern Allen County Indiana. NWS photo.

When the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for northeastern Allen County, Indiana at 5:14 p.m. Aug. 24, 2016, more people in the county got their initial alerts from mobile phones than any other information source, according to an informal, online survey conducted by the publisher of this blog.

Of people who indicated they were anywhere in Allen County at the time of the warning, slightly more than 32 percent said they first learned of the warning via their mobile phones (including “Wireless Emergency Alerts,” alerts from apps, text messages, social media, etc.). Television was the second-most-frequently cited initial warning source, at nearly 21 percent. Outdoor warning sirens, commonly referred to as “tornado sirens,” came in third, at 17 percent. Just under eight percent of respondents credited NOAA Weather Radio as their initial warning source.

Methods by which respondents indicated they first learned of the tornado warning.
Methods by which respondents indicated they first learned of the tornado warning. With this and all images in this blog, clicking the image will display a larger, clearer version.

The warned storm created a tornado in northeastern Allen County at approximately 5:27, according to a report from the northern Indiana weather forecast office of the National Weather Service. That was about 13 minutes after the NWS issued the warning. The tornado stayed on the ground until approximately 5:39, cutting a five-and-a-quarter-mile path to the northeast and doing damage consistent with the EF-3 rating on the enhanced Fujita scale.

Warned immediately

Nearly 62 percent of the survey’s 167 respondents indicated that they received the warning “immediately.” Another 19 percent said they received the warning with 10 minutes of its issuance, which would still have been a few minutes before the tornado touched down. Nearly 20 percent of respondents did not learn of the warning any sooner than 30 minutes after the NWS issued it, well after the tornado had lifted.

How soon people reported learning of the tornado warning.
Above: how soon people reported learning of the tornado warning.
The red, five-sided polygon encloses the part of Allen County to which the tornado warning applied. The dark yellow line within the polygon depicts the tornado's path.
The red, five-sided polygon encloses the part of Allen County to which the tornado warning applied. The dark yellow line within the polygon depicts the tornado’s path.

The NWS drew a five-sided polygon that enclosed 144 square miles to indicate the portion of northeastern Allen County to which the tornado warning applied. As a whole, Allen County encompasses approximately 660 square miles, so the warning polygon included less than a fourth of the county’s total area. The tornado’s entire path remained within the warning polygon, so people outside the polygon were not in danger.

Nearly half of all respondents indicated that they knew immediately whether they were within the warning polygon. Another quarter of respondents knew within five minutes whether they were in the warned part of the county. Nearly 18 percent, however, never knew with certainty before the storm passed whether they were in danger.

How soon respondents knew if they were in the warned area.
How soon respondents knew if they were in the warned area.

Best sources for location information

Among respondents who knew immediately whether they were within the warned area, nearly a third received their initial warning via their mobile phones, 24 percent via TV, 11 percent via NOAA Weather Radio and eight percent each via broadcast radio, amateur “ham” radio or outdoor warning sirens.

Among those who never knew with certainty before the storm passed whether they were in the danger area, there was a tie for the top response on how they first learned of the warning; 26 percent each reported TV and outdoor warning siren. A fifth received initial word of the warning from someone they know and 17 percent received it via their mobile phones.

Performance of outdoor warning sirens

Locations of outdoor warning sirens in Allen County, Indiana, from map provided by the website of the Allen County Office of Homeland Security
Locations of outdoor warning sirens in Allen County, Indiana, from map provided by the website of the Allen County Office of Homeland Security. Yellow symbols indicate intermittently operating sirens. Red indicates a siren known to be inoperative.

Every operating outdoor warning siren in Allen County, including sirens miles southwest of the warning polygon, sounded shortly after the NWS issued the tornado warning.

Slightly more than 59 percent of respondents reported hearing an outdoor warning siren sometime during the hour of the warning, even if it wasn’t their initial warning source. Nearly 41 percent of respondents never heard an outdoor warning siren. The survey did not ask respondents whether they were outdoors at the time of the warning.

Respondents whose initial warning came from outdoor warning sirens were nearly evenly split with regard to their awareness of whether they were actually in the warned area. Slightly more than 24 percent reported knowing immediately, nearly 28 percent reported knowing within five minutes, nearly 21 percent said they knew within 10 minutes and nearly 28 percent indicated that they never knew with certainty before the storm passed whether they were in the warned area.

