Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA): A Great New Weather Tool For Show Crews

It's spring, and that means the start of severe weather season, and also the time when many of us in show business start working on outdoor shows. I've done a lot of outdoor sound systems and I'm also a storm chaser and weather geek, so when I'm on an outdoor show site, I'm often running real-time radar on my laptop in addition to my sound system alignment software. While I'm monitoring approaching storms out of curiosity, I'm not a meteorologist, and I strongly believe that event producers need to hire professionals to make decisions related to audience and crew safety. But--as show crews--the decision to hire a meteorologist is often out of our control, and while safety is our employer's legal responsibility, it's obviously strongly in our interest to make sure we do everything we can to ensure a safe workplace, especially in light of the spate of recent weather-related show disasters (about which I've written extensively).

In this spirit, in early 2012 I wrote an article (download a copy here) called Weather Resources for Show Crews for PLASA's Protocol magazine, which outlines the process I use to monitor the weather when working outdoors. In April 2012, after the publication of that article, a new form of emergency alert based on the position of your cell phone started becoming available; the system is called the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), or, more commonly, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). Distribution of these alerts is handled by cell carriers and has been rolling out across the country; last year, many friends were surprised with an alert like this on their phone when there was a severe weather event in their area:

Courtesy Ready.gov

Courtesy Ready.gov

The alerts are accompanied by a sound like the one in the Youtube video below.

There are three types of alerts: Presidential, Imminent Threat, and Amber.  Imminent threats include weather warnings issued by the National Weather Service (NWS), all of which most certainly could be an imminent threat to a show site:

  • Tornado Warnings
  • Flash Flood Warnings
  • Hurricane and Typhoon Warnings
  • Extreme Wind Warnings
  • Dust Storm Warnings

The alerts are special messages that are broadcast from cell towers to nearby phones, and they go through even when there is heavy voice or text network usage (like at a large event). Since the messages are broadcast, the issuer of the alert does not know your cell phone number--the alerts are just issued to every cell phone on a certain carrier in a specific area.  All of this is a great thing for those of us who work (or play) outdoors, because it now means that--wherever you are in the country--you can be warned of imminent weather hazards automatically and immediately. This is a functionality formerly only offered by paid apps that could increase your data bill or drain your battery.  

Carriers are required to issue the alerts in affected counties, but it's also possible (preferable) that they will target an alert to a tighter geographic area This is great news, since (as I discuss in the article), the NWS issues many warnings onto geographic polygons. For example, here's a tornado-warned storm I was chasing last year in Iowa:

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The red box is the extent of the tornado warning; if you are outside the red box then the NWS does not consider that storm to be a threat to you at that point.

My carrier is Verizon, and it seems like they do issue on the warning polygons rather than on a county basis: "Authorized Senders determine which locations will receive a specific alert based on the area defined by the geographical latitude and longitude of the emergency. As circumstances dictate, Authorized Senders will identify  targeted areas for each specific alert. Devices compatible with Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) that are operating within the area targeted will receive the WEA. Those devices operating in areas not targeted by Authorized Senders will not receive the alert."  This is a good thing, especially if you happen to be on tour somewhere where the counties are enormous, and you might get a severe thunderstorm warning alert while you are many miles away under sunny skies.

The service is "opt out", meaning if your phone has the feature, it will be enabled by default.  You can turn off all but the Presidential Alerts; I would recommend keeping your imminent threat alerts turned on.  On my Android phone on Verizon, there's an app called "Emergency Alerts", and you can configure your alert reception and notification there:

And of course, as I detailed in the article, the time to make an emergency plan is long before one of these alerts is issued for your show site.  Let's keep safe out there!

Early Spring Storm Chase in Texas

I was in Dallas last week for the USITT Conference (where I gave a talk on networking, of course).  On Wednesday, on the way back from lunch to my session, I saw asperatus clouds for the first time.  By the time I got to a clearing they were starting to move away but it was still pretty cool to see:

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My session went great:

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The next day, a slight risk was issued for severe storms, so after a morning meeting (I had to do some work!) I hit the road with my former student and now colleague Erin G. The setup was marginal, but initiation was forecast along a dryline, which I had not been able to chase before. So we went out with the objective only of finding and seeing the dryline, and we accomplished that.  We also stumbled across the very cool Running N Ranch:

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These poles apparently line up to make a single shadow on each equinox.

