JoCo on the Go Podcast: Get ready for severe weather season

On JoCo on the Go, episode #130, the month of March can bring all sorts of weather – everything from a winter storm to tornadoes. As Johnson County joins the rest of the nation in highlighting National Severe Weather Awareness Week, we’re taking a closer look at what kinds of storms to expect and when. We’ll talk about the supplies you should have on hand. Learn how the county works with its local, state and national partners to ensure you have accurate information and enough time to seek shelter when there’s a possibility of a tornado, flooding and more. We’ll also tell you about NotifyJoCo – an emergency notification system that will keep you informed.

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Highlights:

Time Subject
00:24 Introduction
01:02 The county's role in severe weather preparedness and response
03:03 Training storm spotters
08:52 How far out can we predict severe weather?
10:51 Preparing for severe weather
14:27 How to tell when severe weather is on the way
17:18 How does the forecast look for the upcoming severe weather season?

Transcript

Theresa Freed 00:00

The month of March can bring some unpredictable weather. It's snowing one day and lightning and thunder the next on this episode find out how you can prepare for severe weather season.

Announcer 00:11

Whether you live in or just love Johnson County, Kansas, JoCo on the Go has everything Johnson County. Here's what's happening and what's coming up in the community you call home.

Theresa Freed 00:24

Thanks for joining us for JoCo on the Go. I'm your host Theresa Freed a Johnson County resident and employee of Johnson County government. We've been pretty lucky to have a break from a lot of the extreme severe storms over the last couple of years. But what's in store for 2022? We have with us some local experts to talk about how Johnson County prepares for severe weather. Trent Pittman with Johnson County's Emergency Services Division and Andy Bailey is with the National Weather Service. Thank you for joining us. All right, we're gonna go ahead and start with Trent. So Trent talk about what the county's role is in severe weather preparedness and emergency response related to severe weather

Trent Pittman 01:02

The Johnson County Emergency Management division, during times of expected severe weather activates the Emergency Operations Center to monitor the approaching severe weather. And we stay activated throughout that storm's time in Johnson County and help coordinate any response if necessary.

Theresa Freed 01:22

And then next, if you can talk a little bit about how the county works with the National Weather Service and others to predict and track the storms. And so if you want to talk a little bit about that relationship.

Andy Bailey 01:33

Sure, we work very closely with all of our emergency managers across the region. Everything from providing them with weather training, so they really understand the products that we're we're producing and giving them to help them with their decisions, to supporting them with their special outdoor special events. We provide a service where we they can kind of send in their information, we put it on our calendar, we provide them with briefings and updates on the days of the events, really just again, to take one less thing off their plate. As far as monitoring the weather, we've got our experts here in-house that that can do that for them, give them the information, allowing them to make better decisions based on that forecast. And then finally, we do things like we train their storm spotters, just to make sure that they know exactly what they're looking at and can do a great job. And then actually Johnson County has a phenomenal storm spotter program. And so just we train them annually just to keep them up to date on the latest, the latest trends and severe weather and that sort of thing.

Trent Pittman 02:33

We really work with them on a daily basis during severe weather season. That is that begins with monitoring National Weather Service's National Weather Service's convective outlooks. Several days before anticipated severe weather really ramps up as that time approaches. It includes emails, webinars, chats, phone calls and visits with the National Weather Service prior to any expected severe weather.

Theresa Freed 03:03

And so speaking of that storm spotter training, I had the the privilege of attending a couple years ago, some of that, and there was a huge crowd. I mean, it's kind of unbelievable, because these are volunteers. So can you talk about kind of what that it's not recruitment, but it's just you know, that that ongoing training with this group and what participation looks like this year.

Andy Bailey 03:25

Sure, Johnson County especially has a very high bar for what they require from storm spotters. They have training just about every month on one topic or another including amateur radio certification. All spotters must be amateur radio operators. As far as us severe weather storm spotting we provide them, we've really kind of made it a little bit more intense in the last couple of years, the public isn't invited. But there's the core storm spotters are. The first hour is as I mentioned, a very intense training on the meteorology, behind how storms grow, what makes one storm severe and other one not. And then it really gets into an in depth look on the various cloud features and what they need. And what they should be expecting to occur in the near future based on for instance, a wall cloud underneath a supercell or or a shelf cloud with the squall line store spotters after they go through the training will be very well versed on what to anticipate next. And just helps them position themselves to provide the very best reports from from their location on the ground.

Theresa Freed 04:26

And so let's say we've got, you know, expected tornadoes in the area. So how do you kind of dispatch them out to certain areas so that they have those eyes on the ground? And how important is it that they're able to provide that accurate information.

