Humans suck at preparing for disasters. Society barely made it through the scourge of Twitter changing stars to hearts. When the sky darkens, thunder rumbles, or snow starts falling, many people simply fall to pieces. These five tips will help you get through the next big storm that’s bad enough to earn its own scary name.
1) Know Where You Live on a Map (Without Being Told)
This point is first because it is horrifying. Any meteorologist or weather reporter who deals with the public will tell you in no uncertain terms that many adults cannot find where they live on a map. They can find the United States just fine. They can probably find their home state with ease. That’s a good start! But for an alarmingly large number of people, their ability to find where they live on a map—being able to point their finger at a specific point and confidently state “I live here.”—is a tenuous bet at best.
Most weather maps you see online and on television aren’t all that detailed. They strip the excess information so the graphic isn’t too busy or confusing, but that comes at a cost. When a severe weather outbreak is looming, for instance, odds are this is the most detailed map you’ll come across on the internet:
This is a map from the Storm Prediction Center’s website showing the risk for severe thunderstorms on a day this past July; the product is a commonly circulated piece of information that gives you a quick idea of your risk for dangerous weather. Right off the bat, you can glance and see that most of Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky are in for a rough day. (We saw an impressive derecho that day.)
Can you pinpoint where you live based on this map? The Vane has a very smart audience, so I’m sure many of you can, but this is usually the greatest level of detail most people will ever encounter on a weather map. Some graphics produced by television stations often show you major cities—Washington, Chicago, Dallas, Denver—or, if you’re lucky, county outlines, but if people don’t know where they live within the state, even big cities and county outlines don’t help very much.
If people can’t point out exactly where they live, what good is the forecast?
Every adult needs to know how to find their town on a map. Every adult needs to memorize exactly where they live within their state relative to the borders, relative to geographic features, and relative to major cities. Every adult needs to know the name of the county in which they live and the names of the counties that surround them.
The first step to staying safe during bad weather is knowing where you are so you can know what to expect.
2) Understand the Terminology
We use so many different terms in weather communication that it’s easy for even seasoned weather geeks to get confused sometimes. Confusion is a hell of a thing when it comes to urgent safety information, so if we get tripped up from time to time, you can only imagine what it’s like for people who aren’t tuned in to every twist and turn of the jet stream.
Every term we use in communicating weather forecasts has a specific meaning—for instance, a tornado watch and tornado warning sound similar, and a lot of people think there isn’t a difference, but one is far more urgent than the other.
In the weather world, a “watch” means that bad weather could happen soon, usually within the next couple of hours. A “warning” means that bad weather is occurring or imminent, meaning that it is happening or will happen within the next hour or so, and you need to take immediate action to ensure your safety.
You get longer lead times with slower, bigger storms. A warning can be issued before a hurricane or blizzard a day or two before they strike, giving you plenty of time to get ready. On the other hand, you usually get a very short heads up before more localized disasters like a tornado or flash flood—sometimes less than ten minutes, if any warning at all.
The terms “tornado watch”and “tornado warning” are pretty straightforward, but the nerd lexicon grows even more confusing as we head into the colder months. When a winter storm comes through, you’ll hear three main types of alerts: winter storm watch, winter weather advisory, and winter storm warning. It sounds counterintuitive to people for some reason, but an advisory is more urgent than a watch. If winter weather alerts ran on scale, it would look like this:
- Winter Storm Warning
- Winter Weather Advisory
- Winter Storm Watch
A winter storm watch, like all watches, advises you ahead of time that hazardous weather is possible within the next day or two, and you should keep a close eye on the forecasts.
A winter weather advisory is issued when small amounts of snow or ice (a few inches of snow or a light glaze of ice) are expected within the next couple of hours, which could make travel hazardous.
A winter storm warning is issued when large amounts of snow or ice are expected within the next few hours, so much so that it will make travel nearly impossible and potentially disable the area for days in the worst case scenario.
It gets even more confusing when you take into account that every National Weather Service office across the country has different criteria to trigger these alerts. Three inches of snow is enough to warrant a winter storm warning in parts of Alabama, but the same amount of snow would barely require a winter weather advisory in far northern parts of the country.
Wikipedia, despite the bad rap it gets from teachers around the world, has a very good page describing just about every alert issued by the National Weather Service. If you’re not clear on the terms, keep this link in your bookmarks and check back whenever strange weather creeps up on you.
3) Develop Some Kind of a Plan
If you can picture a PSA about severe weather safety, it begins with stock footage of a lightning strike, fast music, a shaky narration, and ends with a creepy, smiling nuclear family sitting in their dining room with maps and floorplans and first aid supplies strewn about.
Coming up with a plan for severe weather doesn’t always require acting like an emergency manager formulating a plan for an elementary school. It’s nice to write stuff down—if only to help you remember it—but planning for hazardous weather can be as informal as thinking “where would I go if a tornado hit?” while you’re sitting on the couch waiting for a movie to start.
The most important things you need to figure out are how you’ll keep yourself safe and what you should do to prepare to deal with the aftermath.
