TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

CNHI Special Projects

May 20, 2013

Technology speeds disaster alerts, response

CORBIN — By Michael Fitzgerald

Caitria O’Neill remembers her reaction to hearing tornado warnings on June 1, 2011. She went to the grocery store, she said, “because I live in Massachusetts, and we don’t get tornadoes.”

By the time she got home, hail the size of baseballs was falling. Even as she watched a lamppost blow past, what was happening didn’t register.

Fortunately, her father got her inside and into the basement before the tornado blew out the windows, ripped off the roof and knocked their house slightly off its foundation.

O’Neill, then 22, and her family emerged to devastation. Her town of 8,500 people, Monson, Mass., had just withstood an EF-3 tornado that destroyed more than 60 buildings including town hall, damaged 200 others, and would lead to one death.

Pressed into service, O’Neill helped organize volunteers gathering at a church across the street. What she observed about the process inspired her and her sister Morgan, an MIT graduate student, to start an online software company, recovers.org, to help people prepare for disasters and respond more effectively.

In a world that can be app-addled, it’s tempting to dismiss the idea that technology will solve all problems. Yet, technology has changed the way Americans get ready for disasters and respond to them – with more precise forecasts, personalized weather warnings and more efficient recovery efforts. And it will continue to help us be more prepared.

Recovers.org is a fledgling company with a web-based software that helps individuals and communities plan for emergencies, then after a disaster matches victims’ needs with volunteers and donations. Its technology can’t compare to major breakthroughs in forecasting that occurred in the 1990s, like Doppler radar, which lets us “see” tornadoes before they form. Or the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory model, the first computer simulation to successfully merge information about the ocean and atmosphere to predict hurricane courses and intensities.

But Brian M. Brooks calls the web software “a godsend.” The city manager in Forney, Texas, Brooks used recovers.org when a tornado outbreak destroyed about 20 houses, a business and a school in his East Texas community on April 3, 2012. Coordinating with Community Life Church, the city set up a registry of people who needed help and people willing to volunteer goods or services. Cooper Taylor, the church’s mission director, said the website greatly reduced unwanted donations and storage problems.

Recovers.org is one example of technology pushing preparedness and recovery into the hands of communities and individuals. Even small towns now use established databases and GPS mapping tools to do things like track private storm shelters. Communities can respond to disasters differently, too. The same GPS technology can be used to plot downed trees. At least one company sells a system that tags trees and other debris with bar codes to ensure haulers don’t overcharge local governments and FEMA.

Specific technologies don’t always succeed, of course. “The challenge with any software is the plan is only as good as people’s buy-in and people’s knowledge of how to implement it,” said Andrew Sachs, vice president of government services at Witt O’Brien’s, a consulting firm that specializes in public safety and crisis management.

But some technology only needs to spread to be effective. That’s certainly true for storm warnings, which now reach individual pockets and purses.

Since April 2012, the National Weather Service has been able to send alerts about weather emergencies to people with newer smart phones. (About 55 percent of Americans have smartphones, according to ComScore.) Messages can also be sent for local emergencies, AMBER alerts and presidential alerts during national emergencies.

Smartphone alerts are geographically tailored. The weather service also has devised a “polygon” warning system, tied to cell towers, to make warnings for things like tornados, floods and severe weather more specific than the old, county-based system.

Private companies also offer telephone-driven warning systems. For example, TechRadium’s Immediate Response Information System makes automated calls when the weather service issues alerts. In Royce City, Texas, officials are using TechRadium’s technology instead of warning sirens, which the city’s fire chief and emergency management coordinator, Richard Bell, said were more expensive and only worked for people who are outdoors.

The weather service is experimenting with social media, as well, to reach people who don’t watch weather on TV or own weather radios. In Oklahoma – where the weather service has 32,000 Facebook friends and the Twitter handle @nwsnorman has 13,500 followers – a test in March found that a Facebook message reached 200,000 people in just a few minutes.  

Even those hyper-personalized alerts will not mean the end of long-time staples of weather warnings like radios and sirens. In part, that’s because cell phone networks can be overwhelmed by traffic or knocked offline in a crisis, said Kim Klockow, a PhD student in geography at the University of Oklahoma who is researching how people respond to tornado warnings. Klockow’s work after the 2011 tornadoes in Alabama and Joplin, Mo., confirmed earlier studies showing that people want multiple sources of information about storms. More than half of those she interviewed first learned of those tornadoes from sirens then checked other sources such as television news or their friends.

Nor has technology created major changes in the way storms are forecast, according to scientists, at least since the advent of Doppler radar and integrated models for hurricane forecasting. But a great deal of work has gone into making those models better.

Text Only
CNHI Special Projects
  • Is Kentucky all shook up?