Andy Bailey 04:40

The information we provide starts early in the morning or overnight shift. The midnight shift forecasters produce something called a weather briefing package that sits on our websites updated twice a day and we encourage storm spotters as well as the emergency management community to bookmark that and just check it every morning over the morning cup of coffee because that's really going to set the stage to allow them to know whether or not they're really going to be needed later in the day, as far as storm spotting goes, a lot of good detailed information or forecasters put in that document is available on our website. But then as the event draws near, that's where Johnson County emergency management takes over. And they really do the job of dispatching and deploying the spotters to some preset locations. We then interact pretty closely with Johnson County emergency management through a couple of mechanisms. The first is National Weather Service chat, which is a system that our office is tied in with all the local emergency managers as well as our broadcast meteorology partners. And it really does facilitate very fast, quick communications in the middle of a very hectic severe weather operations. The second thing we have to communicate with Johnson County is we have this is a metro wide radio system that we can pick up and, and speak to them directly and instantly via the radio, just if we need something quicker, or more convenient for them. That option as well as is available as well, just having those two redundant options to communicate very important, obviously, during severe weather. So if one of them fails, there's a good chance the other one's gonna still be working just fine.

Trent Pittman 06:10

We work with a group called Johnson County ECS. And we've maintained a relationship with that organization for decades. At this point, they're a highly trained and very specialized group of ham radio operators that we work with and exercise with throughout the year. To help help us understand what's going on across the county. The National Weather Service maintains excellent radar coverage throughout Johnson County. But really what those storm spotters help us do is see what's going on. On the ground, they can help us report back exactly what the storms doing. Any time we activate to the EOC for severe weather, we're coordinating with that volunteer group, but John's County ECS throughout the time, and the vast majority of times we activate the EOC. For severe weather, we are bringing in several of that organizations net controllers to sit in the Emergency Operations Center with us. And they're the ones who coordinate directly with the volunteer group that goes out into the field. Now that group, they are not storm chasers, they're storm spotters, there's a there's a pretty big difference between the two. They have set locations throughout Johnson County, that have been chosen based on a number of factors including ability to see the skyline, as well as ability to enter and exit the areas relatively quickly, as opposed to storm chasers, who actually will follow the storm and are highly mobile during those operations.

Theresa Freed 07:55

How intense is that training? You know, are they tested or you know, so that they can accurately tell you exactly what's happening.

Andy Bailey 08:04

I guess when I say it's intensive, we get pretty deep into things that impact thunderstorm development. And as far as where they should be looking at these things like rear flank, downdraft, wall, cloud beaver tail, you know, the vault all these kinds of terms to help them kind of develop their common language so that when they're describing something, they know that, hey, I'm gonna report in I've got a rotating wall cloud here versus I can see the extreme inflow into the storm and the updraft is very strong. And that which will then kind of tell everybody else that is listening as well that the storm is probably developing, because sometimes you can get a jump on what that storm is either going to do, or is doing ahead of the radar if you're actually got eyes on the ground, and you're observing it reporting that in.

Theresa Freed 08:52

So we often hear about sort of like a seven day forecast or three day forecast. So I'm sure lots of people who see those who wonder, you know, how confident are we in those predictions? Especially when it comes to severe weather? Like really? How far out can you tell that we've got severe weather coming?

Andy Bailey 09:11

You know, sometimes if the setup is right, we can tell a solid week ahead of time. Now, I couldn't tell you that Johnson County is going to have a tornado on this date seven days from now, and frankly, nobody could. But what we can say is it looks like the conditions are right, that we'll see a severe weather outbreak somewhere in the upper Midwest. So we need to you know, and then we'll obviously refine and fine tune that forecast as the timeframe approaches, really so, you know, two or three days before we start to get a really, really good idea of exactly what region we're expecting the severe weather to hit. And then the types of severe others this can be a traumatic outbreak, are we looking more like a hail and wind event? Those things are very, very predictable when we get into the day of that of the event, timing and really narrowing down the main threat area, sometimes to just a few counties is occasionally possible. But really, it's just much more specific. Now there are some days where uncertainty is extraordinarily high and, and that that sense of we know this is going to happen in this relative area just doesn't, isn't there, you know, the state of the science is pretty immature, and we certainly can't nail down every event. We do our best. And those are the days that really give us fits as as forecasters because trust me, we don't want to be wrong, we place a high value on providing the best information that we can not only to our emergency management partners, but to the general public and the warnings we issue. And we like to be accurate, we live here, work, we are a federal agency, but we're in the community as well. And so we're forecasting for our friends and family the weather service to be as good as possible.

