Weathering the StormApr 01, 2016 ● By Allie Spletter
Keeping Frisco InformedHere in North Texas, we have some of the smartest and most technologically up-to-date weather teams in the country keeping careful watch over the skies. From storm chasers to professional meteorologists, our cup of reliable and up-to-the-minute weather information runneth over.
Texas Storm Chasers is a small organization of weather enthusiasts comprised of owner and videographer David Remier, photographer and forecast blogger Jenny Brown and Paige Burress, a chase partner and photographer. Ms. Brown shares, “We simply love to chase and document all modes of severe weather while sharing accurate, reliable and down-to-earth weather information with our fellow Texans.” The organization began when Mr. Remier set up Facebook and Twitter in the spring of 2009 to share storm chasing and related videos. Today, Texas Storm Chasers has more than 450,000 followers on Facebook and more than 135,000 followers on Twitter. Ms. Brown explains, “Our mission has evolved to providing all types of weather information, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, covering the entire state of Texas. The atmosphere is complex. Forecasting what may happen is even more complicated. The information out there between television, radio and a multitude of other sources can be confusing.
In essence, we wanted to utilize social media to bridge the gap between data the National Weather Service provides and what the general public receives from other sources, to become a one-stop destination for timely and accurate weather information, in a format that is easy for everyone to understand. For some chasers, the one and only goal is to see tornadoes. We like that, too, but we also love all that our atmosphere has to offer. To stand in the presence of a thunderstorm as powerful as an atomic bomb, something most people would want to run and hide from, is an experience like no other,” Ms. Brown says. “For me, personally, it is a privilege to be there and photograph Mother Nature’s amazing phenomenon. We understand the atmosphere scientifically way more now than we did 50, or even just 10 years ago, but there are still things happening inside those incredible and dangerous storms that have yet to be fully understood.”
Brian Williams, a local storm spotter, has been on many exhilarating and eye-opening storm chases. He says he spots mostly in North Texas and Oklahoma. “This is Tornado Alley, so you do not have to go too far to find your storm,” he shares. “Storm chasing often means risking your life because you put yourself in harm’s way. However, the amazing side of it is getting a chance to see Mother Nature show us how beautiful our weather can be.”
Many of these fearless storm chasers want to help the community by relaying important information to be better prepared. “You can never stop learning about the weather. It is very important to take in as much as possible if you are a chaser or spotter. This is not the movie ‘Twister.’ Too many people think they can jump in the car and run a tornado down. This is not the case. You have to be safe and understand what you are up against. Things can change in a split second with a violent storm, and the last place you want to be is in its path,” Mr. Williams says.
North Texas has an abundance of meteorologists whose sole mission is to keep us informed and safe. NBC 5’s meteorologists Brian James and Rick Mitchell each have an innate passion to inform the public. Mr. Mitchell recalls, “I have been a weather geek my entire life, so becoming a meteorologist was no surprise to my family. My role as a meteorologist is to predict the weather and communicate that to the public. It is also my responsibility to make sure my viewers have the information they need to stay safe during times of busy weather.” Mr. James shares, “I consider my obligation to the public a very important part of my job. I have to help people stay safe when the worst weather is heading our way. That means I need to be a trustworthy and reliable source of information because there are times where people’s lives will depend on what I say and when I say it. My role, as a broadcast meteorologist, is considerably different than your typical on-air talent. While I do have a couple of days where I am on the air, my primary responsibility is handling more of the behind-the-scenes tasks. This includes creating special weather graphics, coordinating storm chase crews, overseeing our general severe weather coverage, taking care of any special projects and sending information and weather tidbits on social media.”
FOX 4’s chief meteorologist, Dan Henry, started his professional career with the National Weather Service in Washington, DC, where he conducted research involving statistical weather products that meteorologists use in forecasting. “The most important role I serve as chief meteorologist at FOX 4 is keeping our viewers well-informed about impending severe weather, including tornadoes and other significant weather such as flash flooding, ice storms and snow storms.” Mr. Henry credits covering big weather events as his favorite part of his career in meteorology because such events are always challenging and rewarding. He is able to provide critical weather information that keeps viewers and their families safe.
