A Busy Month of Activities as ImpactWeather Observes National Preparedness Month

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The month of September is known as National Preparedness Month. ImpactReady, ImpactWeather’s business continuity department, has worked hard to encourage employee participation to strengthen our state of disaster preparedness and readiness. Of course, September is typically the peak of hurricane season but also signals the changing of the seasons from summer to fall, which can occasionally result in the threat of severe weather. Late summer and early fall is also the height of the wildfire season in the American West, while the threat of blizzards and ice storms may only be a few short weeks away. What better time to bring awareness to personal preparedness? Fortunately, the hurricane season has been relatively quiet with only five named storms to date. However, preparedness is a continual improvement process and National Preparedness Month is promoted to bring awareness of disaster preparedness tools and activities and encourage participation on a personal level.

CPR

Pictured above from left to right: Rachel, Charlotte, Alison, Miles (Instructor), Chelsea, Ed, and Terra

At our Houston office, ImpactWeather kicked off National Preparedness Month by scheduling employee-centric activities including CPR/AED Training and Fire Extinguisher Training. For many participants, the CPR/AED training was a certification session and for others it was a refresher course. This was the third year CPR/AED training was offered on-site and all who participated are now certified in the life-saving technique of CPR and use of an AED (automated external defibrillator; link). Like many companies across the country, ImpactWeather has a conveniently-located AED that is regularly checked for proper operation.

Fire Extinguisher

Dave (Trainee) demonstrates to the class how to extinguish a trash can fire held by Robert (Instructor).

 

The following week, Fire Extinguisher Training was offered to all employees. In addition to being trained by a dynamic retired captain with the Houston Fire Department, the session included hands-on training with a fire simulator and a laser-pointing fire extinguisher—a big hit! In general, I think it’s safe to say that most people have seen what a fire extinguisher looks like and perhaps have witnessed its use on TV or in the movies, but not many have extensive experience with such a critical tool and may find the task of using one intimidating, especially in a life-threatening situation.  The presentation covered the different types of fire extinguishers used to squelch various types of fires and flammable materials. Some of the video footage we observed during the training course left jaw-dropping impressions about how quickly and violently a fire can spread, even in a simple office setting. The training was well received and we definitely have a new respect for fire safety and best practices.

To cap off our National Preparedness Month activities, a building- and tenant-wide fire drill has been scheduled for October 1st (side note: Oct. 1st is admittedly not September, but the drill was rescheduled from a previous date due to unforeseeable circumstances). The good news is that the ice cream social following the drill was successfully rescheduled for that date as well. Fire and ice – never have the two sounded better together and a fitting close to National Preparedness Month.

Lastly, ImpactWeather is capping off NPM by participating in National PrepareAthon! Day (today!) by testing our emergency mass notification tool internally. Our objectives are to promote awareness of the tool to ImpactWeather employees and to test the functionality of the notification system so that in the event of an actual emergency our employees will be familiar with the process. We are also seeking to verify that we have the correct emergency contact information for each employee. By testing our emergency notification system internally, we are taking one more step to participate in a national day of action to increase emergency preparedness and resiliency of all ImpactWeather employees.

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Emergency Response Plans Tried-and-True? Practice Makes Perfect!

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National Preparedness Month (NPM) continues as we near the end of September and although NPM is coming to a close, emergency preparedness is a continual improvement process. I hope you will take this opportunity to think about preparedness initiatives for your organization. The final topic for NPM has to do with practicing for an emergency. Anyone who has participated in activities involving teamwork—from music to sports to emergency drills—knows that practice is the best way to achieve your goals and execute strategies effectively under stressful circumstances. Best laid plans can fall to pieces if an organization’s personnel are unfamiliar with the strategy and expectations for business continuity and disaster recovery. Practicing your emergency action plans and flushing out problems and discrepancies prior to an event will result in a more successful outcome during a real-life event.

But success is not just about practice. Knowing your organization’s vulnerabilities is key to building a successful business continuity program. One of the best ways to practice for an emergency is to run a tabletop exercise. Located in Houston, ImpactWeather has a hurricane risk. Each year we run a tabletop exercise with our Incident Management Team and we make it a point to focus on the decision-making process during an emergency situation such as a landfalling hurricane. In most organizations, roles and personnel change, so it’s important that team members new to the Incident Management Team (Crisis Management Team, Incident Support Team, etc) are familiar with their responsibilities and expectations during an emergency.

Emergency Sign

It’s also important to test your internal Emergency Notification System so that all employees are familiar with the notifications and will respond appropriately during an event. Having an updated list of contact information is also a key component of effectively testing the notification system. The digital age allows notifications to be sent via SMS text, email, work phone, personal cell phone, and even social media. Defining the notification system that works best for your organization will depend on your own specific needs, however, the practice of testing is universally recommended.

