We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Guest Host: Matt McCleskey
Computerized weather forecasting is increasingly accurate, yet death, injury, and property damage caused by severe weather is on the rise. Last year, in fact, tornado-related deaths hit record-breaking numbers. We hear how meteorologists and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are tackling the challenge — and trying to convince all Americans to take weather threats seriously.
- Veronica Johnson NBC4 Meteorologist
- Chris Strager Advisor for Science and Service Integration, National Weather Service
- Bill Callahan Vice President of Federal Programs, Earth Networks
Footage of the 2011 Joplin, Missouri Tornado
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition," here on WAMU 88.5, sitting in today for Kojo. We've got increasingly sophisticated weather forecasts and we're more connected to news than at any time in history. So you'd imagine that we're better prepared than ever for severe weather and there's been a lot of it over the past several years. Around the country, we've had record breaking snowfalls, cold temperatures, extended drought, high heats, severe flooding, violent tornadoes and massive hurricanes.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYBut despite the preparation, deaths and property damage continue to increase, much to the frustration of those in the weather business, including the National Weather Service, Meteorologists, private weather services and local authorities. Last year, the National Weather Service launched a new program called Weather Ready Nation. It joins the efforts of everyone involved in predicting and preparing for weather. The goal is to develop new ways to alert people to threats and to get the best information out more quickly. Joining me this hour to talk about this is Chris Strager, the advisor for Science and Service Integration at the National Weather Service. Thanks for joining us.
MR. CHRIS STRAGERYou're welcome, Matt.
MCCLESKEYAlso Bill Callahan, Vice President of Federal Programs for EarthNetworks. Thanks for being here.
MR. BILL CALLAHANMatt, thanks for having us.
MCCLESKEYAnd Veronica Johnson, NBC4 Meteorologist. Thank you, Veronica.
MS. VERONICA JOHNSONGood to be here.
MCCLESKEYWell, glad to have you all here. Chris, I'd like to start with you. What's the idea behind the Weather Ready Nation?
STRAGERIt's pretty simple, Matt. We can boil it down in just a short statement. The Weather Ready Nation, it's about building community resilience in the face of increasing vulnerability to extreme weather. Last year alone, we had 14 $1 billion weather disasters. And the economic part of that aside, what troubles us more is that despite long lead times on our warnings, over 1,000 people lost their lives and we just want to try and do something more.
MCCLESKEYWell, over the course of the hour, we certainly want to talk about how that information gets out to people because it does seem like we're getting, over the last 20 years or so, certainly more and more accurate forecasts. Veronica Johnson, what's been leading to some of that? I understand we have new Doppler radar that we perhaps didn't have before?
JOHNSONThat's right. And now what's being launched through the weather services, as you'll hear too, is a dual polar radar which will allow us to have a little more lead time on detecting tornadoes instead of waiting for the scan to go all the way around on that radar. You know, for folks who have watched on TV and seen the radar on air, there's that little scan that clicks all the way around.
JOHNSONYou've got to wait until it gets back to the actual cell before you can see, well, what is it doing? Is it increasing or is it decreasing? But now through dual polar radar, you'll be able to see almost instantaneously what it's doing. You don't have to wait for the scan. So it's tools like that that will trickle down from NOAA, National Weather Service where myself as a broadcaster, I'll be able to use that on the air as well.
MCCLESKEYAnd then we certainly do that here at WAMU as well, to try to get the information out as quickly as possible and as accurately as possible. Despite that, though, we're hearing that the number of deaths and property damages is up in recent years. Chris Strager, why is that?
STRAGERThat's what we're trying to work with now with social scientists instead of just a bunch of meteorologists getting around and trying to figure out why is this happening. We want to bring in some outside agencies to help us determine why is it the wording in the warnings? The lead times are good, almost 25 minutes of lead time for the most recent round of tornadoes. But why are people not getting out of the way? It was encouraging in Dallas, Fort Worth, last week, that there were no deaths. But of course, we go back to last year, we're coming up on the one year commemoration, the Southeast tornadoes and hundreds of people lost their lives. So we want to find out why are people not taking action for some of these events?
MCCLESKEYWell, to be part of the Weather Ready Nation idea is collaboration between different entities, the National Weather Service, local and national meteorologists, academics and organizations like EarthNetworks. That's your organization, Bill Callahan. You're Vice President of Federal Programs. EarthNetwork is a commercial weather company that develops advanced weather information, a visualization and an alerting of products and services. Tell us more about that collaboration.
CALLAHANSure, absolutely. I think traditionally, over the years, we have worked as a strong collaborator with both the National Weather Service, as well as the media, getting the word out. So we, you know, through our online properties and through the services that we provide to broadcasters, we deliver those alerts quickly, that funnel down from the National Weather Service. More recently, our company, at least, but certainly the private sector actively develops these technologies. The radars that both Veronica and Chris mentioned, our company in particular, has developed a new ground breaking type of technology along the lines of total lightening detection.