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Saw a very low Lake Texoma, partial subject of one my favorite James McMurtry songs, Choctaw Bingo:

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We watched on the radar as severe storms exploded and formed tornadoes up in Arkansas, and then eventually decided to call it a day and head back to Fort Worth.  But coming back to Gainesville, the storm I had been literally watching in the rear view mirror really ramped up and made an anvil.  So, we turned around to see what it was, and stumbled across giant figures by Glenn Goode, the fiberglass man:

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In the distance you can see the storms firing, and we found a spot and watched them just develop beautifully in the sunset:

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We had already started setting up to meet people back in Fort Worth, but then Erin noticed how much lightning the storm was making, and then we figured we had to go for it, and ended up moving south west and staying for a couple hours as this storm just pumped out lightning and hail east of McKinney, Texas.  We ended up in an areay with a lot of trees so we had to climb over a barbed wire fence into a cow pasture to find an open sky:

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I made a little pseudo time lapse of the 300 or so shots I took of this one storm:

Here's our track (ending at an In n' Out Burger--I didn't know they had those in Texas!

More photos here.

On Friday, Fort Worth was under a severe thunderstorm watch, and after my morning sessions there were supercells down south reportedly pouring out 3" hail, so John M and I blasted south to see what we could see.  We ended up a bit late for the fast moving storms, and got beat with marble size hail for a few minutes.  Afterwards, we punched through the rest of the storm and there were some pretty cool mammatus clouds persisting for a long time along the dryline:

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Fall Storm Chase in Iowa

It’s been a bit of a thunderstorm drought this summer and fall here in NYC, and I've been busting my ass for weeks on school commitments and Gravesend Inn stuff.  So, when I saw a tornado outbreak forecast in Iowa for a Friday when I had the day off (after working 13 days straight), I figured I should go for it, despite Iowa’s reputation for difficult and frustrating storm chasing. The early models put the severe threat across most of Iowa and up into southern Minnesota, so I booked my flights in/out of Chicago, which is within reasonable striking distance and also has a lot of flight flexibility (these days there are very few direct flights into many of the cities in the plains).  I’m going to post my photo highlights here, and if you’re interested in the chase details I've got them below (for me if no one else). But in the end, while I missed all the tornadoes (basically, I went south and the storms stayed north), it was still a good trip, despite a nasty cold that came on literally hours after I bought my non-refundable plane tickets.  For me there’s nothing more engaging than picking chase targets, safely navigating around severe or tornado-warned storms, all the while planning escape routes and trying to frame a shot and get it in focus, sometimes in a scene only illuminated by lightning. Storm chasing is one of the rare times I get in that hyper-engaged state of “flow”, and those times make all the hassles worth it.  And despite the danger and the attendant tragic impact on people’s lives, I find the storms themselves to be quite a beautiful indication of nature’s power.

My first severe storm of the day near Adel: 

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From near Bartlett, a severe-warned storm approaching from Nebraska:

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Near Glenwood:

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From near Mineola, another severe storm to the south that got a tornado warning after dark:

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The original storm to the north

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The southern storm again: 

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The southern storm, now over Red Oak with a tornado warning:

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The blue target is me, I was stuck to the north of this storm but I figured I'd ride it out there and see what the west side looked like:

 

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These silos are just northwest of Lewis:

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I stayed back in Des Moines for the night, and then yesterday chased severe storm conditions that jumped out way to my east.  So I stopped and got a few photos near Chatsworth, Illinois in front of an approaching system that was severe off to the northeast farther than I could go (story of this trip):

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More photos here and here.  OK, now onto the storm chase geekery... 

Thursday night my flight ran late due to thunderstorms in Chicago (which I go to watch from the plane) and Hertz took forever, so I only made it to Peru, Illinois that night.  I had wanted to get further west but my cold was really slowing me down, but Peru that seemed like a reasonable reach to get out to Iowa in time for the big weather forecast for Friday afternoon, given the Moderate Risk already issued by the SPC.  When I got up Friday morning, the models for this complex system had extended the severe threat west into Nebraska.  Since this system was going to impact the area from west to east, I started heading as far west as I could get on I-80, having to pass through a first round of heavy rain, delaying me yet again. By the time I stopped for lunch the moderate risk area had pushed south and west again.  So I figured I'd keep heading west and a little south of I-80 and try to get in front of the storms, which a quick look at the HRRR (simulated forecast radar) showed storms generating in front of the cold front in the south and travelling north.  

