Top 5 ways to get severe weather warnings

Indiana map showing Risks of severe weather between 9 a.m. ET Thurs., April 20, 2017 and 8 a.m. the following day. Source: National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center
Risks of severe weather between 9 a.m. ET Thurs., April 20, 2017 and 8 a.m. the following day. Source: National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center

This post was updated at 9:40 a.m. April 20, 2017

A large part of Indiana has a level two (out of five) risk of severe weather today (April 20, 2017) and this evening, according to the National Weather Service (NWS) Storm Prediction Center. The primary threat today is damaging straight-line winds or gusts of 58 mph or greater, but an isolated tornado cannot be ruled out in much of northeastern and east-central Indiana.

That makes now an especially good time for Hoosiers (and everyone else who lives in an area that ever receives severe weather) to make sure they have good ways to know about any warnings their local NWS offices issue.

So, here’s my list of the best ways to get tornado, severe thunderstorm and flash flood warnings.

1. Wireless Emergency Alerts

Wireless Emergency Alerts graphic
FEMA image

If you have a modern smartphone, the ability to receive tornado and flash flood warnings via the wireless emergency alert (WEA) system is built in. It should have been enabled when you bought the phone. Unless you have since turned WEA off, it will scream at you if you’re under or near a tornado or flash flood warning.

Severe thunderstorms are often deadly, in part because their straight-line winds can blow trees down on houses, cars, etc. But you won’t get severe thunderstorm warnings via WEA, so you’ll need one of the warning methods below for that.

Read more about how the WEA system works.

2. Smartphone apps

Example of a smartphone app that provides severe weather warnings.
Example of a smartphone app that provides severe weather warnings. StormShield app image.

Several smartphone apps can give you warnings with even more geographical precision than WEA. Plus these apps can warn you about severe thunderstorm warnings, as well as tornadoes and flash floods. My favorites are:

The first two are not free, but they’re inexpensive and effective. The FEMA app is free.

Your local television station might also offer a free app that can provide warnings. Visit your favorite stations’ websites to find out.

The American Red Cross also has a free app, but I do not recommend it. In my experience, its tornado warning alerts have arrived several minutes late.

3. NOAA Weather Radio

Photo of weather radio
A programmable NOAA weather radio.

This is a special radio that receives spoken weather information directly from the NWS. Models are available for around $30. You can find them lots of places, including your corner Walgreens pharmacy. You can set these radios up so they remain silent until and unless the NWS issues any kind of warning for your county.

One slight disadvantage of NOAA Weather Radio is that it only provides county-wide alerts. So, if you live in a large county, you could receive an alert for a storm that won’t affect you. But that’s better than being in the path of a dangerous storm and not knowing! Plus, NOAA Weather Radios might be the best at waking you when severe weather threatens late at night.

4. Text messages

If you don’t have a smartphone, there might be other ways to get alerted of weather warnings, depending on where you live.

Some local TV and radio stations provide free weather alerts via text messages. Check the websites of your local stations to see if they do.

There are also online weather alert services, like www.weatherusa.net that provide warnings and watches via text message, either for free or a small fee, depending on how many devices you have or how many locations you wish to monitor.

5. Phone calls

Some local governments operate “reverse 911” systems that can place a voice call and/or text message to you when a warning is issued. For example, Allen County, Indiana implemented the “Swift 911” system in late 2016. To find out if this is available where you live, check the website of your municipal and/or county government and/or emergency management agency, or call the administrative number for your local police department (don’t call 911 for this information!).

Twitter

Indiana map showing NWS office coverage areas in Indiana and their Twitter account names
NWS office coverage areas in Indiana and their Twitter account names

I do not consider Twitter to be a primary way to receive weather warnings, but it’s a good supplement, especially if you follow your local NWS weather forecast office (WFO) and set your smartphone to give you a push notification every time that office sends a tweet.

The map above shows the coverage area of every NWS office that covers any part of Indiana, as well as the Twitter handle of each office.

Here’s a clickable list, for easy reference. You can use these links to monitor the tweets of each WFO, even if you don’t have a Twitter account:

If you’re not in Indiana, you can identify the appropriate WFO and social media feeds for any location in the U.S., by ZIP code or city and state name by entering them on the NWS “Social Media” page.

Twitter hash tags can also yield helpful information. Commonly used for posts about the weather in Indiana is #INwx.

What about tornado sirens?

It’s very important to understand that tornado sirens — known in the emergency management community as outdoor warning sirens — are designed to alert only people who are outdoors. You’re not likely to be outdoors late at night. Even if you can sometimes hear tornado sirens inside your house, the sound isn’t likely to be loud enough to wake you (unless you live very close to a siren). Plus even when you hear a siren, you have no idea where the threat is. Some jurisdictions sound every siren, even if the warning affects only a small part of the jurisdiction.

Therefore, you must not rely on tornado sirens to warn you of storms while you’re indoors and possibly asleep. Instead, acquire one of the warning methods described above.

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