A word about Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA): Do you ever receive emergency alerts on your smart phone or other wireless device and wonder where they originate? These alerts include a special tone and vibration, both of which are repeated twice. The WEA messages are emergency messages sent by authorized government alerting authorities through your mobile carrier. They are free of charge and include alerts for extreme weather and other threatening emergencies in your area, AMBER Alerts and Presidential Alerts during a national emergency. It’s interesting to note you can opt-out of receiving WEA messages for imminent threats and AMBER alerts, but not for Presidential messages. All this and more information can be found on the FEMA website for Wireless Emergency Alerts.

National Preparedness Month is designed to spur you into action; to begin designing an emergency plan, to drill one that already exists, to open a dialogue with your employees and Incident Management Team and more. September is drawing to a close, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to delay or ignore your preparedness planning.

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Best Practices and Specific Needs: Items and Strategies You May Have Overlooked

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This is the second posting from the ImpactReady team at ImpactWeather. Our goal is to spread awareness about National Preparedness Month and share information about how you and your family can be prepared for major disasters. Following along the National Preparedness Month guidelines for weeks two and three, the focus of this post will be about how to plan for specific needs before a disaster and how to build an emergency kit.

Emergency Planning and Disaster Response as Concept

Just this morning I was watching the news headlines and was saddened to learn that more than 1,500 homes in Northern California are under evacuation orders due to an out of control wildfire. Can you imagine having only minutes to collect yourself and your family and flee from the perils of a raging wildfire? What would you take with you? What would you do with your pets? What about the elderly or those in need of special assistance? All of these are questions to consider carefully while planning ahead and making preparations. Whether the disaster is a wildfire, ice storm, devastating hurricane, flooding, tornado outbreak or any number of other disasters, you can take measures now to be prepared, stay safe and facilitate the recovery process.

The first step to being prepared is to be informed of the potential risks in your area. Could your area potentially face an evacuation in the event of a natural disaster or some unforeseen circumstance? Do you prefer to ride-out a disaster (such as a hurricane) at home with the potential of being without utilities for days or even weeks during recovery? It’s important to know the answers to these questions prior to the next threatening event.

The next preparedness step is to have an effective communications plan. Inform your immediate family, friends and coworkers (if appropriate) where you will go in case of a disaster. It’s important to have a personal support network that can provide resources and assistance, if needed.

A high priority for preparedness should be building an emergency kit. It’s commonly known that the reality of disaster situations is that everyday conveniences will likely be unavailable. It’s important to think through your daily routine, consider the essentials and prepare a kit that includes survival basics – food, water, prescription medication, first aid, and tools. Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) recommends that all of us be self-sufficient for at least three days—food, water, first aid, batteries, prescription meds, everything you need to survive 72 hours without assistance. Other important items to consider including would be important documents (birth certificates, insurance papers, etc) and cash. An excellent resource for helping you build a basic emergency supply kit can be found on the FEMA website www.ready.gov.

For most households, preparing for a disaster often means planning for members of the family who cannot plan for themselves, specifically, children, the elderly, and pets. Being a mother of a young child, I understand that when preparing to spend even one night away from home, the car is loaded almost to the max. How am I expected to evacuate an entire family including two dogs and two cats? Answer: by pre-planning and taking only the essentials.

It is important to remember when preparing kids for an evacuation situation there is a wealth of information on the ready.gov website. When preparing the basics, you will need to include clothes, diapers, special food considerations (we all know young ones are picky eaters!), along with toys and stuffed animals to bring comfort. Helping kids understand that you have a plan in place and that they are safe will go a long way to ease their fears of the situation. For in-depth information about how to help children cope with a disaster, please visit the informational guide for parents found on the FEMA website.

After so many pets were left behind during the Hurricane Katrina evacuation, shelters and hotels now have re-evaluated their pet policy during emergency evacuations.

After so many pets were left behind during the Hurricane Katrina evacuation, shelters and hotels now have re-evaluated their pet policy during emergency evacuations.

When preparing for a disaster, it’s important to consider your pets. Evacuating without them is not an option for most and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to survive on their own, so additional planning is recommended for your beloved furry (and non-furry) friends. Food and water are key, along with medicine and medical records from your veterinary. Collars with ID tags and leashes are a must. Also, you will need to have a crate or pet carrier. Don’t forget sanitation necessities such as cat litter and litter box, newspapers, paper towels, and plastic trash bags. To help ease the burden of evacuating with your animals, consider asking a friend or relative outside of the evacuation area to host your animals. Having up to three days of emergency supplies on hand is recommended. Lastly, carry a picture of you and your pet together in case you become separated. For tips and information on how to prepare your pet for an emergency, please see this helpful brochure.