Back on I-80 I saw the Adel storm from the highway, and I saw some lowering in it.  I went to check it out and then it got a severe warning.  With my cold-induced brain fog and a bit of a hook on this storm, I probably stayed on this storm a little too long, and then started west again. The SPC boys then issued a tornado watch well into Nebraska, and I thought about just blasting on straight into Nebraska (in hindsight this would have been the better choice) but with 250 miles of driving in already that day, all the while hacking and coughing (I went through two bags of cough drops on the trip), I didn't think I could safely make another 150 miles just to get to the start  of a chase of indeterminate length.  

I drove a bit further west and then tornado-warned storms started to fire in northeast Nebraska (and eventually produce very violent wedge tornadoes), but having chased up in that region before (here's my writeup of a previous chase bust) , I knew there were limited opportunities to cross the river, and I figured by the time I got to these storms they would fizzle out (I was also wrong about that).  But around that time I saw a boundary on the radar along the storm line in Nebraska to the south of the tornado-warned storms, and I figured this would eventually kick up something in south west Iowa, so I headed down that way.  I watched the cell above come across from Nebraska and followed it until sunset. Around this time the storm to my south got a tornado warning, but by that time it was well after dark so I hung around and shot the lightning photos above. So in the end, I missed all the tornadoes, but I felt a little better because I could see on Spotter Network and from several obvious chase vehicles in the area (I chase very low key, others have weather instruments and graphic wraps on their vehicles) that I wasn't the only one who made that same call and missed the action up north.

I headed back to Des Moines and crashed for the night. The next morning there was a slight risk out for Illinois, so, since I needed to go that way anyway to get back to the airport, I figured I'd get on whatever came along and maybe get some more lightning photos.  But in the same way the severe threat moved out to my west as I was driving west, now the severe threat moved east faster than I could drive.  I started out in the morning behind the cold front, crossed through it, but then storms fired out north and south.  Everything died in my area by sunset, so I just headed to the hotel to try and get some sleep before my way-too-early flight this morning.  One consolation: When it looked like I was going to end up way out west I changed my flight from Saturday night to early today, and I'm glad I did because a large severe-warned storm went right over Chicago Saturday night and delayed my original flight for about three hours couple hours. 

So while in the end, I drove about 1,300 miles (630 just on Friday, the chase day) and didn't get to see much in the way of severe storms, that's something that can happen on these kind of chases (I once sat with hundreds of chasers in Nebraska in the center of a tornado watch under sunny skies all day, but the cap never broke so nothing happened until a big line developed after midnight.).  As good as scientists are at forecasting the weather, these kind of complex systems are difficult to forecast.  And my objective is to get photos of nature's beauty and menace, and in the end all the videos I've seen of people who got on the storms up north show big, ugly dangerous wedges on a hazy day.  In the end, in this possibly record low tornado year, I think I already got on the most photogenic storm of the year in Rozel *(my photos here

My thoughts are with those in Nebraska and Iowa who were injured or who lost property (as of this writing there are fortunately no reports of fatalities) and at least one chaser I know stopped and helped out when they saw significant damage in Nebraska.

 

Making a Good Decision--Calling a Show For Bad Weather

I've written a lot about show management making bad weather-related decisions that has led to catastrophes.  So I'm happy to write about management making a good decision.  From Pollstar:

Wind gusts had reached 40 mph and production, artist management and venue management made a collective decision to not have the show go forward, according to Live Nation’s Jeff Trisler.

 “We’ve soldiered through some pretty rough situations in the past but this one was unique,” Trisler told Pollstar. “The stage is perched on a cliff, and the back and the sides are typically where the wind comes from, and we have very strong wind walls. This was unique in that the wind was coming in from the front, where there is no protection.”

 

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Photo from Daniel via wikipedia

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