How soon respondents whose first waning came from an outdoor warning siren knew whether they were in the warned area.
How soon respondents whose first waning came from an outdoor warning siren knew whether they were in the warned area.

Of respondents who got their first notifications of the warning from outdoor warning sirens, more than three fourths were within the city limits of Fort Wayne at the time. Seven percent were in the city of New Haven and no more than four percent reported being in any other location within Allen County. The vast majority of the county’s outdoor warning sirens are located within Fort Wayne and New Haven. Approximately 71 percent of Allen County’s population resides in Fort Wayne and probably even more are employed in Fort Wayne.

People close to the warning

Only seven percent of respondents reported that at the time of the warning, they were in the city of Woodburn, the town of Leo-Cedarville or rural northeastern Allen County (in other words, in or near the warning polygon) at the time of the warning. Of those, the initial warning source was more evenly divided, with 25 percent each reporting mobile phone or television and nearly 17 percent each reporting NOAA Weather Radio, outdoor warning siren or amateur “ham” radio.

Only a third of these respondents reported ever hearing an outdoor warning siren, even if it wasn’t their initial warning source. Eight percent never knew with certainty before the storm passed whether they were in the warned area.

Conclusions

Readers should use caution drawing conclusions from these data, because the survey that generated them was informal, not scientific, and the number of respondents fell far short of the number required for a representative sample of people who were in Allen County at the time of the warning.

In terms of improving the tornado warning system, it would appear that steps to increase awareness of warned locations could be helpful. Outdoor warning sirens, of course, do not provide location information. For that reason, it’s surprising that some respondents who reported initially receiving the warning via outdoor warning sirens also reported knowing immediately whether they were in the warned area. Because Allen County activates all of its sirens for every warning, citizens cannot assume that their ability to hear a siren indicates that they are near the warning polygon, but it’s possible that some people do not realize this and that additional public education might be helpful.

Readers might be surprised that a number of respondents who initially received the warning via television were not immediately aware of whether they were in the warned area. If we assume the TV meteorologists who were on the air live at the time described the warned area, it is possible that those respondents initially learned of the warning not from live meteorologists, but from on-screen textual information.

Finally, it appears that a significant portion of people initially learned of the warning via their mobile phones. The time of day might have skewed those results, because many people were likely commuting at the time, and therefore away from TVs and weather radios. Also, commuters would have been more likely to hear outdoor warning sirens than would be people inside workplaces or homes. Still, it’s possible that the Wireless Emergency Alert system that’s enabled by default on all modern smartphones proved itself to be a valuable source of warning information.

Nonprofit pleads for volunteers to help Louisiana flood victims

Operation Blessing, International photo
Operation Blessing, International photo

Devastating floods in Louisiana aren’t receiving the kind of national news coverage as have other big disasters, and that’s affecting the amount of volunteer assistance victims are receiving, according to an email message from nonprofit relief organization Operation Blessing International (OB).

As you’ll see in the verbatim message below, OB has a great need for volunteers who are able to travel from outside the disaster area. Please share this information widely, to improve the chance that it will get in front of the eyes of someone who might be able and willing to help.

From: “Operation Blessing International” <volunteer@ob.org>
Subject: Manpower Desperately Needed in LA: Operation Blessing Volunteer Housing Now Available
Date: 20 Aug 2016 14:59:38 -0600

Dear OB Volunteer:

Operation Blessing is on the ground in the Denham Springs and Baton Rouge areas following the catastrophic floods that devastated parts of Louisiana and Mississippi this past week with more than 40,000 homes affected and thousands or residents who have lost everything. You can provide the hope that they need, by volunteering your time!

Manpower is desperately needed! Because so many homes have been flooded, the local volunteer response is limited and with the lack of news coverage that leaves these residents without the manpower and help they desperately need. Please consider getting a team of friends, coworkers or members of your church together. We will take care of everything you need, including housing, if you can just get here!

Volunteers are needed to sort through and salvage belongings, remove flooded debris, gut homes by removing soggy insulation and drywall and most importantly be there to love, listen, and minister to these precious residents who have lost so much.

Volunteer Housing is now available! Operation Blessing provides lodging, meals, tools and makes work assignments. All we ask volunteers to provide is their own transportation to and from the work site each day.  Volunteers must be 18 years or older and serve in teams of at least 2 people. To stay in Volunteer Housing, please contact us volunteer@ob.org with your name, telephone number, and number of team members and we will give you a call within 24-48 hours or you may call us at 757-226-3407.