Theresa Freed 10:51

So this week, we're highlighting Severe Weather Awareness Week. And we want to of course, relate to our listeners, the ways that they can be prepared for severe weather. So what are some of the ways that that we can be prepared either, you know, having some sort of kit ready to go or just making ourselves aware of what the warnings and watches mean, things like that?

Andy Bailey 11:14

Sure, the first thing that's important to do is making sure they have a way of receiving the warnings. You know, everybody's got a cell phone nowadays, and those are great. There's something called the wireless emergency alerts that came out about five years ago, every smartphone sold today in the United States out of the box has those turned down. So if your phone and you are located in an area that's got a tornado warning, or a high end flash flood warning, or coming soon a high end severe thunderstorm warning, the phone will go off 24 hours a day with a very shrill alarm, letting you know that you're in a warning and you should seek shelter. A good backup for the Wireless Emergency Alerts would be a weather radio, you can purchase them for about $30 at many electronics stores, even some grocery stores sell them. They're kind of like a smoke alarm for weather so that you can set it to go off when your county is in a warning. Now the downside to that is it's just not quite as specific a location as your phone would be.

Trent Pittman 12:10

One of the most valuable for residents in Johnson County is the NotifyJoCo system. The NotifyJoCo system is highly customizable. So you can select which weather alerts you would like to be notified about and you can also select which kind of methods you'd like to receive those alerts with. There are a number of other alerting mechanisms out there and making sure that you can get notifications pushed to you like the NotifyJoCo system can is very important. We talked about staying weather aware and how that starts in the morning by following local news and trusted organizations to know what to expect. And that's always an important start to have these events. However, it's also important that as you get closer to these events to have a way that they have these notifications pushed to you.

Andy Bailey 13:09

The other thing that that folks really should do is they need to have a discussion both at home and work so that everyone there knows what to do when the warnings are issued. So if my home is under a tornado warning, I'm almost always at work when that happens, right. So I have a conversation over dinner with my wife and kids. Here's where a storm shelter is, when a warning is issued, your phone goes off, go down to the shelter, and then stay there till the warning ends. They know that because we discuss it, we'll even walk down. So here's where we, you know, here's where we shelter. The other thing that's good to do, make sure it has accumulated boxes over the course of the year when you haven't maybe used in the last six months, sometimes I'll be honest, my storm shelter can turn into a storage shelter or storage shed instead. So I'm very I usually this time of year I go down and clean it out. Same thing occurs at work though I would highly encourage on Tuesday, Severe Weather Preparedness Week that either at home really at both at home and at work, you conduct a drill and you walk through the motions of what you would do or an actual tornado warning issued for your facility. Take the 10 or 15 minutes it's going to take to do it so that when the weather actually hits, everybody is prepared. They've done it before. You know it takes a lot of the mystery out of it.

Theresa Freed 14:27

So let's say you're outside and you know that there's probably a potential for severe weather but you're not paying close enough attention. So what should you be looking for in the sky? Maybe that's a strong indicator that it's time to get inside?

Andy Bailey 14:42

Well, maybe not looking at the sky but if you can hear thunder, you're at risk of being struck by lightning so you know we have a saying when thunder roars go indoors. That's that's the very first easiest thing you can do that if you hear thunder or see lightning, just go inside if it's just going to be lightning going you Get in your car with the windows rolled up or any kind of sturdy shelter, you know, your home or business, you know any of those will will do. If it's a tornadic, secure situation, I would I would recommend people pay more attention to the warnings coming out whether it's on their phone, or weather radio or the car radio than actually trying to look at the sky and forecast, it means there's a lot going on. It's not It's rarely, rarely straightforward. Unless you're seeing a tornado, you know, that has touched down that is moving towards you. You really need to rely on the warnings themselves.

Theresa Freed 15:33

That makes sense. And it seems like typically when we hear about tornadoes, they're coming through kind of rural areas. There's not it's not a, you know, an area highly populated. But a tornado can really hit anywhere, right? I mean, what have we seen?

Andy Bailey 15:50

Yeah, that not only anywhere, but anytime we've gotten tornadoes in Missouri, every month of the year, you know, we just had a pretty massive severe weather outbreak December 15, that affected Kansas and Missouri both. But when it comes to tornadoes, you know, our peak season is really March through the end of May into early June. And that's really when people probably need to have the height most heightened sense of awareness for those storms,

Theresa Freed 16:17

You know, we talked a little bit about the place where you need to go, but what supplies might be good to have on hand. So like, for example, a flashlight, I assume?