CALLAHANSo you think of this convective weather, severe storms, lightening is always a component of that or most likely a component of that. And if you can detect the total lightening signature in the atmosphere, you can get past some of these volume scanned pattern issues that the radars currently have today and increase the timeliness within which severe storms are identified and tracked, then therefore help increase lead times even further. I think, one of the things that we should get to here, is even though we've had fantastic lead times, working with the social scientists, as Chris mentioned, we need to get people to take action and view things quickly, expeditiously, take the right action, not delay.
CALLAHANBut giving them even more lead time is important. Particularly think about Joplin, Mo., where a tornado came right down on a hotel. You can't get out of the way -- you can't get everybody out of a hotel that fast. So the longer the lead times, the better and that's what we're collaboratively working on.
MCCLESKEYWell, is there a problem of over warning? I mean, do people heed severe weather alerts or do they say, oh, well, that's not really a big deal?
JOHNSONWell, and that's where the social scientists come in because what they do a lot of times is after a big event has hit an area, they will go in and actually interview people as to how they respond, how they responded, why they responded that way and they've gotten some very interesting feedback on that. You know, some folks will say, I think in some ways, the fact that there is so much out there from all the different cable channels to radio to, you know, what their friends are saying when they call them up. And of course, social media, you know.
JOHNSONThey can be watching TV and if there is some slight difference from what they're hearing, whether it's tornadoes that we're talking about here or other big impact events like snowfall, they could talk to -- you know, they could flip around the different channels, maybe there's a slight difference. They can also call up their friends and their friends might say, well, you know what, I'm not leaving. Here's what I've heard. You know, to bought what you hear and how people take in information very differently. And they come to conclusions very differently. And that's why social scientists, as we go forward, are going to be so important.
MCCLESKEYWell, as a broadcaster, you, like us here WAMU, have to try to explain to people on the air in a limited sort of time what is what, what's a warning, what's a watch.
MCCLESKEYYou think people know the difference?
JOHNSONI think that, for the most part, people do. What's interesting is one of my teenage kids, who's 13, said to me the other day, what's the difference between a watch and a warning? And sometimes I'm like, oh, wait a minute, why don't you know that? So we have a lot of weather hits that we do when there's an event that's coming in and, of course, during the event. So of course, we, you know, try to not hit the same thing every hit, but certainly inform and we try to put storms in probably a different perspective than we did years ago. In other words, if it's a day, you know, if it's a day where we're going to have thunderstorms, not every thunderstorm is created equal, not every thunderstorm day is created equal.
JOHNSONSo if it's early in the day, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, we would've said, We have a risk of severe weather, we could have some tornadoes. Chance of severe weather is 80 percent. But now we try and put things in a little more context. Again, not every storm is created equal, so maybe there's an 80 percent of hail and a 20 percent of tornadoes. Or on another day, if you know, we look at the data, maybe there's, you know, a higher threat of lightening as opposed to tornadoes or a higher threat of tornadoes and we say hey, this is the day when we're thinking you really should, you know, teachers, cancel the outing with your kids or stay a little bit more cognizant of the weather.
MCCLESKEYDo you heed severe weather warnings? If not, why not? Do you have a weather disaster plan in place? Give us a call 800-433-8850. The phone lines are open. You can join in the conversation. You can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, that's 800-433-8850 and the lines are open. Chris Strager, what's the Weather Service doing to try to fight complacency on the part of the public in terms of responding to warnings and alerts?
STRAGERContinuously going out on outreach, talking with people, in terms of our operations too, we're continuously trying to get more of a pinpoint as to where it's going to be the specificity. It's difficult to do in this area but out in the Midwest where it's relatively flat, they will put into the warnings, mile posts on the interstate, where they believe the storm is going to cross. So if you're in your vehicle or if you're planning to out, you'll have a good reference if you're in a very rural community.
MCCLESKEYThe one thing I've noticed, just in our broadcast here, the information that we're getting in the last couple of years, certainly has gotten better in terms of tracking communities and towns, that the tornado, if it is, in fact, a storm that might produce tornadoes, the direction that it's heading so we can say, instead of, Northeast Montgomery County, we can actually begin naming some of the communities in the line of the potential storm.
STRAGERAnd it's interesting. I worked radar for several years now and I've nothing but respect for the men and women that do it now. It's a tense situation. You sit behind the radar and it's your responsibility to make the call, is this just a severe thunderstorm with maybe 70 miles per hour wind, is this a tornadic cell that you have to put the warning out now and trying to do it in the most timely fashion as possible. It's very stressful. A lot of people thrive on that, though, and, to me, I think it's just the pinnacle of meteorology to be able to do that. It's a real skill.
MCCLESKEYWell, in terms of how the message gets out there, broadcast, of course, is one way. But if we're looking at things like social media or smart phones, are there any developments going on along those lines?
CALLAHANSure, absolutely. I'll field that. From a private sector perspective, there's a number of companies and media outlets as well who operate websites, have applications. From our company in particular, Weather Bug is a piece of our company. And I think we're one of the first applications. I mean, that word is now ubiquitous...
CALLAHAN...but at the time, it was not. And now we have those applications on our iPhones, our smart phones and very quickly we can receive all of this information regardless of where we are. We don't have to be sitting in our home. We can be pretty much anywhere and receive that information. That's a very important component.
