Weather Ready Nation: An update from Louis Uccellini

August 6, 2014 | Jean Phillips

National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini. Photo credit: Sarah Witman, SSEC.

Louis Uccellini, National Weather Service Director and University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus, was in Madison last week to deliver a keynote address for the Satellites and Education Conference sponsored by the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. It has also been one year since he held a Weather Ready Nation (WRN) Town Hall in Madison – a perfect opportunity to ask him about his thoughts on some of the most important developments in the WRN initiative in the last year.

What strides have we made in the year since your Weather Ready Nation Town Hall in Madison?

The Weather Ready Nation concept is about building community resiliency in the face of increasing vulnerability to extreme weather events – communities need to be ready, responsive, and resilient. A part of this effort involves improving the 4-8 day forecast. This is critical so that we have more lead time for evacuation in events such as land-falling hurricanes and can better prepare for severe weather outbreaks.

We are also focusing on (and making improvements in) the “last mile,” that is, the delivery of effective warnings so that people receive the intended message and respond accordingly. Beyond forecasts and warnings, we’ve learned that we need to improve educational outreach before severe weather events occur, including K-12 education, so that people have a better understanding and respond appropriately. We are utilizing multiple dissemination paths to get our messages out.

Change is incremental, but change is happening.

Have you seen an improvement in how people react to warnings, since the launch of the WRN campaign?

Absolutely. One key improvement is that storm-ravaged communities are learning from each other. They are sharing information on everything from emergency response strategies to building tornado shelters in schools. For example, after the tornado struck Joplin, MO in 2011 – an event where many people died – emergency planners and responders from Moore, OK talked extensively and repeatedly with Joplin officials to learn what they would or could have done differently.

This is a huge step because we know that education about the risks, vulnerabilities, and actions that mitigate risks in a timely fashion are keys to readiness. Communities are now learning from each other. The next year, in 2013, when the tornado struck Moore, OK, there was economic damage, but fewer lives lost and no lives lost in a hospital that took a direct hit. Warnings were heeded and people responded appropriately. This, I think, was a direct result of the information that had been shared between the cities of Joplin and Moore.

We’re seeing more of this.

We are now providing aviation impact forecasts for airport terminal information, starting three days before a weather event. We’re looking at things like “what’s the probability of snow that meet specific thresholds for action?”, and providing that information to the FAA and other air traffic managers. This is direct information that’s used for decision support. Airport officials are using this information to shut down airports or cancel flights in advance of a storm to mitigate the impact of the storm.

We are also providing training within the NWS to make sure our forecasters have the best knowledge and skill sets to provide impact-based decision support services. These are the people who will interface with decision support services at the local level. Starting with community-based services, we’re bringing local weather forecast offices together to ensure consistency and improved accuracy. We’ve also been able to increase funding for training and outreach, almost restoring it to previous levels.

Related to this, we still need to place forecasters in the emergency operations centers. We need to have a seat at the table there in order to be the most effective because that’s where emergency response strategies are developed and decisions made. But this requires building relationships and trust; the professionals who run these centers need to know that our forecasters can be trusted with confidential information as their decisions are being made. This is starting to happen, but will take time.

The WRN requires partnerships. There are now more than 600 WRN ambassadors – these are groups, agencies, and academic institutions that are contributing, at a local level, toward building awareness, developing educational programs, and building weather-ready communities. It’s phenomenal.

What is your view on the emerging role of social media in disseminating information – from Twitter to Facebook to phone alerts?

Our NWS forecasters transmit warnings in different ways, across multiple media, so that people can receive those warnings regardless of where they are.

The NWS has partnered with the Federal Communications Commission and FEMA so that when certain warnings – tornado warnings, for example – are issued by the NWS, anyone with a smartphone will receive that alert on their phone, in a matter of seconds. The FCC applies a filter and does not relay all warnings issued by the NWS, in part because there could be too many of them, but those that are transmitted are crucial.

In the recent Midwest tornado outbreak – there were tornadoes in Wisconsin, too – lots of people had cell phone alerts for the warnings issued and this made a difference. The importance of social media is growing – people are checking their own preferred weather sources to compare forecasts and information and using that information to make decisions.

NWS offices also use Twitter – we’ve seen a huge multiplier effect with the use of Twitter. And it’s fast, reaching large numbers of people quickly. It could be that some of the limitations you mentioned in reference to following professional Facebook pages to get warnings (due to a Facebook algorithm change) are opening the door for other technologies. This could be what’s been happening in the last year; I’m not sure – I will need to check on this.

The WMO just published “Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate, and Water Extremes (1970-2012).” The report says, “the 10 worst reported disasters in terms of lives lost occurred primarily in least developed and developing countries, whereas the economic losses occurred primarily in developed countries and in countries with economies in transition.” Can we change this outcome?

Yes. And that is happening right now. For example, 10 years ago, India experienced the ravages of the Odisha Cyclone that left behind huge economic damage but also claimed the lives of thousands of people. We’ve been working with the Indian forecasting community to train them to use the Hurricane Weather, Research, and Forecasting (HWRF) model. In 2013, Cyclone Phailin took a similar track to the one a decade before. Using the GFS (Global Forecast System) and HWRF, forecasters in India were able to inform the public, giving people enough lead time to get to areas of safety. Because of this, only about 40 lives were lost.

There are truly some places in the world that are less accessible, but here is another example of knowledge sharing – over the last couple of years, the NWS has trained more than 300 forecasters in Central and South America so that they can better respond to weather emergencies in their countries. This is not just one-time training – these forecasters meet regularly (virtually) for updates and conversations. Training must be ongoing; we can’t expect responders or forecasters to be ready if they receive single training sessions. It needs to be repeated and practiced in order to attain readiness.

Our network is growing at a rapid pace.

Is there an improvement in the way nations are working together to share important weather information? Is there as much collaboration as you had hoped?

There are some international organizations that have difficulties working across nations, but the World Meteorological Organization is not one of them. The WMO is a highly respected organization with strong membership around the world. Members are sharing more information and data. Our area of science is one where there has long been a strong precedent for sharing information. Countries continue to share observational, model, and satellite data, increasing the strength of the network and providing life-saving information around the world.

by Jean Phillips