Preparing for an emergency is challenging, especially for the elderly and people with disabilities. Special considerations and preparations can be made ahead of time to ensure those with special needs are not left unprepared. Having a plan in place to cope with a disaster will lead to a better outcome than having no plan at all. The fundamental steps of preparedness include being informed of the risks, preparing communication and evacuation plans with family and support networks, and having an emergency kit. For those with special needs, make sure everyone knows how you plan to evacuate your residence and where you will go in case a disaster strikes. Make sure someone has an extra key to your home and knows where you keep your emergency supplies. If any lifesaving equipment or medication is required, make sure someone in your support network knows how to use the devices. Also, if the medical equipment at home requires electricity to operate, talk to your healthcare provider about a back-up plan for its use during a power outage. For more information about preparing those with special needs for a disaster, please see this helpful brochure provided by FEMA through ready.gov.

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National Preparedness Month and a Time Without Twitter

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[This is a guest post from ImpactWeather's Business Continuity Specialist, Alison Svrcek. To mark National Preparedness Month, Alison's team at ImpactReady has several blog posts scheduled for the rest of the month. Read Alison's bio here.]

September is National Preparedness Month (link) and it’s perhaps no coincidence that it falls during what is historically the most active month of the Atlantic Hurricane Season. Though the 2014 Atlantic season has been quiet thus far, the 114th anniversary of the deadliest natural disaster in United States history—with over 8,000 lives lost—was yesterday, and it was a hurricane. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 crept up to the Texas Coast with little fanfare and caught most residents of the island by surprise. Today it’s hard to imagine a time when the term “emergency communications” had yet to be coined, but in 1900 telephones and even electricity, were not yet common conveniences (Alexander Graham Bell placed the first New York-Chicago phone call in 1892). At the turn of the last century the telegraph, rider on horseback and word of mouth were the only communication options that could be considered “quick.” Fast-forward to 2014 and it’s readily apparent that our technology-savvy world is vastly different from 114 years ago. In an instant and from almost any location, you can update your status to Twitter and Facebook for anyone in the world to see, while posting photos to Instagram and checking the exact location of your friends using GPS technology. Except of course, during a catastrophic disaster when all at once we are cast into the shadows of 1900 without electricity, without telephones, without Twitter. How will you and your family reconnect if you are separated?

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900, even 114 years later, is still categorized as the worst natural disaster in United States history. Photo: Public domain

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900, even 114 years later, is still categorized as the worst natural disaster in United States history. Photo: Public domain

The first week of National Preparedness Month activities centers on how to Reconnect with Family After a Disaster. Do you and your family have a plan to stay connected? The FEMA website Ready.gov provides helpful tips and information about how to establish communications and prepare for a disaster. Even in today’s digital world, it’s important to make a contact card for each family member, including children, and to keep this information handy in a purse, wallet, briefcase, laptop case, backpack, car glove box and book bag. Another helpful tip is to check with your child’s school or daycare facility about their identification and communication plan during an emergency.

The hand-drawn surface analysis from the day before landfall of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. Image: Public domain

The hand-drawn surface analysis from the day before landfall of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. Image: Public domain

Next, designate a contact such as a friend or relative living out-of-state for household members to notify that they are safe. Make sure every member of the family knows the phone number and has a method to call: cell phone, coins for a pay phone or prepaid phone card to reach the emergency contact. Also, program an ICE (In Case of Emergency) contact into your phone and make sure to tell the person you’ve chosen him or her as your ICE contact. First responders often check ICE listings to reach immediate family during an emergency.

Lastly, ensure family members know how to use text messaging (aka SMS or Short Message Service). Network disruptions often occur during emergencies due to volume overload or damage to infrastructure, however SMS messages are more likely to transmit successfully during an emergency. It’s also helpful to subscribe to local emergency alert services. You can visit your local Office of Emergency Management website for more information.

This is the first of ongoing blog postings from the ImpactReady team. We look forward to promoting personal and business preparedness and readiness on an regular basis. With the promotion of National Preparedness Month, we will continue to provide help tips and information to keep you and your family safe in the event of an emergency.

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A Volcano is Not the Last Thing You Need to Worry About: How A Distant Eruption Can Impact the U.S. and the World

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It’s not every day that a volcanic eruption in Iceland can reach out and touch those of us in the United States, but that is certainly the case today (and tomorrow and the next day). The feared eruption of Bardarbunga—Iceland’s second tallest volcano—is thought to be so imminent that the Icelandic government evacuated more than 300 people from the region last week (an early no-fly zone was eased today). Thousands of earthquakes have occurred in just the past week, a sign of increasing magma flow and rising expectation of an eruption.