MCCLESKEYBill Callahan is the Vice President of Federal Programs for EarthNetwork. We're also speaking with Chris Strager, the advisor for Science and Service Integration at the National Weather Service. And Veronica Johnson, NBC4 Meteorologist. And, Veronica, are you using social media to get, I mean, weather, just the daily forecast but as well as emergency alerts out?
JOHNSONSocial media is huge during severe weather or big impact events for us. And it's not just about using it as a tool to get out the forecast or what's happening in specific areas but it is this exchange of information where it's Twitter, Facebook, folks are sending stuff into us and then we're in turn sending it back out. So if we're on Twitter and we're seeing, for instance today, some light snow in Montgomery county...
MCCLESKEYIndeed, a couple of tweets here from the capital weather gang, based on two other local tweets about it, saying, snowflakes in Gaithersburg and Rockville, today.
JOHNSONRight. And so that's something then that we can in turn send back out. A lot of times, on radar, the precipitation can be so light or sometimes you're not quite sure if it's really reaching the ground. Sometimes it'll evaporate before it does. But here now, you have ground base, verification that it is. We can tweet it back out. Along with the fact that now, also, through tweets and Facebook, you have photos and videos show.
JOHNSONWhat's better than that? We used to have to rely on our network of weather observers years ago, which was excellent, you know. We all had some very wonderful groups of people that were part of that. But now, through Twitter, it's just opened up a whole new world of keeping the entire community informed of what's going on again during severe weather events. If there's a tornado on the ground we know that and we can let folks down the line know that it is on the ground and that it's coming their way.
MCCLESKEYWe mentioned weather observers. The National Weather Service has had weather observers for years helping out to try to keep track of what's going on around the country. How is technology affecting what they're doing?
STRAGERIt's giving them a whole new venue in order to be able to relay reports to us, as Veronica mentioned before. We love to get the feedback from our weather spotters in the public. We look for this information too. And the more technologically savvy the newer folks coming into weather service, this is second nature to them. And they're able to mine reports out and continuously feed it on to the person operating radar. And it's a great process now.
STRAGERBut you get to the point there's sometimes so much information coming in during an event it's important to be able to filter to the key bits of information you need to put that warning out to keep our warnings concise as possible and as updated as possible.
MCCLESKEYAnd the weather service does train weather spotters, right?
STRAGERYes, we do.
MCCLESKEYYeah. All right. We're talking about the Ready Weather Nation with Chris Strager, Advisor for Science and Service Integration at the National Weather Service. Also Bill Callahan, Vice President of the Federal Programs for EarthNetworks, a commercial weather company that develops advanced weather information, visualization and alerting products and services and NBC4 Meteorologist Veronica Johnson.
MCCLESKEYHow do you find about the weather? Is it social media? Is it TV? Is it radio? Do you go online? Let us know, give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can also send an email to email@example.com. Or speaking of social media, you can get in touch with us through our Facebook page or Tweet us at kojoshow. We're going to take a short break. I'm Matt McCleskey local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5 sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. We'll be right back on the other side and we will open up the phones and take some of your calls. You can still give us a call, 800-433-8850. And stay with us.
MCCLESKEYI'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5 sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. And we're speaking with Chris Strager, the Advisor for Science and Service Integration at the National Weather Service, Bill Callahan, the Vice President of Federal Program for EarthNetworks, and Veronica Johnson, NBC4 Meteorologist talking about the Weather Ready Nation initiative and about how you can find out about inclement weather or how you get your weather reports on a daily basis.
MCCLESKEYWe have an email from Linda. She says, "Information in general should be more easily accessed with all the Smartphones and social media networks these days." She says she's on Twitter and Facebook using her Smartphone. But the problem in the past is that when there's bad weather, we lose power, of course, or can. And when there's no power to recharge the battery, then you can't get information via all these electronic outlets. And it says, you know, depending on how your utility operates, that can affect that and how quickly things get put back together.
MCCLESKEYBut she says that they do carry a hand-cranked radio now so they don't have to totally rely on electrical devices. Still a good idea to keep a battery powered or even a hand-cranked radio?
STRAGERYeah, that's a great idea. We strongly recommend -- you talk about Weather Ready Nation and we stress the preparedness part of it and Linda made a great point that you should have those types of backups. Water, some food in case your power goes out for an extended amount of time.
JOHNSONAnd a weather radio.
JOHNSONYou know, it's like we've advanced so far with Smartphones and everything else, but still every house should have a weather radio.
MCCLESKEYYeah, that either operates with a hand crank or a battery.
JOHNSONRight. And one of the things that we found just with last year Irene coming through and then Lee coming through -- you had one with some wind and one with a whole lot of rain for us -- but there were a lot of folks in the D.C., Virginia, Maryland area that lost power. And, you know, some of them were telling us, hey we are getting your Tweets, we're staying informed. We're charging though our phones with our car batteries. So, you know, just another workaround.
MCCLESKEYSnowmageddon, a very similar experience a couple of years ago in terms of power outages. Let's go to the phones now. Sophia calling from Silver Spring in Maryland. Sophia, you're on the air. Go ahead.
