By Chris McCarthy/Publisher
Some people remember the specifics of their first day of school.
Others can recall the first time they learned to ride a bicycle without training wheels.
Hokes Bluff resident Karen Wingo knows the exact date when she decided to become proactive in severe weather alerts – Oct. 18, 2010.
Wingo and some friends were watching James Spann on Ustream as he was talking about a line of storms. The group started noticing that when once the line of severe weather moved out of the Birmingham metro area north along the I-59 corridor, there was not enough specific information as to the size and scope of the storm.
Wingo and her colleagues immediately formed a facebook group called the Etowah Weather Watchers.
Consisting of approximately 80 members at its largest point, the group shared updated information on severe weather warnings and posted storm photos over the next six months.
The devastating aftermath of the Apr. 27 tornado outbreak convinced Wingo that the Etowah Weather Watchers had to be taken up a few levels.
“For Alabama, [April 27] was just like Sept. 11,” she said. “It was major wakeup call, and we realized what we were doing in our group was no where near enough what had to be done.”
The group soon changed its named to F.O.R.E.C.A.S.T., an acronym for Followers of Rural East-Central Alabama Storm Team. Wingo started up the group’s website, www.forecastalabama.com, where she and other volunteers constantly update severe weather information for Etowah, Blount, Calhoun, Cherokee, Marshall and St. Clair counties. The site utilizes real-time NEXRAD radar along with regular updates from National Weather Service radar stations in Birmingham and Huntsville.
In a nutshell, Wingo and her fellow volunteers streamlined the communication web to one administrator per county. That person is responsible for reporting any and all storm development so that the word can get out quickly without conflicting reports. Each administrator has weather-tracking devices on his/her computer/cell phone. Wingo’s fellow northeast Alabama storm trackers include Joshua Best (St. Clair County), Sarah Wade (Marshall County), Joey Amberson (Etowah County), Jimmy Long (DeKalb County), Matt Teal (Cherokee County) and Chris Cheatwood and Michelle Miklich (Calhoun). Wingo assists Amberson in Etowah County and also handles Blount County. Tracy Ireland helps with administrative details.
F.O.R.E.C.A.S.T. is directly linked with the National Weather Service as well as Skywarn, a national severe weather tracking association. All F.O.R.E.C.A.S.T. members are trained weather spotters, including ABC 33/40 chief meteorologist James Spann’s Storm Alert extreme training.
In addition, Wingo participates in online meteorology classes in her spare time to help her understand how a storm forms and how to spot a severe storm as early as possible.
“Basically, we’re taking care of ourselves and everyone else benefits,” she said. “With Birmingham and Huntsville as big as they are, the meteorologists have their hands full. We are by no means professionals. We just want to know what’s coming at us, how it’s going to affect us and how quickly it will be gone from our area. Knowledge is power, and no one is too old to learn.”
Wingo noted that the group’s facebook page, which currently has 470 members, feeds directly into a member’s personal facebook feed. For instance, a NWS warning will automatically appear onto a member’s regular news feed on facebook. F.O.R.E.C.A.S.T. is also on Twitter and GooglePlus.
“The beauty of using social media like that is that even if people lose power in a sever storm, they still have their cell phones,” she said. “The majority of the signal towers are still running, so you get the feed regardless. We strongly suggest that people have the minimum of two ways to get the warnings.”
Neither of those ways, Wingo noted, should be the sound of a tornado siren.
“Sirens only work if you are outdoors and close to one, and unless you live right under one, they won’t wake you up in the middle of the night. From my understanding, a lot of sirens are air-powered, and it takes a few minutes for the pressure to build up so they can go off. Sirens were great for what they were for back in the their day, but right now there are many more accurate means of getting information during severe weather.”
Wingo said that people can take advantage of other warning systems in the area, such as Nixle alerts from the Etowah County Emergency Management Association, in which a person texts his/her cell phone number to 888-777 and automatically receives county alerts.
“There’s tons of ways for people to get the messages, and more information people have, the safer they will be,” said Wingo. “That’s our primary goal, because we don’t want to see another April 27.”
Wingo speaks from experience. As a Community Emergency Response Team (C.E.R.T.) responder, she witnessed first-hand the damage that the Apr. 27 tornado wrought in the Silver Lakes and Webster’s Chapel communities on the Etowah/Calhoun county border.
“I was out there the very next day, and worked closely with a lot of the folks who were affected. I was an absolute nightmare out there. One second a family just fine and the next second their entire world is upside down. It was a very emotional experience. I have a much better appreciation of just how precious life is. Things can be replaced – people can’t. That’s why we do what we do.”
Wingo sees direct evidence that Alabama residents are no longer dismissing early severe weather warnings. On the Friday before the Jan. 23 tornado outbreak in the Birmingham area, there were 186 members on the F.O.R.E.C.A.S.T. facebook page. By Sunday night, the number rose to 220. By Monday morning there were over 400 members.
“The fact that went from over 250 deaths on April 27 to two [deaths] during a night tornado tells us something,” she said. “But even having two [people] die is two too many. We can’t have people dying from something that they could have been saved from. We may lose homes. But we should not be losing people. We just have to get the word out so people can act accordingly.”
One thing that Wingo would like to see is additional storm shelters in Etowah County. The county currently has three FEMA-aproved shelters.
“We desperately need more shelters, preferably FEMA-approved. As the spring storm season progresses, we’re always get tornados in this area. It’s not if, but when.”
Wingo and her fellow storm trackers are collecting donations of spare weather radios and old bicycle helmets and distributing the items to lower income people in the area.
“Both of those items can saves lives,” she said. There’s so much we can to help people avoid getting hurt when a tornado hits. We all just have to get involved. You really could be the difference between someone living and someone dying.”
Wingo recalled her first experience with life-threatening tornado outbreak in 1989. She was living in Omaha, Neb., when a series of 37 tornados ripped through her community. Trapped in the upper level of her two-story triplex, she and her newborn daughter spent the night under a couch with a black-and-white television set as their only source of information.
“When we got out, I decided that I was never again going to be caught in that situation. April 27 was a clarion call for us in this state. There is no longer any excuse for not being pro-active when it comes to severe weather.”
For more information on severe weather preparedness, visit www.forecastalabama.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 256-438-6724.