Get Ready for Tornado Season

Information and readiness build resilience.

Guest post by Stacey Arnesen and Florence Chang, NLM Specialized Information Services.

The red pickup anxiously plowed through the corn field, heading toward the dark, ominous funnel, an F5-class tornado. Despite their many failed attempts, Jo and Bill were ready this time. On the truck bed was “Dorothy IV,” Jo and Bill’s invention, carrying thousands of data-collecting sensors. As the truck plunged into the swirling monster, Dorothy IV released the sensors, twirling and blinking like pixie dust. Streams of data collected by the sensors started flowing into a computer designed to make sense of the millions of data points regarding wind speed, air temperature, rotational force, and other elements of the storm.

This scene from the 1996 movie “Twister,” starring Helen Hunt and the late Bill Paxton, might have seemed a bit futuristic twenty-one years ago, but it was grounded in the science of the day. NASA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have collected data, shared data, and used data to predict the weather and make meteorological discoveries for decades before “Twister” brought storm-chasing and the work of the National Severe Storms Lab (NSSL) to the public’s attention.

Thanks to that research, today’s Doppler radar system uses sophisticated algorithms and modeling to monitor the weather and detect tornadoes. Advances in mobile technology and social media have also opened new channels for data exchange and communication, resulting in such apps as Wireless Emergency Alerts from NOAA and NSSL’s mPing, which crowdsources weather observations. Together, these early warning systems save lives and prevent injuries by giving people more time to take shelter before a tornado strikes.

Even with these advanced detection and warning systems, preparedness for tornadoes is still crucial. FEMA recommends that families start by assembling an emergency preparedness kit and creating a household evacuation and shelter plan. These will help you stay safe during the storm and survive on your own afterward until help can arrive.

NLM’s Disaster Information Management Research Center (DIMRC) suggests going one step further and packing a “digital go-bag” on your mobile device. Apps from FEMA, the American Red Cross, the National Weather Service, and NLM will ensure you have helpful and current information at your fingertips, from up-to-the-minute, localized weather warnings to first aid instruction and post-storm tips. You can also help with situational awareness and emergency response by submitting photos of damaged areas to FEMA.

Librarians as Information First Responders

Information is key during an emergency, which highlights an important role for libraries and librarians: as information first responders.

New Jersey State Librarian Mary Chute noted that disasters and other emergencies can turn a library into a “a safe haven where librarians, skilled in customer service and effective communications, can help those struggling to cope with unusual and stressful situations…and  offer critical services to help support police, firefighters, and medical personnel.”

In 2011, that role played out in Springfield, Massachusetts where, following a tornado, the libraries offered a space where community members without electricity or with damaged homes could gather to connect with each other and with essential services. A year later, following Hurricane Sandy, libraries were often the go-to place, and then-FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate tapped into the idea of library-as-community-builder by encouraging parents to read to anxious children. Readers tweeted their top picks using the hashtag #StormReads.

To foster the role of librarians as partners in disaster management, NLM, together with the Medical Library Association, developed a Disaster Information Specialization for those looking for ways to support their institutions or communities during such emergencies.

Who knows? Maybe the sequel to “Twister” will have librarians in the lead. (Hmmm, now we’re wondering who should play us.)

Florence Chang and Stacey Arnesen smilingGuest bloggers Florence Chang and Stacey Arnesen work in the NLM Division of Specialized Information Services.

Photo credit (tornado, top): Brent Koops, NOAA Weather in Focus Photo Contest 2015 [Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]