SOPHIAHi. I just wanted to let you guys know I do, you know, listen to the radio and watch TV in terms of how I receive the warnings and the watches. However, I think earlier I heard something about how we're losing so many, you know, billions of dollars due to structural damage by storms and disasters. But I don't think that's something that can be improved, so to say, you know, by giving the warnings or the watch, you know, signals earlier.
MCCLESKEYWell, you can certainly, as mentioned, focus on loss of life by getting the warnings out earlier. But in terms of property damage, are there -- I mean, you can't get out of the way of a tornado, can't get a house out of the way.
SOPHIAYeah, lots of luck...
SOPHIA...if you can help that, you know. You can always, you know, give out the warnings and then lives will be saved. But as far as, you know, structural damage you can't, you know, predict where a tornadoes going to fall or move a building out of the way, you know, or etcetera, etcetera.
MCCLESKEYChris Strager, what's your response?
STRAGERHi, Sophia. You're absolutely right. We can't save the building from being damaged but our goal was to save the people inside the building from getting injured. And if we're able to get them down into a basement or a safe place, or if the structure they're in isn't going to withstand even a weak tornado then we'd love to give them enough time to be able to get to a facility that will be able to survive the storm.
MCCLESKEYVeronica Johnson, you want to jump in as well?
JOHNSONYeah, one of the things that we can look at too in terms of saving money is when there is an area that may be unfortunately wiped out, how you rebuild, looking at building codes. Or do you rebuild in the same area? That's saving a lot of money.
MCCLESKEYSo planning ahead for the next time.
MCCLESKEYAnd are there any things we can do in terms of preparing your property in the event of inclement weather? I mean, I've seen people taping their windows if a hurricane is coming, or nailing boards up across the windows. If it's a tornado you don't have that kind of lead time that you might with a hurricane. Are there any other things you can do to prepare your property?
STRAGERI'm just going to say small things like that and I'm embarrassed to say that myself, I have a big old grill on my deck. I forgot to strap it down. It came right across, went right through our patio door in a windstorm. And it wasn't anything crazy. No 80 miles per hour. About a 40 to 50 mile gust and it put it right through the door. So small things like that, securing loose objects, making sure that...
STRAGERRight, lawn furniture.
JOHNSONYeah, and during flooding events, of course, just, you know, doing the things that make sense, you know. Making sure that stuff is pushed back from your foundation where the water isn't going to be creeping in and cracking your foundation down below and costing you a lot more money. So there are some little things. You know, a lot of them I think are common sense stuff but certainly with a tornado coming.
MCCLESKEYNever hurts to have a reminder about common sense things, though. Let's go to...
CALLAHANMatt, one more thing (unintelligible) ...
MCCLESKEYYes, (unintelligible) go right ahead.
CALLAHAN...I want to throw in there and you kind of alluded to it. You mentioned hurricanes. We've been talking so far about short fuse severe weather. There's long fuse severe weather as well, hurricanes being one of them. And I think, you know, continued investment on our country's part in terms of improved technologies, capabilities for forecasting hurricane intensity and tracks is very important because to the callers point for those types of events for very accurate forecasts you can take action. You can get out of the way of the storm. Airports will relocate aircraft. People can move critical assets. And so that's very important.
MCCLESKEYAnd I suppose if there's things -- perhaps your home can't move, but if there are things inside that you're concerned about you could, if you have time, (unintelligible) ...
CALLAHANBoard up windows.
MCCLESKEY...and board up windows. Let's go to another call, John calling from northwest D.C. John, you're on the air. Go ahead.
JOHNHi, thanks for taking my call. I think that Ms. Johnson overestimates the public's understanding of the difference between warnings and watches, and the fact that the two terms are so similar. And the fact that every time they're used somebody has to explain what each one means indicates that we might be able to find some better terms that are more easily understandable.
JOHNI also think that our TV stations actually do a pretty poor job of distinguishing between severe weather -- or the gradations of severe weather events because every severe weather event is big news. And particularly in D.C. when we're getting half an inch of snow, we get snow warnings. When we're getting 8' of snow and having snowmageddon, we have snowmageddon. But the difference between the two as far as the forecasting coverage in terms of the announcements and the music associated with it and the dramatic news coverage really doesn't change that much.
MCCLESKEYLet's let Veronica Johnson respond. Go ahead.
JOHNSONSure. In terms of the public's understanding between watches and warnings, you know, one of the things that we said at the beginning of this session is that we're bringing social scientists into this so that we can do a better job of communicating. And that's just not just me communicating to our viewers, but it's everybody communicating because this really is a collaboration from NOAA to the public sector and down through the private sector with emergency management folks, with community planners, everybody. Let's do a better job of communicating.
JOHNSONSo no doubt that is something that we are working on. At my station I think that we do try and keep things in context. I don't think that we oversell any storm. We try and I think do a good job. It's a storm that, you know, may bring only an inch of snow, when is that inch of snow coming? Is it coming during the evening rush? Then, yeah, it's a big deal.