First, I don’t mean to deflect concern from the eruption potential and what it means to the people of Iceland. I’ve written about the volcanoes and their potential for eruption several times over the past few years, even the Bardarbunga stratovolcano (Katla Volcano, Bardarbunga Volcano) that now has the Icelandic population on high alert. However, a major eruption of this size could be climate-impacting on a global scale and so this becomes an issue for the world.

Bardarbunga is sealed under half a mile of ice. If the eruption happens and the ice seal remains unbroken, the massive release of heat will cause tremendous flooding issues for Iceland. If the eruption is strong enough to break through the ice—and many experts believe it is—then this eruption may rewrite the history books. Bardarbunga does not erupt often, but when it does it is significant. Just yesterday an earthquake within Bardarbunga was classified as the strongest since 1996 and the Gjálp eruption.

Buried under nearly half a mile of ice, the Bardarbunga Volcano is not much to look at from the air. This image shows the Vatnajokull ice cap that has-thus far-kept a catastrophic eruption at bay.

Buried under nearly half a mile of ice, the Bardarbunga Volcano is not much to look at. This image shows the Vatnajokull ice cap that has-thus far-kept a catastrophic eruption at bay.

What does all this mean for the rest of us? It was four years ago that the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajokull, erupted in April, 2010. The explosive eruption caused a week’s worth of air travel disruption, no-fly zones and airspace closures over many areas of Europe and was responsible for billions of dollars in damage. Though the volcano is considered dormant now, the eruption showed how a distant and remote eruption can impact people across the world. The eruption being considered at Bardarbunga could be even more massive. Just this morning, ImpactWeather’s Sr. Meteorologist and geologist, Fred Schmude noted his long-range seasonal forecast which calls for most of this country to be under cooler if not outright colder conditions, as well as wetter conditions, for the winter of 2014-2015. Fred pointed out that, “If Bardarbunga does erupt in an explosive hydro-magmatic fashion, we could be looking at even colder weather.”

Consider a volcanic eruption stronger than Eyjafjallajokull—one that might not just shut down airspace across sections of western Europe, but most of Europe and perhaps even Asia. Consider the time of year in the Northern Hemisphere—the nearing end of summer and cooler weather right around the corner. In this part of Texas, today marks the first day of school and a sure sign that stores are beginning to accept warmer stock in anticipation of winter. What if Fred’s conclusion about a Bardarbunga eruption proves to be correct? We already have a cooler season expected, but could an even cooler one be one distant eruption away?

Would decreased air traffic for a large part of the Northern Hemisphere play havoc with business? Would executives be forced to miss or cancel meetings? Would the cost of air travel rise? Would the cost of a gallon of gasoline go up? Would the world of shoestring supply chains that famously survive on limited stock and fast turn-over based on overnight delivery, unravel? Would that cause the managers of the local Target, Wal-Mart or countless local and global retailers to shrug their shoulders to the demands of their shoppers who can’t buy a heavier jacket? What about the decreased incoming solar radiation, diminished by high altitude volcanic ash? Would solar panels become less effective? Would lakes cool faster allowing seasonal ice-over to occur sooner? Would this inhibit lake and river travel and shipping?

With hurricane season well under way in the tropical Atlantic, many businesses with exposure to tropical threat have incorporated contingency plans and disaster response plans to effectively mitigate damage and manage the crisis. But is the threat isolated to hurricanes? One doesn’t have to look far to see how easily businesses can be disrupted. From yesterday’s Napa earthquake (link), to the recent and ongoing fears of the major Ebola outbreak, to the drought and wildfires of the western United States, to the civil and racial unrest in Ferguson, MO (link) it’s the foolhardy business without the need for a good business continuity plan. Just today, forecast consensus believes that Tropical Storm Cristobal will remain off the U.S. East Coast (good news for those still not fully recovered from Superstorm Sandy!), while all eyes are now on Tropical Disturbance 22 in the north-central Gulf of Mexico moving in the direction of Texas. The likelihood of development is low, but it’s now time to review your well-practiced hurricane response plan, not create one from scratch.

Over the past few years the alarms have been raised often concerning the next Icelandic eruption. Will it happen today? Will it happen tomorrow or next year? No one can know with certainty, yet it will happen someday.

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Next Atlantic Hurricane: You Should be Uncertain and Aware of It

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If you’re following Twitter and other up-to-the minute sources, you know that there’s a potential hurricane boiling in the central Atlantic Ocean. That said, the as-yet undeveloped hurricane may possibly take aim at Florida and even the Gulf of Mexico. However, the development for this type of major storm is still a long way off in both distance and time, and any number of things may happen.