What You Need to KnowWith our ever-changing weather patterns and our fair share of equally out-of-season temperatures and weather happenings, we are quite accustomed to staying on our toes. Many people wonder why we have such crazy weather in parts of Texas. Experts agree that it is our location, and some agree that it is just the way it is! Mr. James explains, “There is no real definitive reason as to why our weather goes from one extreme to the other. That is just the way the weather is in North Texas! And, that is the way it is across our country and around the world. With that being said, we do experience a higher number of instances of severe weather because of our ideal placement in the southern part of the Central Plains. Moisture from the Gulf of Mexico will stream north and interact with storm systems moving across a central part of the U.S., pulling in cold, Canadian air behind them. Those ingredients coming together are what help create the powerful thunderstorms we see here in the spring. In other words, we just live in the right place to have really strong thunderstorms and the occasional threat of tornadoes.” Mr. Henry adds, “Our location in the Southern Plains can subject us to wild swings in temperatures. For instance, on sunny days in winter, with a gusty southwest or west wind, we can easily soar into the 70s. Then, less than 24-hours later, an arctic front can barrel through and open the door for bitterly cold air to invade North Texas. While it did not happen this winter, we have seen several arctic blasts over the past few winters, as these air masses roll south out of Canada, literally unimpeded. During the spring, a beautiful, sunny day can be followed by an outbreak of severe storms, as moisture from the Gulf collides with an approaching cold front or dry line.”
Those swings in temperature and random outbreaks of severe weather proved just how unpredictable they can be this past December, when violent tornadoes tore through the Garland/Rowlett area and surrounding areas to the north and east. Though tornadoes are not common in December, North Texas learned they are not to be ruled out. Mr. James explains, “Undoubtedly, there is something to learn from every outbreak of severe weather. In this case, we learned that we need to continue to work harder on getting people to react and respond accordingly when severe weather threatens … even if it is the day after Christmas! We had given out information days before the severe weather hit, but because everyone was in holiday mode, not as many people were paying attention to the weather like they normally would.” Mr. Henry adds, “I think the most important lesson learned from December’s tornadoes is that severe weather, including tornadoes, can occur at any time of year here in North Texas. Sadly, in the December tornadoes, several fatalities involved motorists. Commuters/travelers need to be even more vigilant when they are on the road during the threat of severe weather. Cars and trucks are no match for the power of a tornado.” Mr. Henry strongly encourages motorists to consider postponing or delaying travel if severe weather is anticipated during the time they are on the road, especially during rush hour. Frisco Fire Chief Mark Piland says, “We learned just how much we are able to count on our neighbors in a time of need. This area has a robust mutual aid system that can provide assistance from our neighboring cities.”
Though the tornadoes in December caught us off guard, and by surprise, North Texans are quite used to the sometimes volatile weather our spring season brings. Forecasters are not able to predict weather events months in the future, but they are able to make predictions on past weather patterns and events. Mr. Henry advises readers to be prepared for all modes of severe weather, including large hail, high winds, tornadoes and flash flooding. “That is not to say I am anticipating another record spring storm season, but at some point this spring, severe weather will likely hit parts of North Texas,” he shares. Mr. James makes early predictions based on past weather events. “If the past is any indicator of what we can expect this spring, then it might be a pretty active severe weather season for us. After a strong winter El Niño, the subsequent spring has typically been quite active on the severe weather side. That does not mean we will absolutely have a nasty spring, but there are indications that might be possible,” he shares.
Safety and PreparednessIt is vitally important that we know, understand and respect the power of severe weather, while knowing how to protect ourselves from its effects. Lightning, tornadoes, hail and flooding are all dangerous and potential products of thunderstorms that can pose a significant threat to Frisco.