If you are local to the area and do not need volunteer housing, you can report directly to the site Monday – Saturday 8:30 AM and Noon. Volunteer Check-In is located at:

Healing Place Church (Denham Springs Campus)
569 Florida Avenue SW
Denham Springs, LA 70726

Just a few days of your time can make an eternal impact to the people of Louisiana who have lost so much.

Thank you and God Bless.

Kerry

Kerry L. Dodson
National Volunteer & U.S. Programs Manager
U.S. Disaster Relief

Operation Blessing International
977 centerville turnpike | virginia beach, va 23463
office: (757) 226-3407|fax: (757) 277-0231 | web: www.ob.org

Last night’s tornado warning demonstrates why sirens aren’t your best alert source

The tweet above from Valparaiso University meteorology student and Fort Wayne resident Matthew Hayes points out something a lot of Allen County, Indiana residents probably don’t know. The county’s outdoor warning siren system is all-or-nothing. That means that when a tornado warning covers any part of the county, sirens sound throughout the county, which encompasses 660 square miles (making it the largest county by area in the state).

That’s what happened at about 9:06 p.m. last night, when the northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning that included a small part of southwestern Allen County. A very small part:

tor_polygon
The Aug. 15, 2016 tornado warning included a tiny part of southwester Allen County, Indiana (the triangle indicated by the arrow.
Maps showing the complete tornado warning polygon, with and without radar data. At the time of the warning, the radar-indicated tornado was over the town of Andrews, west of Huntington, moving northeast at 25 mph.
Maps showing the complete tornado warning polygon, with and without radar data. At the time of the warning, the radar-indicated tornado was over the town of Andrews, west of Huntington, moving northeast at 25 mph. Click the image for a better view.

The Fort Wayne-Allen County Consolidated Communications Partnership center dutifully followed protocol and activated Allen County’s outdoor warning siren system. People throughout the county who were close enough to a siren would have heard it sound. Presumably, this  included people 26 miles away in Harlan, where the storm wasn’t forecast to travel. See a map of all Allen County’s sirens.  Remember, sirens are designed for outdoor alerting only, but people can sometimes hear them from inside their homes, if their homes are close enough to a siren.

Ironically, if anyone was in the small part of Allen County that the warning covered, it is unlikely they heard a siren. The nearest operating outdoor warning siren is at least four miles away, at the headquarters of the Southwest Allen County Fire Department on Indianapolis Road.

The outdoor warning siren nearest the warned area was at least four miles away, at the Southwest Allen County Fire Department station on Indianapolis Road.
The outdoor warning siren nearest the warned area was at least four miles away, at the Southwest Allen County Fire Department station on Indianapolis Road. Click the image to see a larger version.

So, last night’s tornado warning demonstrated two weaknesses of outdoor warning sirens as primary means of learning of such warnings:

  1. Outdoor warning sirens cannot be heard in many parts of Allen County, even by people who are outdoors.
  2. Sirens are often activated where warnings are not in effect.

What should you do? For geographic precision, your best bet is a good smartphone app, like Storm Shield or Weather Radio. These apps use your phone’s GPS to determine whether it is within the actual warning area. The next best thing is the Wireless Emergency Alerts that are built into  modern smartphones. As I explained in another blog post, the geographic precision of such alerts is imperfect, but it’s better than countywide, doesn’t require installing an app, and it’s “on” by default on modern smartphones.

When you’re home, weather alert radios provide very reliable alerts but have the disadvantage of alerting an entire county for any warning that includes any part of that county. At least weather radio alerts — unlike outdoor warning sirens — come with voice messages the explain what part of the county is affected.

The bottom line, as I’ve written before, is don’t rely on tornado sirens. Not hearing one does not mean you don’t need to take cover, because you might be in a place where it’s impossible to hear a siren. Hearing one does not necessarily mean you need to take cover, because your neighborhood siren might sound for a warning that doesn’t affect you. Find a better way to know if you are in danger!

Side note: Based on what I know about how the National Weather Service generates warnings, I highly suspect that the meteorologist who issued last night’s warning probably intended to keep the warning polygon out of Allen County entirely, but accidentally overshot the county line when drawing the warning polygon.

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