What’s that mean to you? Is it time to fill up the gas tanks, turn off the electricity, batten down the hatches and head for the safety of high ground hundreds of miles from the coast? Not quite yet.

Earlier this morning, I noticed a tweet (link) that circled an area of disturbed weather in the central Atlantic and then drew a line directly to Houston. Rest assured Houstonians, it’s still too early to predict landfall in your city for a storm that hasn’t developed yet and is still a week away from Cuba. Additionally, computer models are still undecided about which area of disturbed weather will become the eventual hurricane.

This is the image tweeted by Harris County's Public Information Office earlier this morning. If you live in Houston, what does this tell you?

Though this image was tweeted earlier this morning, it is still too early to suggest any kind of tropical development will affect specific areas of the U.S. coast.

Even though the tweet only suggested the Tropics are “about to get busy,” that kind of graphic does get your attention, doesn’t it? Though it’s too early to suggest that an area of very distant disturbed weather is coming to the U.S., the Gulf, Houston, or anywhere else, it is the perfect time to consider the development potential. Take the time to double-check your emergency kit and other preparedness items, and make sure your family is aware that it’s hurricane season. Also keep in mind that we are moving into the busiest part of the season historically (the climatological peak of hurricane season is less than a month away on Sept. 10).

Indeed this area is being closely watched by ImpactWeather’s TropicsWatch team (@TropicsWatch). Our clients’ daily video from early this morning noted development potential for a tropical cyclone in the 6-9 day time period. We will continue to monitor this developing situation.

One thing all of us here can agree on is that being at the end of a 10-day storm track is one of the best places to be since we still have time to prepare our family, homes, businesses, employees and operations for a threat.

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Is Tropical Storm Bertha On Deck Already?

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Though model consensus is quite divergent over the next 120-240 hours, it looks almost certain that well-defined Tropical Disturbance 13 will become a depression and likely a tropical storm before it reaches the eastern Caribbean Islands over the next 24 hours. If the storm strengthens as expected, Depression 3 could become Tropical Storm Bertha by tomorrow afternoon (July 30).

Formation of Bertha would be slightly ahead of climatological average. Like Hurricane Arthur which developed on July 1, eight days ahead of seasonal averages, should Bertha form tomorrow it will be two days ahead of seasonal averages which lists Aug. 1, as the typical development date of the second named storm.

ImpactWeather TropicsWatch Meteorologist Derek Ortt

In the TropicsWatch Daily Briefing video, ImpactWeather TropicsWatch Meteorologist Derek Ortt explains the probable storm track for Tropical Disturbance 13, which will likely strengthen into Tropical Storm Bertha by tomorrow afternoon.

The storm had a drop-off in overall rain shower and thunderstorm activity overnight, and even flirted a bit with the Saharan dust—which can often put a kibosh on not only a single storm but on the entire season—but the disturbance is expected to push on. ImpactWeather’s TropicsWatch Meteorologist Derek Ortt gives the storm a 90% chance of reaching tropical storm status.

What next? The storm will eventually turn northwest and, after crossing the central or northern islands of the eastern Caribbean, likely move north and out to sea. Ortt is quick to point out two things. First, at this time of year the models tend to turn a storm northward too quickly. Meaning, when the models suggest crossing the the northern regions of the Caribbean Islands, the central islands should remain alert for a more southern track. Additionally, the long-range models suggest a location anywhere from east of the United States coastline, to east of Bermuda—a distance of potentially 800-1,000 miles. In terms of the long-range forecast, Ortt states that interests along the eastern coastline of the U.S. and even the eastern Gulf of Mexico should continue to monitor the progress of this developing storm.

Overall there have been no significant changes to the seasonal forecast for the Atlantic Basin. Early predictions were for a quiet season, or one with fewer named storms and hurricanes than is typical for an Atlantic storm season, and that remains the case. However, when interviewed for Houston Public Media’s News 88.7 FM yesterday (link), ImpactWeather’s TropicsWatch manager and lead hurricane forecaster, Chris Hebert, said, “The Gulf of Mexico is going to be one of those areas that’s a little bit more favorable for development this season because it’s going to be so unfavorable further south. We have to watch it: We could see two or three named storms form in the Gulf and maybe a hurricane or two in the Gulf of Mexico this year.”

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Lightning Awareness Week: There’s Probably Something You Don’t Know

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Lightning strikeIt would be presumptuous of me to say, of my articles and postings on YourWeatherBlog, that I have an audience. It would be even more presumptuous if I were to say I know who you are or that I understand your professional background or your interest in meteorology. I can make the assumption however, that you’re probably not a grade school student, you’re likely not a teenager and that you’ve almost certainly been around the block a time or two. All of this makes writing an article about lightning awareness and safety difficult—difficult because you’ve heard it all before. Especially so because, as we head into the fourth week of June, the severe weather season is behind us (twin tornadoes in Nebraska not withstanding); we’ve all heard about severe weather safety and awareness since February. We should have the innocuous dog days of summer to look forward to, not more severe weather outbreaks. And just who’s idea was it to put Lightning Awareness week at the end of severe weather season?

