Saturday, May 2, 2009

Lessons from the Dallas downburst

Speaking of severe, I still get shivers when I see the incredible video shot by WFAA-TV of the severe storms that brought down the Dallas Cowboy's practice facility on Saturday - scores of football players and coaches literally running for their lives. At last report 12 people were injured by the roof coming down suddenly; the early word is that it was not a tornado, but straight-line winds sparked by a "micro-burst", a violent downdraft of rain and hail-cooled air reaching the ground and spreading out into a damaging gust front. These micro-burst are especially dangerous for aircraft: capable of causing a suddden loss of lift on an airplane wing. A number of airplane disasters have been attributed to these fickle micro-bursts; a number of airports around the nation have installed special sensors to detect these sharp, violent shifts in wind speed and direction. Wind speeds can sometimes top 100 mph, as strong as an EF-0 or EF-1 tornado, but the debris field is linear, damage swept along in a straight line, rather than circular, in a tornado.

We are heading into prime time for severe weather in Minnesota, and the Dallas incident is a reminder of how quickly conditions can change. I'm amazed that these football players didn't get the word ahead of time, that nobody was keeping an eye on the weather moving in. The combination of extreme rain, hail and high winds must have been just strong enough to bring down the roof, which was not solid, but kept in place by air pressure, much like our Metrodome. Someone dropped the ball. But it underscores an important point: when you're out in public, away from home, away from your TV/PC YOU are ultimately responsible for your own safety. Don't count on anyone else keeping you safe - it all comes down to the 2 words drilled into me by the Boy Scouts (thank God for weather merit badge). Be Prepared. What does this mean? It means you should have multiple ways to get severe weather information when you're out and about. Radio (not satellite radio - that won't help you when skies turn threatening). Consider NOAA Weather Radio or signing up for e-mail warnings on your cell phone. If you poke around you can find some free options - I'll try to find a few good options and highlight them in "Paul's Links." Especially during May and June you should always ask yourself what you would do - where would you go - if you spotted a tornado funnel or the sloping wedge of low-hanging clouds of a gust front approaching? You can't count on the sirens: they were only ever meant to be heard outside, not inside a store or mall or movie theater.

(This is a NOAA Weather Radio with "SAME" technology, where you can program the device to only receive watches/warnings for your specific county. For a long list of NOAA Weather Radios you can purchase on-line click here).

This really calls for "situational awareness", making sure you know what the weather is doing, if you're in a watch or warning at all times. For example, I'd check my PC or cell phone before heading out the door, and if my home (Excelsior area) was under a tornado watch I'd still go about my activities, but I'd keep an extra-close eye on the sky, and check weather on my cell phone more often (sorry for the plug, but I'm still partial to My-Cast, the company I sold to Garmin in early 2007. They're up to version 7.0 and you can see not only Doppler radar but which counties nearby are under warnings, you can even see how far away lightning strikes are from your location, all for a whopping $3-4/month). For more information on My-Cast click here (and no, I don't get a commission!) Invest $30-70 in a NOAA Weather Radio, which you can pick up at any Radio Shack or on-line. These radios are amazing, battery-powered in case the electricity goes out. Almost all models now have "SAME" technology, which means it can be programmed for just your county (so you won't lose your mind when the alarm goes off for other counties, hundreds of miles away!) It's the cheapest form of life insurance you'll ever buy.

(this is a Doppler radar screen shot from My-Cast 7 on a cell phone. The Minnetonka company, Digital Cyclone, was the first company in the nation to put an application on a cell phone back in 2001. Today, for $3-4/month, you can receive not only Doppler radar loops, but storm tracking, lightning, 7-Day Outlooks, hour by hour forecasts, all centered on your current GPS location - or any other location/town in America). I'm a little biased - this is the company I started back in 1998 and sold to Garmin in 2007, but I've tried all the various weather "apps" on the iPhone and Blackberry, and I haven't found another cell phone application with the features and functionality of My-Cast). Click here for more information, or better yet go to the weather section of your cell phone and look for it - you won't be disappointed.

1 comment:

  1. I've been using berryweather ($10, one time) for checking weather and alerts. the alerts are not real time since it checks every 5 minutes, but it can cause the phone to alarm when it gets an advisory.

    wunderground (cheap, yearly fee, cant remember how mcuh) offers email advisories that i send to my blackberry email, usually getting them in near real time. however when it matters, i use a weather radio, too.