October 31, 2014

Weather Service brings tool for predicting ice storm outages to Missouri

The National Weather Service offices that serve Missouri are going to try out an index to help predict power outages due to ice storms.

The index could be used to help prepare Missourians when ice storms, like this one that hit Springfield in 2007, are coming. (Photo courtesy: National Weather Service.)

The Sperry Piltz Ice Accrual Index takes into account temperatures and wind speed to predict ice accumulation.

Warning Coordination Meteorologist Andy Bailey at the Kansas City area Weather Service Office says information from the index will be added to forecasts to help Missourians prepare when outages are possible.

“If it’s one of these deals that it’s going to be a relatively quick and benign ice storm and it’s going to do little more than make the road slick for a while, people can prepare accordingly, but if it’s one of these catastrophic-type storms that is going to have widespread, regional impacts that last several weeks, certainly the actions they take to prepare for that should be different.”

Bailey says the index has been used in Oklahoma for several years and the electric distribution infrastructure there is considered comparable to that in Missouri.

The Sperry Piltz Ice Accrual Index parameters

“Strength of the lines and the condition of the poles, age of the poles. Certainly when you go out around the state of Missouri there’s everything from brand new utilities poles to poles that are probably 20 years old and relatively weak. This is more for the average, middle of the road setup.”

Bailey says the index would allow the Weather Service to replace what have been “generic” statements about possible power outages with better predictions to help Missourians prepare.

“Thinks like … they may need to go get cash … there won’t be power at gas stations, there won’t be power at banks, your debit card may not work and the only thing that may work to do things like buy gasoline or groceries, you may need cash. With this, people could understand that they may be without power for quite a while and they may need to stock up on cash.”

Missouri has been hit by devastating ice storms before, including one in January, 2007 that left more than 200,000 people without power.

Weather Service, state agencies urge winter storm prep

The National Weather Service, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the State Emergency Management Agency want you and your family to be ready for winter.

The National Weather Service says the winter outlook that suggests Missouri will be warmer than usual, and dryer than usual in much of the state, doesn’t mean there won’t be any significant winter storms. (Photo courtesy, National Weather Service)

While the Weather Service is predicting a warmer than normal December through February in Missouri and dryer than normal conditions in the northern half of the state, that doesn’t rule out any severe winter storms.

Warning Coordination Meteorologist Jim Kramper says, “We’re always going to have variability. You may look at the three months and see things have been drier or warmer than normal … you still can get some cold periods, you can still get very wet periods. We can still get a couple of bad storms. It could be that one month is really bad … cold and wet and lots of snow … but then the other two months are dry and warm. That’s quite possible. You have to be prepared. We’re not going to have three months of constant nice weather.”

Kramper wants Missourians to understand the products his office issues. A winter storm watch is a long-term heads-up that winter weather is possible in an area, telling Missourians to watch the forecast and consider whether they need to change their plans for the affected timeframe.

A winter storm warning is a more immediate call to action.

“Typically within 12 hours, sometimes 24 when we’re really certain about the situation, but a warning means, ‘It’s coming. We really expect it to hit your area if you are in the warning,’ and that is when you really have got to think, ‘Alright, what do I need to do?'”

Life has been halted in recent years in parts of Missouri by ice storms. The Weather Service issues warnings when enough freezing rain is expected to create a quarter-inch of ice accumulation or more.

“That may not seem like a lot … but you get a quarter-inch of ice starting to accumulate on tree branches, power lines, and they can potentially come down … those can be really serious situations.”

Missourians are urged to create family emergency plans and emergency kits, have alternate fuel sources such as firewood or generators and a winter car kit. Find tips on these and other winter preparation at the following websites:

The National Weather Service St. Louis Office’s winter weather awareness page

The State Emergency Management Agency

The Missouri Ready in 3 program’s weather preparedness page and family safety guides

The Missouri Department of Transportation’s Traveler Information Map

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Winter Awareness Campaign

The National Weather Service Brochure Winter Storms: The Deceptive Killers

Nationwide text alert program begins in June

A new type of text alert could be coming to your cell phone beginning next month.

A sample of what WEAs will look like on some phones. (Image courtesy, National Weather Service.)

Beginning in June, new Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) will come from the FCC, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Weather Service. They will be issued for Presidential Alerts, Imminent Threats and AMBER Alerts.

When issued, WEAs will go out to all phones on towers in the effected area, so users with capable phones will get the warnings no matter where they are or where they are from. The alerts are free to all subscribers and will not count against texting limits on wireless plans.

Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Andy Bailey’s interest is with the “Imminent Threat” alerts, which would include severe weather warnings.

No action necessary by consumers.

He says there’s no signing up involved. “It’s an opt out, which means everybody with a capable phone will automatically be entered into this. To my knowledge you won’t be able to turn off individual warnings. It’s either all-in or all-out.”

Bailey says most phones currently in use are not WEA-capable but he believes most that are being sold, are.

“I spoke with one of the major providers in the country a few weeks ago and they said out of their 40 million handsets, 3 million are capable to receive these right now. But, they said most people upgrade every 18 months to two years and within a matter of a couple of years it’ll be much closer to 80 or 90 percent.”

Phones capable of receiving WEAs will bear this symbol on their packaging.

Bailey suggests consumers contact the business they purchased their cell phone from first, and then the service provider, to see if it is WEA-capable. All major carriers and many second-tier carriers have agreed to offer WEA alerts.

The warnings won’t contain a lot of information. Bailey says they’re only meant to get a person’s attention.

“What this is really meant to do is not provide folks with all the information they need to deal with whatever hazard they’re facing. It’s more like a bell-ringer or an alert to let people know they need to seek more information from other sources, primarily the media.”

The types of weather warnings offered varies by area. In Missouri, the Weather Service will issue WEAs for tornado warnings, flash flood warnings, blizzard warnings and ice storm warnings. Other parts of the country might see texts for things like tsunamis and hurricanes.

Redundancy in this case is a good thing.

Because systems can fail especially in emergencies, Bailey encourages people not to opt out of the WEAs even if they have already signed up for other text alert systems.

“None of the systems are 100% reliable. They all have their weak points and when we’re dealing with systems like this, they’re all prone to failure at one point or another. So, just having another system, in this case a system that you’re already paying for through your cell phone … it’s not an additional charge … I’d really encourage people to remain signed up.”

Consumers can opt out of the Imminent Threat and AMBER Alert warnings but not the Presidential Alerts, by contacting their service providers.

For more details, visit these information pages at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website and CTIA’s website.