Lightning Awareness Week

Click on the image to view ImpactWeather’s Lightning Awareness Week infographic.

That said, this week is Lightning Awareness Week. So let this post serve not as a way to teach or educate you about the meteorology of lightning, but as a reminder that lightning is all around us. It can happen anytime, anywhere and to anyone. And to any business. Awareness is key, precaution is prudent and safety is paramount. Let this post serve as a way to bring lightning awareness to the top of your Inbox, to your business continuity meetings at work to to the conversations at your dinner table. Workers in the field need to have the same awareness as kids at the pool, golfers on the links and cyclists on the open road, dads at the office and so on.

Each year lightning kills 51 people, on average. So far, for 2014, there have been six reported lightning deaths. Last year there were 23 fatalities in 14 states and 28 deaths reported the year before (link). Lightning is also the largest source of external power surges which can damage electrical components and lead to fires and expensive repairs, not to mention the potentially huge disruptions to business and family.

NOAA and the National Weather Service have created a comprehensive web site (link) to bring the topic of lightning safety and awareness to each of us. All we have to do is not walk casually into the dog days of summer and turn our backs to the danger that is all around us and one that can seemingly strike out of the pure blue sky. (That reminds me—the NOAA Lightning Safety site has a page devoted to nine of the most popular myths concerning lightning. Check it out here.)

 

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Brad Pitt May Save Your Life: Making a Case for Twitter

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Brad Pitt may save your life? Sure he will. And Angelina will help him. So will Puff Daddy and any one of the Kardashians, or Brittany, or Simon, or Ashton, or Paris, or?

Alright, so I’m kidding. They won’t really save your life unless they happen upon a car crash that you’ve just been involved in—and probably not even then—but they’re all using a tool that you very likely have in your pocket or purse. Your tool however, is likely not ready to save your life or the life of any of your family members, or neighbors, or co-workers, or even a wayward celebrity.

What’s the tool and why did I mention the celebrities above? And why did I give Brad Pitt the opportunity to save your life? Read on.

Who doesn't have a smartphone today? By and large, most of us do. Make sure yours has apps that are relevant to potential disasters so that your phone can help save your life.

Who doesn’t have a smartphone today? By and large, most of us do. Make sure yours has apps that are relevant to potential disasters so that your phone can help save your life.

Every spring one of my most enjoyable duties is visiting clients and presenting what ImpactWeather calls the Employee Hurricane Preparedness Presentation (EHPP). The EHPP brings general preparedness information to employees who may be new to the Gulf Coast and the unavoidable hurricane risk here. Preparedness doesn’t really change from year to year, but the technology changes and we can bring new technology to preparedness. Your smartphone should be considered required equipment for your emergency kit. Don’t leave it in your kit with your other stock—keep it with you!—but make sure it’s up-to-date with the latest emergency and preparedness apps before you find yourself in the midst of an evacuation zone wondering what do to. Just like rotating your stock of emergency water (one gallon, per person, per day), you should make sure the emergency apps on your phone are still valid and you should spend an hour or two searching for new apps that may bring new information and techniques to your fingertips.

Before you check to see if your emergency apps are still valid, you need to load the emergency apps onto your phone. Search for apps using keywords “emergency” or “disaster,” or “preparendess.” Be sure to download the FEMA app. The Red Cross has a great app, too. In fact, where some apps rely on connectivity to function, the Red Cross app downloads many features directly to your phone’s memory so that they can function independent of any type of cell or Wi-Fi connection. Some apps can help you locate family members in a disaster zone (Life 360 Family Locator). Some apps, like the Red Cross app, can help you treat burns or broken limbs. The FEMA app can help you build an emergency kit and point you to the nearest Disaster Recovery Center among other services.

There’s another app you should have on your phone, and this is where your favorite celebrities come in. The app you need, the app that may save your life, and the app that is on every phone of every celebrity, is Twitter. Yes, Twitter. If you’re over 45 or 50, I’ll wait until you can say Twitter without chuckling. Go ahead. When I did my last EHPP and asked who in the audience had a Twitter account, not a single person raised their hand. To me, this was remarkable and the reason I’m writing this article.

Yes, Twitter may save your life. At the least, Twitter can make your life a whole lot easier if you use it in the days leading up to, and the days following a disaster like a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, wildfire or even pandemic. But before it can do that, you have to understand what it is, what it does and how it applies to you.