Ms. Brown encourages residents to be aware of the weather conditions expected on any given day, especially during the spring and fall storm seasons. It is important to know where you live on a map and what county you live or work in. When watches and warnings are issued, you will immediately be able to recognize whether they impact your area or not. Much of Frisco is settled on the western side of Collin County, but a portion of the city lies on the eastern border of Denton County.
To further ensure safety during weather situations, residents need to fully understand the watches and warnings our meteorologist and storm chasing friends issue based on developing information from the National Weather Service. “This is an important piece of information for people to understand,” Ms. Brown shares. “A ‘severe thunderstorm’ or ‘tornado watch’ means conditions are favorable for the development of severe thunderstorms or tornadoes within, or in close proximity to, the watch area. When the National Weather Service issues a severe thunderstorm or tornado watch, residents need to pay attention to the weather during that timeframe by tuning into local radio or television and keeping an eye on things. A ‘tornado warning’ means a tornado has either been visually confirmed or radar indicated. Residents within the warning area need to seek shelter immediately and stay there until the threat has passed. We urge everyone to know the difference, share the information with family members and do not wait until the last minute to make a plan for where you will seek shelter once a warning has been issued.” Mr. James adds, “When you hear the word ‘warning,’ you need to act right away. Do not hesitate!”
Families need to make sure they have a safety plan that allows them to act quickly in order to safeguard against impending weather, no matter where they are. Mr. Henry explains, “Practice makes perfect! Everyone should have a plan of action at home, work and at school. Invest in a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio that can alert you of severe weather warnings while you are sleeping. Also, download the WAPP FOX 4 weather app, as it will keep you informed with the very latest forecast and gives you access to live radar any time, anywhere!” Mr. James says, “The goal is to get as many walls between you and the outside as possible. A basement or below ground storm shelter is best, but not everyone has access to one of those. The next best choice is to go to an interior closet or bathroom. Take along some blankets and pillows to protect yourself from flying debris. You can also use cushions off the couch. You can even use bicycle helmets, baseball helmets or football helmets to protect yourself from flying debris.” Ms. Brown clarifies, “The point is to get away from exterior walls and windows, in a room that is small and has extra framework around it to help keep the walls from collapsing on top of you.”
Sometimes, we are caught out running errands, driving home from work or even at outdoor events when severe weather strikes, so it is important to know what to do, even when we are not in the comfort and safety of our homes. Ms. Brown advises, if you are in a store or at the office, the same principles apply as they do at home. Find an interior bathroom or stairwell to seek shelter and stay away from glass windows or atriums.
Knowledge of your surroundings and weather conditions is key if you are driving or on the highway in the midst of severe weather or even a tornado. Ms. Brown clarifies, “We have had a lot of people ask us what they should do if they are caught out on the highway with a tornado approaching. First and foremost, be aware of what weather conditions you may be driving into. If you end up out on a highway and your radio or mobile device alerts you about a tornado warning, our recommendation is to exit the highway as soon as possible and seek shelter in the closest sturdy building, such as a store or restaurant. Never seek shelter under an overpass. If exiting the highway is impossible, but you can safely turn around in a median, then do so and drive back in the opposite direction, which will likely take you out of the tornado warning polygon. Whatever you do, do not just blindly keep driving into it. Realize you may not be able to see the tornado because it may be shrouded by rain. Rain is a perfect invisibility cloak for tornadoes. Exercise common sense. Stop and check things out so you can make the best possible decision to keep you and your family safe.”
When scary weather strikes, rest assured that Frisco’s outdoor warning sirens will warn its residents. Jean May, the emergency management analyst with the Frisco Fire Department, shares, “Frisco currently has 35 outdoor warning sirens strategically placed throughout the city. We also have the capability of overriding the city’s cable channel to notify residents who are watching for impeding weather notifications. We recommend that residents monitor weather for their own planning purposes, becoming ‘weather aware’ so they are prepared prior to an event. Local media provides some of the best sources of updated information and forecasts for severe weather. In addition, there are many applications and online weather sources which can provide notifications and alerts about approaching weather. NOAA provides a weather alert system, which any resident may access through the purchase of a NOAA weather alert radio. This radio silently monitors NOAA weather radio frequencies and may be programmed to sound an alert when a warning is issued.” If the warning sirens are heard, seek shelter immediately and monitor your television or radio for further instructions.
