Meteorologists and support staff at the National Weather Service Chicago's Station in Romeoville, Illinois monitor weather conditions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to inform more than 10 million citizens in 23 counties of severe weather threats. Matt Friedlein, Lead Forecaster for NWS Chicago, said that while technological advances have allowed for greater radar precision and more methods of relaying warning information since the Romeoville station opened in December 1991, the NWS Chicago's core mission remains the same: spreading the message of weather awareness and informing the public of severe weather threats.
Friedlein said weather awareness begins with citizens remaining aware of weather conditions capable of producing strong storms and tornadoes. Using advanced computer models to analyze weather data, meteorologists can recognize the potential for severe weather in a region days in advance. For example, five days prior to the November 17, 2013 tornado outbreak in Illinois weather experts warned of atmospheric conditions creating the possibility for severe weather in the Midwest region. By November 15, scientists warned more specifically that the Chicagoland region was at risk for severe storms. The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center---based in Norman, Oklahoma---publishes forecasts on its website that include a rating of risk potential for severe storms. Friedlein said a potential for severe weather in the region, "does not necessarily mean you cancel plans, but it does mean you need to have multiple means to hear a warning, such as public radio, outdoor warning sirens, TV, a NOAA weather radio, and texts and calls from family and friends."
Freidlein urges citizens to prepare by thinking about how plans might shift in response to a severe weather threat. For example, think about how a tornado watch or warning would prompt you to change plans regarding the commute home or picking the kids up from school. A tornado can happen in the Chicago metro area and a majority of tornadoes develop in the afternoon and evening, overlapping with peak commuting times. Everyone has experienced a Chicagoland traffic jam and can imagine why it is vital to do everything possible to avoid sitting stuck in traffic during a tornado or severe weather. If you are caught by severe weather or a tornado while in your vehicle, the National Weather Service keeps recommendations for action here.
During times of increased threats, severe weather warning operators at NWS Chicago monitor evolving storm systems using radar and reports from on-the-ground storm spotters. During times of severe weather, NWS Chicago's radar scans the atmosphere more quickly, Freidlein explains:
Once NWS Chicago identifies a severe storm or tornado either on radar or through a storm-spotter report, the warning is issued over NOAA radio in less than a minute.
|Weather Radio Station at NWS Chicago|
NWS also maintains on-line chat rooms that allow community emergency managers, media meteorologists and storm spotters to communicate in real time, which also helps to spread warnings. Each spring and autumn, NWS Chicago meets with media to brainstorm the best ways to work together to inform the public of weather threats. NWS Chicago enjoys a "great partnership" with broadcast meteorologists, Friedlein said. NWS Chicago takes its partnerships seriously since weather safety often spreads person to person. For example, Friedlein relayed the story of a six year old who had learned tornado safety at school and told her family "we learned to go downstairs in a tornado warning." That six year old's family lived in Washington, Illinois and their house was destroyed by the EF-4 tornado that ripped through the town.
The six year old knew to get underground as soon as the warning was issued instead of waiting to visualize the tornado. Friedlein shared that severe weather social science research shows: "people tend to want to verify the threat; seeing is believing and they want to see the threat." When a tornado is on the ground, however, "you don't have time to see it and then take cover" Friedlein said. That is particularly true when storms are moving quickly, such as the November 17 storms which moved at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. It is vital citizens seek shelter immediately when a warning is issued and do not waste time trying to verify warning information. According to Friedlein, over the last 20 years in Northeastern Illinois, on average, each county was under a tornado warning for one hour each year and each county was under a severe thunderstorm warning for 9 hours a year.
In addition to radar, NWS Chicago relies on trained storm spotters to provide in-person reports of severe weather and tornadoes, reports that can prompt a severe thunderstorm or tornado warning. Storm spotters who have completed the NWS's storm-spotter training volunteer to watch storms on the ground and phone-in reports to NWS Chicago. Some spotters report using Ham radio. During severe weather events, a volunteer often comes into NWS Chicago to take reports at the Ham Radio Station, pictured below:
|Ham Radio Station at NWS Chicago|
During the November 17, 2013 tornado outbreak, members of the public using Twitter received tweets relaying those reports of tornadoes on the ground. Friedlein stated NWS Chicago assigned a staff member "as the dedicated person monitoring social media" and updating the NWS Chicago Twitter feed because meteorologists "were expecting multiple tornadoes and we knew there would be a large flow of information" coming in through social media. While the NWS Chicago does not routinely have a dedicated social media staff, advanced forecasts of conditions very favorable for multiple tornadoes allowed NWS Chicago to add extra staff for November 17th. NWS Chicago also staffed more meteorologists November 17th to attend to the Center's duties to monitor conditions at airports and conditions on Lake Michigan.
Whether citizens monitor weather conditions by listening to a NOAA radio, local media, social media, NWS products, or simply by keeping an eye on the skies, the message is clear: remain aware of the potential for severe weather and make sure you have the means to hear a warning.