Andy Bailey 16:26

Sure, you know, the biggest thing that I tell people, which is not obvious is that old pair of tennis shoes that we're going to throw out, put them down in your storm shelter. Because if you have to go down in your shelter, in the middle of the night, there's a good chance you're going to be barefoot. If your house is hit by a tornado, you're going to be walking out of that debris. And if you have an old pair of shoes to put on, you're going to be so much better for it. I would not want to have to walk out of a destroyed home barefoot. But other things like a flashlight that you mentioned, absolutely expect the power to go out. And that flashlight will be critical after dark. Other things that are important. Bring your weather radio with you. Most weather radios had to have a battery backup. So while it may be plugged in upstairs, when it goes off with a tornado warning, just unplug it, bring it down. That way you can monitor it to really get a good idea when the warning has expired. So you know when it's safe to come out of your shelter as well.

Theresa Freed 17:18

I know in some cases, we can kind of predict what the season is going to look like, can you do that for the severe weather season, are we expecting something that will be sort of mild like we've had in the past or recently in the past,

Andy Bailey 17:32

You know, that's extraordinarily difficult to do predict just how active or severe weather season will be. And most of the time it can't be done. What I will say though, is we know we've had a relatively active winter pattern where every couple of weeks, we get another system coming through pretty much the same area here in Kansas and Missouri. And I read some some information from some researchers in Oklahoma that with the La Nina circulation in the ocean continuing at least well into the spring, kind of expect that storm tries to kind of maintain itself. So as we warm up, that means less snow and less chance for snow and ice for us. And that turns into more of a severe weather threat. So we should be ready to expect, you know, a couple of rounds and maybe some pretty decent severe weather outbreaks. Now, you know, I'm like everybody else, I'm hoping for the best. But I'm absolutely going to prepare for the worst. As it gets later in the year, you know, you really just can't, you just would not with any degree of accuracy forecasts what kind of severe weather season and in fact, if you think of it this way, if you have, if you have the quietest severe weather season ever, but the one tornado that happened, went right through the middle of your city. It was the worst severe weather season ever, as far as you're concerned. Right? So, you know, it's pretty difficult to focus and forecast how that will impact individuals and even individual counties.

Theresa Freed 18:52

And so we've talked quite a bit about tornadoes and a little bit touched on lightning, the spring time summer months can also bring another risk of flooding. And that can even be more common. Right. So how do you prepare for that?

Andy Bailey 19:07

You know, let's talk about our flood risk first. That is something we can actually predict with some degree of accuracy throughout the season. And right now for the entire Missouri River Basin, at least our part of the Missouri River Basin, it looks like we've got maybe a little bit lower than normal chance for significant flooding along the Missouri River. A lot of that has to do with the relatively dry conditions we've had over the winter, as well as upstream many of the reservoirs in the Dakotas that kind of our buffer, but some of the heavy run offs up there are very low and so they can take quite a bit of inflow from from the snowpack up in the Dakotas. So we're sitting good for river flooding. But when it comes to flash flooding, which can just you know a single thunderstorm can dump locally heavy rainfall and produce flash flooding. That's anybody's guess how bad it will be. However, it's extraordinarily simple to stay safe from flash flooding, the best thing people can do Just don't drive into floodwater. If you're driving down the road, your approach a flooded street. Even if you think you know how deep it is, just don't drive through it. We tell people to Turn Around, Don't Drown. And that is it's such a simple thing. But I know people are busy, and they may feel like they're in a hurry. And if they just make it through here, it'll save them 15 minutes. Well, what we found is people that try to drive through floodwaters oftentimes, it only takes about 18 inches of water to float most vehicles. Once your vehicle begins to float, the current can push it off stream, it can go into the ditch overturned, maybe you're swept down a creek. Most fatalities for flash flooding occur when people try to drive through floodwaters. So just that is the simplest thing people can do is just don't do it. Don't drive, never try to cross a flooded roadway.

Theresa Freed 20:47

Good advice once again so anything else we want to tell our listeners to stay safe this this spring and summer?

Andy Bailey 20:55

You know one thing I want to mention just when it comes to sheltering for tornadoes, whether you're at home or in a business is pretty simple. If you got you got a basement get in it. If you don't have a basement, get into the lowest level of the structure you're in into an interior windowless room like a bathroom or a closet. And for the vast majority, almost all tornadoes you will survive. I mean, I'm talking it's a such a small number of tornadoes that will wipe the foundation clean. And even those they don't wipe, they don't they don't completely devastate every home. So even if you can see a monster tornado coming at you. There's never a futile effort to shelter. Just please do like we mentioned. Get into the basement or the lowest level.

Announcer 21:42

You just heard JoCo on the Go. Join us next time for more everything Johnson County. Have a topic you want to discuss? We want to hear from you. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter at JoCoGov. For more on this podcast visit jocogov.org/podcast. Thanks for listening.

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