Severe Weather: More Than Just a Seasonal Threat

Campus weather preparedness plans, outreach and training must take into account the fact that tornadoes, as well as other weather hazards, can happen at any time.

Ah, Spring! It’s the unofficial start of the outdoor event and sports calendar on our campuses. It’s also the time of year when the alarms prompting severe weather planning and preparedness go off in administrative offices around the country. Even the National Weather Service (NWS) perpetuates this rite of passage by offering spring severe weather spotter training talks and partners with state emergency management agencies to observe severe weather awareness weeks across the nation. But, if you are looking for another “It’s tornado season, be prepared” article, this is not the article you are looking for.

By the first day of spring, the average number of tornadoes that have already occurred in the United States is nearly 200. This year is no exception, with 202 tornadoes unofficially reported as of March 20. In 2008, 500 tornadoes occurred across the country before any state held its spring severe weather awareness week.

This we know for sure: tornado season starts on Jan. 1 and ends on Dec. 31. We observe tornadoes in each month of the year, and tornado fatalities are possible in every month. The same can be said for almost every other weather hazard. Even tropical storms and hurricanes have formed outside of the June to November months labeled by meteorologists as “hurricane season.”

Life threatening weather hazards don’t abide by the notion of a “season.” Last year tornadoes occurred on seven consecutive days from Dec. 21-27. On Dec. 23, more than 200 severe wind and hail storms occurred across the southeastern United States, along with 39 tornadoes. On Dec. 26, strong tornadoes ripped through the Dallas area, causing 11 fatalities. In 2015, more people died in December tornadoes than in tornadoes from January through November combined.

Likewise, snow and ice storms have resulted in weather fatalities outside of the traditional winter months of December, January and February. The most notable storms include the famed April Fool’s Day Blizzard of 1997, and an April blizzard in the western United States in 2015.

It is critical that campus weather preparedness plans and associated outreach and training eschew the seasonal approach. Every campus weather plan should begin with an inventory of each weather hazard that could occur, regardless of the time of year. This comprehensive approach will eliminate the loss of situational awareness and desensitization that can occur by making the assumption that certain weather hazards only happen during certain times of year.

It is also important to remember that many life-threatening weather hazards occur simultaneously. For example, storms that produce tornadoes typically deliver large hail, localized flooding, damaging straight-line winds and dangerous cloud-to-ground lightning.

Take a Weather Inventory
There are a vast number of resources available to campus emergency planners to comprehensively assess weather risk. Remember, when doing a campus weather plan, address both the weather risk as well as the vulnerability of each building/facility or activity to the weather risk.

For example, a building with no basement on the highest point of campus will likely be less susceptible to flooding than the building with the basement that sits next to the creek running through your campus. An outdoor campus activity for 50 people will require different weather notification and sheltering strategies than an event hosting 500 people. Weather plans cannot be one size fits all. Each activity or building on your campus is unique. Likewise, the weather plan for each will also require customization in order to be efficient and effective.

Although you will likely be very familiar with your campus buildings, you may not be as familiar with the diverse weather hazards that have impacted your area over the years. Here are the individuals or organizations that you can contact to help you with your weather planning research:

National Weather Service (NWS)
The NWS uses 122 local weather forecast offices to serve the United States. Each office is responsible for gathering weather observations and climate data, issuing local marine, aviation, fire and public weather forecasts, as well as issuing warnings for severe weather of all types.  Each office is staffed with a warning coordination meteorologist (WCM). The WCM is responsible for planning and coordinating public awareness programs to ensure the mitigation of death, injury and property damage or loss due to weather. Contacting the local NWS WCM is the first step in creating a robust weather plan for your campus.

The path to contacting the local NWS WCM is fairly straightforward. Go to the NWS web page at www.weather.gov. Then, click on the county where your campus is located. That click will take you to the home page for your local NWS office. Once on your local NWS office web page, search for the “About Us,” “About Our Office” or “Office Information” menu link. That link will take you to the listing of office staff and the contact information for the WCM. The WCM is a critical local resource, and a wealth of information on local weather risks for your campus.

State Climatologist
Most states have a climate office or an office of the state climatologist. Each state climate office serves as a repository for weather and climate data, as well as the statistical risks for various weather phenomena. The office will house the state climatologist, who is the state’s expert on weather and climate hazards. He or she will have historical information on weather threats for the state, and these can be used as the basis for weather emergency planning.

To contact your state climatologist, go to the American Association of State Climatologists web site at www.stateclimate.org. Click on your state for specific contact information. If your state does not have a state climatologist, there are still additional resources that are available to you through state offices of emergency management.

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