Where will you go if a tornado is barreling toward you? How many interior rooms do you have on the lowest floor? Do you have an underground basement? If you have a basement, is your hiding spot below a very heavy piece of furniture? What about natural gas or propane tanks, are they nearby?
And that’s just a tornado! Preparing for flooding is almost the opposite—if the waters suddenly rise and you can’t flee, you want to get as high as possible, not low. Switching over to winter, what will you do if you’re stranded in your car during a snow or ice storm? Where will you go if you lose power for an extended period of time?
These are all things you should think about. You don’t have to write down a ten-point plan, but it’s good to mull them over so you’re prepared if you’re caught in a dangerous situation.
Surviving the storm itself is just the beginning—you have to make it through the aftermath, as well.
The most common consequence of bad weather is a loss of utilities. Whether it’s a tornado, hurricane, flood, earthquake, or winter storm, the hardest-hit areas will probably lose power, water, phones, and internet for an extended period of time. You should have a disaster supply kit at the ready in your home—preferably all in one spot so you can have access to everything at a moment’s notice.
Always make sure you have enough non-perishable food, water, prescription medicine, emergency supplies, and cash on hand to last you a week in the aftermath of a disaster. Actual, physical cash is an important but overlooked aspect of preparedness—your debit or credit cards won’t work at the store without electricity and phones/internet, so if you’re fortunate enough to have the luxury keeping some extra cash on hand, it’s not a bad idea.
Aside from the list of first aid/emergency staples, think of some extra items you should have to help get through different situations. If your home or property is damaged, do you own a sturdy pair of shoes, boots, and gloves to walk through and handle the debris? If you’re affected by a historic winter storm, do you have the supplies and materials to keep from freezing to death?
4) Have Multiple Sources of Information
If you have a smartphone, you’ve probably heard that horrible emergency alert sound screeching from your phone. It’s common to get severe weather alerts from cell phones these days, but it’s not a good idea to rely on only this one method. Cell service can go down in a disaster, warnings through apps can be delayed, and your battery can only last so long if the power is out.
Make sure you have several additional ways to receive urgent weather alerts, whether it’s through cell phones, battery-operated NOAA Weather Radios, television, FM/AM radio, or the internet. A NOAA Weather Radio is your best back-up for weather forecasts and severe weather warnings. Modern devices can be programmed with your county’s unique, six-digit S.A.M.E. code that allows the device to automatically sound a loud siren when a watch or warning is issued for your county. These devices have saved lives, and even if you are glued to your phone, it’s a great layer of additional security.
Using several methods to receive urgent weather information lessens the chance that you’ll miss a potentially life-saving alert.
5) Know What’s Junk and What Isn’t
Not all weather forecasts are equal. Many forecasts issued by professionals are pretty accurate—if you get your weather from The Weather Channel, the National Weather Service, your local news station, or even an outlet like AccuWeather, it’s a safe bet that what you see is pretty close to what will happen.
That’s not always the case, though. For every reputable source for weather information, there are at least ten more sources run by people who aren’t qualified to talk about the subject or, even worse, operated by people with malicious intent. Many of these individuals run Facebook and Twitter pages with tens—if not hundreds—of thousands of followers, and reach that extends into the millions. One quick bit of misinformation from them can put countless people in danger. I talk about hoaxes and bad forecasts frequently here on The Vane, but the overarching theme is always “if it sounds too horrible to be true, check somewhere else.”
To that point, most people get their weather information from the internet these days. Whether it’s through a website or some smartphone app, most folks only check the temperature, see if it’s going to rain, and that’s usually the end of the day’s weather adventures.
Problem is, that’s not enough.
Your app might show rain or thunderstorms tomorrow, but will the storms be severe? How much rain will fall? Is that forecast of 5-8” of snow really for your location or a city 25 miles away? You need more than just an icon and a few numbers to fully anticipate what will happen.
If you’re using a less-than-reputable app, don’t. You need to check your weather somewhere else. You need analysis from a knowledgeable person or team of meteorologists when the sleet hits the fan. Many no-name, popular weather apps just rip raw data straight from the weather models, without using quality controls or intervention from qualified forecasters. That’s the best way to get a wrong forecast almost every time.
Most local news channels employ meteorologists who maintain blogs and an extensive social media presence. Networks like WeatherNation and The Weather Channel are on air all day—the latter will revert to 24/7 weather soon—and you can catch local forecasts from news stations several times during each newscast.
In addition to social media and television, there are a number of excellent websites and blogs dedicated to the weather (ahem), not to mention free access to National Weather Service forecasts online and via NOAA Weather Radio.
Meteorologists can’t do everything. They give you the best forecast they can using the best data and methods they’ve got, but we are all ultimately responsible for our own safety. If a warning is issued and things start to go downhill, it’s up to you to handle it properly and live to see the sun shine another day.
[Cars Trapped on Atlanta Highway: Associated Press | Flooded House: Associated Press | Worker Restoring Power in a Winter Storm: Associated Press | Severe Weather Map: SPC | Warning Map: NWS | Fake Snow Map: Author]
If you’re interested in more extreme weather survival tips, I wrote a book on it! The Extreme Weather Survival Manual is now available for order through Amazon and the shelves and websites of retailers near you.