    Shortly after noon on Saturday, Nov. 10, the ground shook all over the Tri-County region.

    May 29, 2013

  • Preparing for mid-America earthquake

    It’s a bleak scenario. A massive earthquake along the New Madrid fault kills or injures 60,000 people in Tennessee.

    May 29, 2013

  • Norman-Tornado16.jpg Audio: How can we better prepare for tornadoes?

    An NPR broadcast examines the question of how communities can better prepare for tornadoes like the one that struck Moore, Okla. on Monday. The broadcast features commentary from Michael Fitzgerald, who reported a five-part disaster series for the CNHI News Service.

    May 22, 2013 1 Photo

  • Norman-Tornado08.jpg Photos: Aftermath of massive tornado in Moore Storm victims were pulled from the rubble and residents began surveying the damage late Monday and early Tuesday in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, where a powerful tornado destroyed entire neighborhoods and left dozens dead.

    May 21, 2013

  • More options, several ways to be alerted

    Getting the word out about severe weather and other disasters has come a long way from the Cold War era of the 1950s and early 1960s.

    May 20, 2013

  • Technology speeds disaster alerts, response

    Caitria O’Neill remembers her reaction to hearing tornado warnings on June 1, 2011. She went to the grocery store, she said, “because I live in Massachusetts, and we don’t get tornadoes.”

    May 20, 2013

  • MainStory5.IndyQuakeDrill.jpg The Big One: Preparing for mid-America earthquake

    It’s a bleak scenario. A massive earthquake along the New Madrid fault kills or injures 60,000 people in Tennessee. A quarter of a million people are homeless.

    May 19, 2013 3 Photos 3 Stories

  • screenshot salmon.jpg VIDEO: How sequestration could affect US flood warning system

    Oregon and Idaho each had to shut down three water gauges due to automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration. Watch how Idaho relies on these water gauges, from tracking drought conditions to determining stream levels for salmon.

    May 15, 2013 1 Photo

  • Preparation now is priceless, when seconds count later

    For most of us, we don’t think about disaster preparation until after it strikes. We read, see and hear the vivid images of destruction and suffering that plays in print, online, on TV and on radio. Those moments can stay seared in our minds for days or forever.

    May 13, 2013

  • Veterans of tornadoes balance preparedness and practicality

    Few things in nature are less predictable than a tornado. They can form quickly. They strike weirdly, leveling one building while leaving its neighbor untouched. They can fling a car a half-mile and turn a piece of lumber into a wall-piercing missile.

    May 13, 2013

Front page
NDN Video
Justin Bieber In Calvin Klein Underwear Shoot Samsung Pre-Trolls The IPhone 6 With New Ad Jimmy Kimmel Introduces His Baby Girl Swim Daily, Nina Agdal in the Cook Islands Guilty Dog Apologizes to Baby for Stealing Her Toy Prince George Turns 1 and is Already a Trendsetter Train Collides With Semi Truck Carrying Lighter Fluid Kanye West Tells-All on Wedding in "GQ" Interview Tony Dungy Weighs in on Michael Sam Scarlett Johansson Set To Marry In August New Star Wars Episode XII X-Wing Revealed Obama: Putin must push separatists to aid MH17 probe Michigan inmates no longer allowed to wear orange due to 'OITNB' Adam Levine Ties the Knot Sebastian The Ibis Walks Beautiful Bride Down The Aisle | ACC Must See Moment NASA Ceremony Honors Moon Walker Neil Armstrong Faces of Souls Lost in Malaysian Plane Crash 105-year-old woman throws first pitch Man Creates Spreadsheet of Wife's Reasons for Turning Down Sex 'Weird Al' Is Wowed by Album's Success
AP Video
Judge Ponders Overturning Colo. Gay Marriage Ban Airlines Halt Travel to Israel Amid Violence NYPD Chief Calls for 'use of Force' Retraining VA Nominee McDonald Goes Before Congress Bush: Don't Worry, Sugarland Isn't Breaking Up US Official: Most Migrant Children to Be Removed Police Probing Brooklyn Bridge Flag Switch CDC Head Concerned About a Post-antibiotic Era Raw: First Lady Says `Drink Up' More Water Courts Conflicted Over Healthcare Law Holder Urges Bipartisanship on Immigration Raw: Truck, Train Crash Leads to Fireball US Airlines Cancel Israel Flights Obama Signs Workforce Training Law Crash Victims' Remains Reach Ukraine-held City Diplomatic Push Intensifies to End War in Gaza Cat Fans Lap Up Feline Film Festival Michigan Plant's Goal: Flower and Die Veteran Creates Job During High Unemployment
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Twitter Updates
Follow us on twitter
Facebook