MCCLESKEYAnd also the context of just how much snow we've had over the course of a winter. I think people got more excited about the prospect this winter of a half inch or an inch of snow simply because we hadn't had a whole lot. And it's not any reason to run around waving your hands, but it was interesting and different because we hadn't had any there to (word?) . So there's that short term context, but also the longer term context as well.
MCCLESKEYWe have an email from, I believe it's Cocall (sp?) in Tacoma Park. He says, "People basically don't heed warnings because it's not clear always what we should do." He says, "We've had fire warnings for the last two days, in fact, they were red flag warnings because of wind and dry conditions." He says, "Other than not starting a bonfire, what could we have done?" That's a pretty good one to not do any outdoor burning.
JOHNSONRight. Not do any outdoor burning and just, of course, be cognizant that the brush is very dry. So, you know, I don't know of anyone who -- it's not like it's been warm here with fire danger being high. A bit unusual that it's been on the cooler side with the low humidity and the lack of rainfall from the spring and of course going back to the winter but just being cognizant of that. You know, if you are someone who works in an occupation where maybe, you know, it's the kind of occupation that may be giving off sparks or could easily -- and there are quite a few of those, you know. Just be more aware.
MCCLESKEYAnd, as you said, many of these things are common sense type suggestions. It's just get the word out about the warning. In terms of how people understand watch versus warning or what to do, Chris Strager, what does the weather service recommend?
STRAGERWell, right now we understand the watch warning -- I think people have a good grasp on it but as part of what we're trying to do with our initiative, we're actually looking at are there better ways to get that word out? Do you need delineation between watch and warning? Is there a better way to say it so that the public would truly understand?
STRAGEROne of the things we're trying to do though -- and, Veronica, this will go along with your mention before about the rush-hour snows -- we're trying to get more concise now for the forecasts as to the timing of when something is going to happen. You know, here in D.C. area if you have a snow that happens an inch of snow between 8:00 and 10:00 at night, not that big a deal. If it happens between 3:00 and 5:00 pm it's a whole different story. And I think the better we can get on trying to get that timing down, even if it's only an inch of snow, I think is really going to help the situation.
MCCLESKEYGive us a call, 800-433-8850. You can also email the show at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd love to hear from you about how you respond to warnings or alerts about the weather and how you get your weather information. Again, that's 800-433-8850. You can also give us an email at WAMU -- rather at email@example.com. Let's go to another phone call now. Ann calling from Brooklyn in the District, Ann, you're on the air.
ANNHi. I have a complicated situation. I'm an elderly lady who lives alone and I have a condition called age-related macular degeneration. And I also have a pulmonary condition that requires me to use oxygen. I have had great -- my primary question is this. Since I am not able to use television and I cannot use a computer, what recommendations can the panelist make for me to help myself when the wind starts blowing, the heavy snow starts falling, the lightning hits the wires and puts out the light. Can you help me at all with that problem?
MCCLESKEYChris Strager with the National Weather Service.
STRAGERHi, Ann. This is Chris.
STRAGERWhat I would recommend for you is a battery-operated NOAA weather radio. What it's going to do is when there's an event if there's a warning put out it's going to give you an alarm that you'll know something is going on and the radio will turn on. And it'll stay on then. And what you could do if you need to hear anything, if you want to hear what's going on outside or if you hear the wind blowing and you want to know, all you have to do is turn it on.
STRAGERAnd we put out what are called special weather statements. And all that is for something that isn't quite equivalent to a warning we'll put a statement out and just describe what is going on. Maybe it's winds 30 to 40 miles per hour for the next several hours but that would hopefully be able to give you an idea of what's going on outside and do you need to take further action.
ANNCan I answer that?
MCCLESKEYSure, Ann, you're still on the air, go ahead.
ANNOkay. Chris, thanks for that answer. I already have one. I asked the question in order to bring out the fact that this -- mine is a little red plastic cube radio that cost practically nothing at a local Radio Shack and has been a marvelous addition to my...
ANN...safety. But I asked it because I wanted...
MCCLESKEYHello, Ann? Oh, we're all sitting on the edge of our seats to find out why she asked, but she's dropped off.
CALLAHANWe didn't even have to plant that question.
JOHNSONIt's a cliffhanger. Right.
MCCLESKEYNo. Well, let's see if we can get Ann back on the line in just a minute so we can find out why she was asking since she already does have the NOAA radio. And I presume NOAA, they're not a brand. It's the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is that correct?
STRAGERRight. There's several different brands of radios that people can get. And from what Ann was saying a small box or a portable one, they have a little bit more bells and whistles that'll go off and programmable. If you only want it to go off for your area where you're in you can program them to that so it's not going off all through the night for you. There's all different ways to get that through the NOAA weather radio.
JOHNSONAnd most of them I think are under $40.
MCCLESKEYOkay. So they're all affordable. Well, I understand we're trying to get Ann back where we could take a call from her. We'll find out why she was calling to ask. We apologize for dropping her there. Oh, now, yes, I do see a checkmark now next to her line. So, Ann, let's see, are you back on the air with us?
ANNYes, I am.
MCCLESKEYOkay, good. Well, please continue.
