Forecasters push for phone alerts during severe storms
DANBURY — National Weather Service forecasters are considering adding a new class of emergency cellphone alerts for severe weather after the devastating storms that swept through the area on May 15.
Tens of thousands of people received wireless emergency alerts on their cellphones — the startling push notification with a blaring siren — for the four tornadoes that touched down across Connecticut and New York that afternoon.
But many more people who were not tuned into forecasts may not have known just how dangerous the storms were that day because the weather service does not currently send those same notifications for very severe thunderstorms, said Bill Goodman, the lead meteorologist at the NWS forecast office in Upton, N.Y.
That should change, he told scientists and forecasters on Saturday at the seventh annual Tri-State Weather Conference at Western Connecticut State University.
“I wondered out loud even as this was occurring, ‘Why not a high risk (alert) for this event?’ ” he said. “The Storm Prediction Center bases it on numbers ... but we’re taking in societal impacts for winter weather, and I think maybe it’s time for us to start that with severe thunderstorms, too.
Six people died in the severe storms’ 500-mile path from Pennsylvania to Rhode Island, including a woman in New Fairfield who was killed when a tree crushed the car she was riding in as 110 mph winds from a macroburst hit the area.
Forecasters knew the storms would be severe and dangerous days in advance and issued several reports, watches and warnings as it developed early in the week.
The weather service regularly posted updates on its social media pages, and newspapers and TV broadcasts followed it closely that day as the forecast grew more concerning.
Yet Goodman can’t help but wonder whether the NWS also should have pinged more cellphones with information about the severity of the storms, even if they weren’t in a designated tornado warning area. The May 15 storms happened during the afternoon rush hour along major commuting corridors, so the extra alerts could have warned before they got into their cars and drove toward the storm, he added.
“We probably can look into adding a certain class of severe thunderstorm, where we have a certain class of wind speed, then we can put out wireless emergency alerts,” he said.
Those real-time warnings do save lives and are all part of the meteorology community’s ongoing efforts to better communicate about weather events of all kinds — a major focus of the conference alongside the actual science of forecasting.