Frisco Fire Safety Town also offers children vital lessons in weather safety. Leslie Girdner, the community education coordinator with the Frisco Fire Department, says, “We are embarking on our tenth year teaching children at Frisco Fire Safety Town. We have taught severe weather and disaster preparedness to more than 23,000 fourth graders from the Frisco ISD over the past 10 years. By attending the program, parents will learn how to prepare their family for severe weather disasters as well. For example, a homeowner’s important documents might not be accessible following a tornado or other disaster. Consider loading insurance policies and agent contact information on a flash drive. Put pictures of belongings on a flash drive in the emergency supply kit, too. Also, if a family member takes medication on a daily basis, have a week’s supply in the emergency kit.” The program strives to instill confidence, not fear, in students. “We empower students by giving them information and tools to make wise choices during a stressful event. Students learn what to do, where to go and what to bring during trips to Frisco Fire Safety Town. Safety Town also provides them with a small scale simulation, which reinforces the need to monitor local media during a storm to stay informed, as well as what types of areas can provide protection within a home,” Ms. Girdner says.
Myth vs. TruthAs is the case with many types of information, there is always the opportunity for important weather-related advice and best practices to be misconstrued or made up. “One of the weather myths that sticks out in my mind, that used to be widespread, is the notion that you should open your windows if a tornado is approaching your house. The myth is that the pressure difference between the tornado and inside your house would be enough to cause your house to explode as the tornado went by. That is simply not true. It is not the pressure difference that causes the most damage, it is the force of the wind that does all the damage. Do not bother with the windows … just get to your place of safety,” Mr. James says
Ms. Brown says one of the biggest myths out there is that it is safe to seek shelter from a tornado by crawling up under a highway overpass. “I am not sure when that myth first appeared, but it seemed to spread like wildfire after a video surfaced in 1991 depicting Wichita, Kan., news crew seeking shelter under an overpass with several other motorists. The news crew and several other nearby motorists were able to climb up the embankment beneath the overpass and wedge themselves in between the bridge supports and the road surface above. Yes, they survived, but there were other factors that made that particular situation survivable, whereas others may not be. Any time you have strong winds being funneled through a smaller space, it will increase the wind speed. Add flying debris to that and you have an instant death trap. On top of that, you are blocking traffic by parking under the bridge and that is both illegal and dangerous.”
Ms. Brown says another myth that comes up every storm season is that tornado sirens are meant to be heard indoors. “While some can be heard indoors, due to the siren’s close proximity to your home, the primary use for tornado sirens is to alert people who are outdoors that severe weather is imminent,” she says. “People should never rely on outdoor warning sirens as their only means of severe weather notification. People also need to be aware that every city has different uses for them, all severe weather related, but some will activate them for high winds or hail, not just for tornadoes. Either way, if you are outdoors or you hear them, head indoors and seek shelter!”
Seeking ShelterIn light of the recent and unexpected tornado outbreak, many North Texans are choosing to rely on the safety of storm shelters to further protect their families from danger. Storm shelters come in many shapes and sizes and are made out of materials including steel, concrete and fiberglass. Shelters can be installed above ground in the form of a closet or small safe room, installed in the garage floor of a home or even in the ground outside of the home, only steps from your door. “It is a very safe insurance policy to protect families from tornadoes and they also act as safe rooms or panic rooms from intruders,” says Ken Welch, the owner of Texas Storm Shelters in Frisco. “All shelters have been tested and comply with all wind testing standards, FEMA P-320 and P-361 and the International Code Council 500 (ICC) debris and impact testing.” Homeowners should consider how many people they want the shelter to accommodate, how much space is available for a shelter, what material is best for the situation and what they are willing to spend.
There are so many valuable resources to help prepare for severe weather this spring! Staying informed, having a safety plan and knowing when to act are all steps that ensure your family’s safety amidst potentially severe weather.