ANNWell, I just wanted to underscore that you have to remember when you talk with somebody with age-related macular degeneration means that although I have dim vision, I cannot read or see anything clearly enough to do that. You follow me?
ANNIt's a difficult situation to describe to people in the first place. And it's not terribly common, although it's getting more common as more people get older. But the fact is that is such a huge handicap that even with the NOAA the little radio devices, the weather devices I couldn't use all those bells and whistles. But, you know, I don't mind talking about it, but please remember that people -- I don't know how many people in the world there are like me, but we are really trapped because the whole focus now is on what you can see because you use a computer. Okay?
MCCLESKEYUm-hum. Well, does the radio give you then adequate information?
ANNMy little radio -- my little NOAA radio?
ANNIt certainly does.
MCCLESKEYGood. Okay. Well...
ANNIt's the -- you know, I can't talk back to it. Not yet.
MCCLESKEYWell, thanks so much for your call and we're glad you were able to talk back to us during this hour of "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." And thanks for your call. Are there any other things out there for people who have either issues seeing or perhaps getting information otherwise that might not be able to use a computer? Or is the radio the best way to go?
STRAGERFrom what I know, the weather radio's the best way to go for that because once it's -- and I know the folks at some of the stores will even help you set it up. Once you have that set up, it should be pretty self-sufficient that it's just hitting a button to turn it on and off.
MCCLESKEYAnd Veronica Johnson.
JOHNSONI was going to say, as we heard from our previous caller there, she has trouble seeing, but of course, all the TV stations when we're on covering severe weather we're close captioning.
JOHNSONSo that's always a given.
MCCLESKEYYeah. Well, with everything these days moving more and more to computers, it is important to remember that I guess not everybody can use...
MCCLESKEY...a computer or a smartphone to get that information. Let's go to another call now. Carol calling from Washington. Carol, you're on the air. Go ahead.
CAROLGood afternoon everyone. You know, my mother has lived in this city, and I have all my life, she's lived here since the early '40s and she noticed that Washington D.C. just seems to be in this kind of a sweet spot where we don't have a lot of extreme weather. No tornadoes touch down, very rarely the tail end of a tornado ends up being a tropical storm when it blows through. Outside of this last snowmageddon, no real extreme snow storms, and I think it just desensitizes people.
CAROLPeople who are from areas where there's tornadoes and they have to clean up afterwards, and then hurricanes and they clean up, they kind of get a toughness about them, and they know what to do. They know how to drive, you know, they -- we just seem to be lacking that in this area. That's my observation, and I just wanted to see what the panel thought of that.
MCCLESKEYSure. Well, does our overall mild conditions here make people complacent?
CALLAHANI think that's a possibility. And Carol, it's interesting, the job I held before I came to Washington D.C. was up in New York City. I was regional director up there, and before we really never really had tornadoes in New York City, and then one day a tornado came down over a hundred miles per hour wind, set down in Brooklyn of all places. And I guess that's a message that I would like to get across, and for us, when you talk about tornadoes, I mean, sometimes it is -- it's a hit or miss thing, but the Washington D.C. area certainly is not immune to tornadoes, just like any other major metropolitan area.
MCCLESKEYMm-hmm. I can sure remember some storms over the last year that did track tornadoes sort of southwest and northeast, that classic pattern across Louden County and into Montgomery. We had a number of different storms that brought at least warnings where there were cells producing very, very high winds.
JOHNSONRight. I was going to mention the fact that that's exactly what we're doing this week, the AMS, the American Meteorological Society. There's a big conference going on this week, the Washington forum, and we're looking at several things. We're looking at confronting public complacency. We're looking at how we can improve decision making, and also employ better preparedness and response, whether it's during the storm or after the storm.
MCCLESKEYVeronica Johnson's an NBC-4 meteorologist. We're also speaking with Chris Strager, the advisor for science and service integration at the National Weather Service, and Bill Callahan, the vice president of federal programs for Earth Networks, a commercial weather company that develops advanced weather information, visualization and alerting products and services. We're gonna take a short break, but we will be right back on the other side with more of your calls. We're talking about the Weather-Ready Nation Project from National Weather Service among other things weather related.
MCCLESKEYI'm Matt McCleskey, the local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5 filling in today for Kojo Nnamdi. If you're on the line stick with us and we'll be -- get to your calls in just a minute on the other side of this break.
MCCLESKEYWelcome back. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" on WAMU 88.5, sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking about weather, particularly the Weather-Ready Nation Project, and we've been hearing this hour from a couple of different emailers as we've talked already about watches and warnings and the difference. We've gotten a couple of emails still back saying we haven't described exactly what that difference is, so apologies if we haven't addressed that fully. Veronica Johnson, can you tell us what is the difference between a watch and a warning?
JOHNSONWatch means that something is possible.
JOHNSONWarning means that something is occurring.
JOHNSONLike earlier today...
MCCLESKEYSo a tornado watch for example means you -- keep your eyes open, there might be one.
JOHNSONThat is correct. Whereas a warning means, it's happening...
MCCLESKEYGet in your basement.
JOHNSON….that we've had either confirmation like during a tornado warning that it's based on radar what we're seeing -- signature on radar, or that there's been an actual sighting of a tornado.