At its base, Twitter is a web-based social networking and microblogging service that allows registered users to send and receive text messages up to 140 characters in length. You can access Twitter from your desktop computer, your tablet or your phone. From your desktop computer you’d go to Twitter.com and use it like any other web site; from your phone or tablet, download the appropriate Twitter app. Using only 140 characters is the “micro” part, but perhaps you’re put off by the social networking aspect of Twitter? That’s OK—I am, too. I have no need to know what Paris Hilton (am I dating myself?) had for breakfast or who the latest husband of Ms. Hollywood is. However, what’s great about Twitter is the non-social aspect of so many users that you need “follow.” Users like your local city and county emergency offices, for example. I doubt there’s a single county OEM in this country that’s not tweeting on a regular basis.

Twitter is made up of tweeters and followers. If you are a registered user you can tweet (send) a 140-character text and it will be received by your followers. To become a follower, create your Twitter account and search for your local county OEM using the Twitter search tool. For me, in Galveston County, I would find @galvcountyoem. I’d click on it and be taken to the Galveston County OEM Twitter page. I’d then select, “Follow.” The good folks at the Galveston County Office of Emergency Management regularly tweet pertinent information to their followers. Their tweets consist of special weather statements, Amber Alerts, announcements relating to OEM business and much more. The most recent tweet is at the top of the page and, if you like, you can scroll and scroll and scroll to find tweet after tweet after tweet. Unlike email, the tweets don’t pile up and you don’t need to delete them; there’s no Inbox and there’s no spam. You just log in, see what’s new or interesting, then go about your business. When you return the next time, the newest information is again at the top. Once you’re following your emergency officials of choice, the most important disaster-related information is there for the viewing when it’s convenient to you. And that’s why you need it.

When landline phone service is not available and cell service is disrupted, a text message can often be successfully sent and received.

When landline phone service is not available and cell service is disrupted, a text message can often be successfully sent and received.

You need Twitter because in an emergency you may not have radio or TV. If you have radio or TV, you may not have time to wait for the specific information you need. How many counties does your local TV station serve? With Twitter you go directly to the source of the information you need without having to wait for the TV news anchor to tell you, without having to dial a phone number, without having to drive anywhere and without having to stand in line. If your family members follow you, you can tweet once and they will all receive it. In a disaster when every second counts, Twitter has just come to your rescue. By the way, in the age of Twitter your TV news people are likely using Twitter to monitor the various OEM sources as well, and are becoming “middlemen” to the information you require—the same information you can pull directly from the source with your own Twitter app.

There’s more to Twitter and it’s called the hashtag. What was, according to Twitter founders, almost dismissed and at one time considered nothing much more than an afterthought to the main program, Twitter engineers renamed the lowly pound symbol “hashtag” and empowered it with the ability to organize and group metadata so that you can search for, and be included in, groups of messages pertaining to a particular subject (origin). If, for example, Galveston County tweets a message about evacuation and includes a hashtag of their choosing such as #galvestonevacuation, you can search on #galvestonevacuation and any message using that hashtag will be displayed. You can also tweet your own message and if you include the same hashtag, anybody else who searches #galvestonevacuation will see your message in addition to all the others utilizing the same hashtag. You can see immediate communications from the source, and they can see yours.

Why not dial 911? In many post-disaster zones, landline phone service is disrupted and cell service is down—it’s possible 911 is not available. Text messages can often get through when cell calls are dropped or otherwise unable to connect (read more on this subject here). Text messages can also be quicker to write (no waiting for an overwhelmed dispatcher or family member to answer the phone), allowing you to move on to other, potentially life-saving tasks more quickly. Text messages can also be delivered when your phone is out of range or turned off. There are advantages to texting.

The same advantages apply to Twitter, but with the ability to follow your chosen emergency sources in near-real time, the ability to use hashtags to search for and be included within specific information, the ability to tweet directly with many people at once makes Twitter a must-have for any smartphone user in an emergency or disaster situation. Let’s not forget, it’s free.

Joking about the vanity of celebrities and their willingness to tweet anything is one thing, but let’s not dismiss Twitter because of its perceived value as little more than a frivolous tool of the rich and famous. Brad Pitt may not directly save your life, but if he is one of the thousands of individuals alerting you of severe weather or tropical threats via his Twitter account, he may be the super hero we’ve all come to enjoy on the big screen.

