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Severe Weather Awareness
by Sandy Maurer

Springtime in Ohio means the end of Winter slumber and the rebirth of a new year. Farmers out plowing and planting their fields, animals awakening from their deep sleep, trees budding and flowering. Yes we all come alive in the Spring as the weather warms.

Spring showers also brings May flowers, as the saying goes. But to a meteorologist Spring has a different meaning. Spring means Severe weather. We Americans live in the most severe weather-prone country on earth.

Storms develop as a result of the clash of different air masses. Basically this means that the warm moist airmass from the south is met head on with the cooler and drier airmass from the north. Where this confrontation takes place is called a weather front.

These fronts can be warm or cold, depending upon which airmass is overtaking the other. But most Springtime severe weather occurs as the result of a strong cold front pushing into an unstable warmer airmass.

Strong storms and tornadoes first come alive in the plains and southern states as the warm moist air builds in early Spring, moving north out of Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. As the season progresses the warm air moves further north into the Ohio Valley and northern plains, bringing a larger area of the country into severe weather potential. By mid May much of the country, east of the Rockies, will have the potential for a severe weather event.

Given the "right" meteorological conditions, strong thunderstorms and tornadoes can be quickly spawned from this airmass clash. Back on May 31, 1985, before Doppler weather radar, a small speck was seen on the old WSR74C radar at Hopkins Airport at 4 pm. By 4:35 pm that small speck rapidly developed into a level 6 storm and a tornado.

That tornado touched down in the Newton Falls Ohio area which leveled part of the city. That was one of several major storms that affected eastern Ohio and the eastern US that day.

Due to outages and other snafus that occurred in Ohio that fateful day led to a reevaluation of the severe weather program during that time. Training and procedures were upgraded and subsequently led to the development and distribution of Doppler radar in the late 1980's and early 1990's.

The state of Ohio prepares for severe weather during the winter and early spring through training provided by the National Weather Service. This training is done in conjunction with the Skywarn spotter program (amateur radio operators and volunteers) and EMA (Emergency Management Agency) personal.

The training is given to just about every county in Ohio. The Cleveland office is responsible for 28 Northern Ohio counties and the two Northwest Pennsylvania counties.

Each county has an EMA director, available 24/7, who is in direct contact with the State EMA. Any and all emergencies can be acted upon quickly without a boat load of red tape to interfere.

When conditions are expected to be favorable for severe weather for that particular day, during the early morning, the National Weather Service issues a Special Weather Statement to the public through the media, Internet and NOAA weather radio. This alerts all agencies and others to be prepared to take action if necessary.

Once a severe storm is identified through the Doppler Rader, a warning will be issued. This warning reaches various outlets, at lightening speed, including NOAA weather radio, the media folks and many government agencies. TV stations that receive the warning usually run a scrawl across the bottom of the screen as determined by their software.

Here is how the warning is disseminated. At each computer work station, sophisticated software continuously scans the input from the Doppler radar. If certain parameters are met, alerts are sounded to the meteorologists for further investigation. If determined that the identified storm is severe, a few clicks of the mouse and the warning goes out.

Warnings are issued for counties, and each county has a unique code built in that triggers which NOAA weather radio transmitter to broadcast the warning. It reaches the radio within seconds, as well as all other media, government and public outlets, and the Skywarn folks.

A Skywarn base station is setup in the office to receive reports from the trained spotters from the field which are relayed to the staff. They provide vital information, the ground truth so to speak, necessary to make the severe weather detection program work.

The importance of having a weather radio can be a lifesaver. The dedicated staffs at all weather service offices nationwide maintain a 24 hour vigil who can quickly spring into action upon the onset of severe weather. This includes, but limited to tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash flooding.

If you don't already own a weather radio, you should, as they are inexpensive, and usually have the alert feature that sounds once a warning is issued.

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