JOHNSONThis morning we had a freeze watch, and for Thursday morning there is a freeze watch north of the area. Chris, do you want to add anything?
STRAGERI think that's an important thing to keep in mind, especially if we go for a tornado watch, and they'll put a watch box out. You'll see the, you know, areas covered by this, and that just means that we sense in that one area that conditions are favorable for formation, but nothing has been spotted yet, nothing is formed in that area, and when we put the warning out, that's when the men and women sitting behind the radar actually see a signature that they feel is producing something, they will put the warning out.
STRAGERAnd same goes for the winter storm watch and the winter storm warning. We'll put the watch up as many as maybe 24 or 36 hours before we actually issue the warning that it's imminent or is going to happen.
MCCLESKEYAnd we do have that range, advisories or watches or warnings, and they apply to all different sorts of things, like we've mentioned tornadoes or even a freeze watch or warning, but across all those different types of weather events, that same pattern holds? The watch means it's favorable conditions, the warning means watch out.
JOHNSONThat's right. Right.
MCCLESKEYWell, I say watch because it's coming.
JOHNSONRight. Yeah. Yeah. And that's a good point to make.
MCCLESKEYOkay. Well, let's go back to the phones now. Go to Marie calling from Takoma Park in Maryland. Been with us for a while. Thanks for hanging with us. Marie, you're on the air.
MARIEOh, thank you for taking my call. I was just calling to say that I think some of the overhype on the weather that we hear on the broadcast stations, both on radio and TV, does contribute to an undermining of people actually taking some of these reports seriously. An earlier caller had eluded to that. But I know just from talking to people, I mean, they're always rolling their eyes, oh, they're saying snow again, oh, they're saying another, you know, big wind or storm event.
MARIEBut in general there's a -- I sense a reluctance to really fully accept those warnings because often, A, the turn out to be not true, and B -- or inaccurate I should say, not untrue, and B, sometimes it's just -- it goes on for days and days...
MARIE...so that people stay tuned to the broadcast channels, and I think that's a real disservice.
MCCLESKEYAs someone who does give weather on the air, I'm certainly not a meteorologist, but as someone who does give weather reports on the air, I'll give you a quick response and then I'll throw it to Veronica Johnson who is a meteorologist. One of the challenges in this area is simply that we can have very disparate weather from one place to another. I mean, if you're talking about some of our winter storms, you might get four inches of snow in Frederick, Md., and nothing in Fredericksburg, Va.
MCCLESKEYWhereas if you're broadcasting that entire area, you've got to talk about the snow and the possibility for it, but then someone in one area might say they talked about snow all this time and nothing happened, whereas somebody else says, they didn't talk about snow and I got three inches. How do you deal with that challenge, Veronica?
JOHNSONI deal with that by explaining to people when I have the opportunity that look, you know, science -- this science of forecasting has not gotten to the point where it spits out the exact thing that's going to happen at the exact time. There's a lot that can change with storms when you're days out. What we as meteorologists do, broadcast meteorologists is we try and convey, you know, if it looks like three or four days out, we are going to get a storm, then we go on the air and we say that, and we try also again more and more with this business of social science to put it into more context.
JOHNSONRight now, it's not looking like a big storm, or we'll say, hey, you know, as we get closer to the event, it really is looking like it could have a moderate impact on our area. I tell folks, you know, if there was some sort of model or machine that would spit out exactly what was going to happen, then believe me, all of us scientists would use it to win the lottery. So Chris, did you want to add anything to that on the Weather Service side?
STRAGERJust a comment that one of our key customers in weather service is the emergency management community, and for especially snow situations, the more lead time that we could give that community that something's going to happen, the better, and sometimes as Marie stated, I guess it seems like it's gone on and on and on, but for the managers to be able to prepare their communities, open shelters, be able to make sure that people are taken care of, that extra day or two means the world to them in being able to prepare for the, you know, it's interesting that what happens now with the warnings come out and the timing, even -- do you notice when they go the these shots of the airports now in winter storms, there's not as many people sleeping the airports overnight because the warning is getting out early, the airlines are canceling their flights before the snow comes, hopefully to save some people inconvenience.
STRAGERI think what we need to do, and I'll take the charge for the National Weather Service again is we need to continue to work with the social scientists and make sure that the wording as concise as we can get it.
MCCLESKEYConcise and as specific as possible I would imagine regionally...
MCCLESKEY...is always appreciated, you know, try to give that out as best we can.
JOHNSONRight. And understand that a lot has really developed over the last couple of years. Forecast models that we as meteorologists use for forecasting have gotten a lot better, but still you have those storms sometimes that will just not develop or stay south of us or just ride far, you know, a little more to the east where we don't get anything or, you know, areas of the northeast do. So, you know, I think that, you know, we're still up against a lot, but we have advanced quite far over the last couple of years, and this really is a collaboration between everybody that's going on now.
JOHNSONIt used to be this invisible string, I think that attached us all within the weather and climate enterprise. Now it's a little bit more of a visible string because we're communicating that much more.