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Facts Are Meaningless, Hurricanes Are Not

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One of my favorite Homer Simpson quotes is, “Facts are meaningless. They can be used to prove anything.”  Over on Wikipedia, “Spin” is defined as, “a form of propaganda, achieved through providing an interpretation of an event or campaign to persuade public opinion in favor or against a certain organization or public figure.” While “Hype” at Dictionary.com, is defined as “to intensify (advertising, promotion, or publicity) by ingenious or questionable claims, methods, etc.” Public relations departments spin facts into hype and misdirection countless times each day. Who among us has not learned to read the fine print of any claim from your favorite car manufacturer, cigarette company or diet commercial? Who among us doesn’t approach almost everything we see with at least a modicum of doubt or hesitation? For every fact, a counterfact.

But can we blame or prohibit spin or hype (we certainly can’t muzzle Homer!)? As a consumer, it’s up to each of us to be our own watchdog and make buying decisions carefully, as determined by how each of us decipher the facts. Caveat emptor.

What about your favorite meteorologist? If the forecast calls for thunderstorms on Saturday, do you assume a twist or a spin or a misdirection of the facts? Is it hype to lure you to tune in again? Probably not. After all, what’s the motivation to twist, spin or misdirect? You’re not buying the forecast so why wouldn’t the meteorologist lay it all out there for you? In reality, you are buying the forecast but that’s a story for another blog.

From inside my locker at ImpactWeather, Homer Simpson reminds me daily of how facts can be misinterpreted. (Photo: Dave Gorham)

From inside my locker at ImpactWeather, Homer Simpson reminds me daily of how facts can be misinterpreted. (Photo: Dave Gorham)

The hurricane forecast, however, is a different animal. Where a thunderstorm impacts a neighborhood, a hurricane impacts a geographic region with perhaps millions of people in its path. On the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, television meteorologists battle amongst themselves to be the top-rated weathercast, and news stations rely heavily on their weather team and their hurricane prowess to vault them to the top position in the all-important ratings. Some are very worthy of the position; some less so. Like Ram wants you to buy their truck, your local news station wants you to tune in. What part of the hurricane forecast do you believe?

Dr. William Gray and Dr. Phil Klotzbach are two of the recognized leaders in long-range, seasonal outlooks for the tropical Atlantic (their 2014 report can be found here). Dr. Klotzbach, on numerous occasions has been a speaker at our ImpactWeather Hurricane Symposium. Not television meteorologists, they are researchers free of advertising dollars and television ratings. Do you believe their report?

Oh, I see. It’s not about spin, it’s about science. Who could believe a six-month seasonal report, no matter the numbers, when it seems meteorologists struggle with the lowly three-day forecast. If Drs. Gray and Klotzbach predict a busy season or a quiet season, does it matter? Is it hype? Is it spin? Is it meaningless?  Isn’t the “science” of meteorology part science, part black magic and part theater. Therefore, until a hurricane knocks on your front door, you have better things to worry about.

Here’s a fact. As of today, it’s been 3,116 days since the last major hurricane (Saffir-Simpson Category 3 or higher) struck the U.S. Mainland. Typically, busy season or quiet, a major hurricane strikes our coast at the rate of twice every three years. The last Category 3 or higher storm to reach the U.S. coast was Hurricane Wilma, on October 24, 2005. That’s almost nine years ago.

You could spin that and say that the hurricane season is only 180 days, so that instead of two Cat 3 storms every three years, it could be two every 540 days (180 x 3), or one every 270 days. Would that get your attention more than the “unspun” number? You could also hype it by saying, “This is the year because we’re so overdue!” Or might you still say that until a hurricane is moving into your neighborhood, facts are meaningless because they can be used to prove anything.

At ImpactWeather we have a dedicated team of tropical meteorologists who want, above all else, their forecasts to be accurate—both the day-to-day and the long-range seasonal ones. We don’t have television ratings, but we have clients. If we hope to maintain (and increase) our client list, our forecasts have to be accurate and to-the-point while remaining free of spin and hyperbole. However, an accurate forecast is only part of what we do. We also have an obligation to our clients to help them understand how the forecast relates to them and to help them plan for, respond to and recover from any tropical threat.

One of the ways we do that is with the ImpactWeather Hurricane Symposium. Now only a week away, the symposium assembles speakers who are experts in their fields of meteorology, business continuity and disaster recovery, as well as speakers from major corporations who have lived through a tropical disaster and have lessons and best practices to impart. You can learn more here and sign-up here.

Another way we do that is with the ImpactWeather Timeline Tools. The actual forecast is one thing, but the Timeline Tools are designed to help a client dig into the storm and produce objective guidance from which to make real decisions. Guidance that will help drive phase changes in response plans and help determine when to turn off the lights and evacuate (or, just as importantly not to evacuate).

Facts are facts. Some are meaningless, some are spun, some are hyped, but some stand on their own. It’s a fact that the last Category 3 hurricane was 3,116 days ago. What does that mean to you?

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