CALLAHANYeah. Yeah. No question, and let me come to Veronica's defense a little bit here as well. She does actually have a very difficult job. When you get under the gun and you get on air and things are happening quickly, it's very difficult to communicate concisely and crisply to a broad demographic for events that are happening over a fairly broad geography. And I'll be the first to admit that technology in this space is not perfect. There are blown forecasts. They do happen.
CALLAHANThat being said, again we have to be cognizant of the fact that all of these limitations do still exist in the field of meteorology, that we are communicating to a broad demographic over a broad geography, and oftentimes a little bit of a phenomena that I think plays in here is we put a forecast out and maybe it's a localized type of severe weather event, convective weather event, thunderstorm, tornado, and while that -- while we try to refine the area that's of most interest, if you don't get hit with it, it didn't happen.
CALLAHANAnd a lot of people walk away with that type of remembrance of the occasion.
MCCLESKEYPlus we have better technology for understanding the weather, more sophisticated weather instruments, satellite-based high-tech equipment. That information does just go one way. There's also a need for eyes on the ground in terms of what's happening where. How is your company involved in helping people -- helping I guess it's distributed weather reporting.
CALLAHANNo, that's true. And I think of Veronica in particular talking a lot about it earlier, how they reach out to their viewers, and a term that I like to attach to it is citizen reporting. And with all of the new technology that we have out, the smartphones, we've talked about being able to get pictures back very rapidly, get them on air. It provides ground truth and validation verification of what's going on. Then we can be far more accurate and confident in the types of information we're distributing to the public.
MCCLESKEYA couple of emails I'd like to reference here. One from Casey says, "I probably wouldn't think to secure patio furniture in windy weather until it's too late to do so safely, including suggestions for what to do after warnings are given is key to increasing safety in bad weather situations." Chris Strager, what types of information on what to do such as patio furniture is included in National Weather Service warnings.
STRAGERWe find -- and one of the things we're looking at now, we do put the calls to action, but oftentimes they're at the end of the warning, maybe there's a way, and this is another thing we're looking at, is how do you get those calls to action out to do these types of things beforehand, and I think what we're going to be finding here also for tornadic situations, distinguishing -- and I'm not downplaying any tornado, please don't take that, but for a lesser tornado, and EF0 that's maybe gonna tear some shingles off a barn or knock a cow over, is different from an EF5 like went through Joplin, Mo.
STRAGERAnd I think the more that we can get out the delineation between those types of tornadoes and the actions to take, and maybe get people's attention. If this is an EF5 you need to take cover now. If you're in a structure that won't take this type of wind, you need to seek it now. That's where I think I we need to go with this.
MCCLESKEYLet's go back to the phones now. Ann calling from Bethesda in Maryland. Ann, you're on the air. Go ahead.
ANNHi. You know, I'm calling in late because I only get a chance to listen to you between 1:00 and 2:00.
MCCLESKEYWe're glad you're with us.
ANNThank you. I am so curious, about why the science of weather is not better understood, and whether chaos has something to do with it.
MCCLESKEYWell, weather can sometimes seem chaotic. Veronica Johnson, I guess a lot of things go into creating the weather.
JOHNSONRight. There's a lot of things that go into it. There's a lot of algorithms, and there's all different types of models that we look at, and of course when I say models, you know, we're not talking about people, but...
JOHNSONRight. Computer models that are three dimension, a lot of them. So there's a lot of those that we look at. Some are better at handling temperature forecasts, some are better at handling precip, and of course the same is true for severe weather, snow events, that sort of thing. So it's like we're physicians where, you know, based on the number of years that you've worked in a business or what your specialty is which, in this case, would be working in a particular area in forecasting.
JOHNSONYou learn what information is good and what information is bad, along with how good are the tools that you're using. So there's just a tremendous amount that does go into a daily forecast, and that's also the reason why sometimes when you're watching different stations, one station might be calling for 10 to 12 inches of snowfall, and other station may say, you know, eight to 10 or something, because we are again like physicians. You go to three different doctors, you might get three different opinions.
MCCLESKEYMm-hmm. It's an exact -- Bill Callahan.
CALLAHANVeronica covered the numerical weather prediction models, and the other part of that is you cannot forecast the future unless you have an accurate, current state of the atmosphere. And just think about how big our globe is, weather is without boundaries, there's a lot of complex interactions between the air and the ground and the air and the oceans, and unless you can accurately measure most of those variables across a very broad geographic area, the models will never perform perfectly.
CALLAHANSo we have to deal with all of those limitations. It's an imperfect science. It has advanced tremendously in the last 30 years. And we have a lot of great technology coming in the future too.
MCCLESKEYMm-hmm. Well, one thing we can be sure of is that people will certainly not stop talking about the weather. Weather and real estate guaranteed topics at any dinner party. Bill Callahan's the vice president of federal programs for Earth Networks, a commercial weather company that develops advance weather information, visualization, and learning products and services. Veronica Johnson is an NBC-4 meteorologist, and Chris Strager is the advisor for science and service integration at the National Weather Service. I want to thank you all so much for joining us this hour.
JOHNSONThank you, Matt.
MCCLESKEYI'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5 sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks so much for listening.
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