Meteorologists and disaster management get creative to warn the isolated of severe weather

The area around Jennings Creek near Bowling Green, Kentucky, has been devastated by the December 2021 tornadoes. Image: World Central Kitchen

In modern life, there are multiple ways to get special or urgent bad weather reports: online, on broadcast channels such as radio and TV stations, through apps, tablets and computers, and through TXT alerts on mobile phones. But as communication technology becomes more advanced, people are also left who do not switch to the latest technology. For reasons of finances, faith, or just personal choice, there are those who are disconnected from our wired and wireless worlds and don’t know what happens with approaching storms. With that challenge, meteorologists and disaster response officials are getting very creative in connecting urgent messages to people they wouldn’t otherwise get.

Paducah, Kentucky National Weather Service meteorologist Derick Snyder is part of one such team of communications experts who are creative in connecting with the unconnected. Snyder serves on a Weather Awareness for a Rural Nation (WARN) committee and is part of a five-person task force exploring ways to improve weather understanding and awareness in communities that may not have access to scientific data and communications technology often considered as taken for granted in the 21st century.

During the late evening of Friday, December 10, 2021, a violent, long-tracked tornado swept through western Kentucky, causing severe to catastrophic damage in numerous cities, including Mayfield, Princeton, Dawson Springs, and Bremen. At the time, it was the deadliest tornado in U.S. history for the month of December, and the 9th longest tornado on record, measuring 165.7 miles in length and estimated peak winds of 190 mph.

In post-storm analysis, Snyder found that among the dead was an Amish family living in a converted home with no electricity. Without electricity, they never knew what dangers would befall their communities. Despite the accurate forecasts and watches and warnings issued before Mother Nature’s deadly attack, people like that Amish family are oblivious to the dangers around them. And this is a problem that WARN is trying to solve.

While the WARN task force is not limited to serving the Amish and similar societies, it takes into account the cultural aspects of those groups that avoid the use of modern technology, yet can still benefit from the advancement of meteorological forecasts and warnings to help themselves better protect during severe weather. Snyder is joined by four other members: Jane Marie Wix of the National Weather Service’s Jackson, Kentucky office, Tony Edwards of the Charleston, West Virginia National Weather Service Office, and Jason York and Joe Sullivan of the Kentucky Emergency Management. Office. Snyder says the task force also works with other organizations such as the University of Kentucky Agricultural Extension Service and Midland Radio.

“Digital Nomads” Beth and Court are promoting a fundraising campaign that better links the National Weather Service’s weather forecasts and warnings to people who otherwise wouldn’t get those warnings. Image: YouTube / Living with Beth and Court

And while the Amish are a big focus of their outreach efforts, this WARN task force aims to connect all “off-the-grid” communities and with state-of-the-science weather warnings and awareness, to protect their life and property.

“We have been working with other NWS (National Weather Service) offices in states with large Amish populations, including NWS State College, Pennsylvania, to learn how they approach weather safety with the Amish communities living in their areas,” said Snyder. “In addition, several members of our task force attended a conference this summer on weather safety and the Amish that was held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. From these interactions, we learned a lot about the Amish way of life and how best to engage them. It’s all about building one-to-one relationships and building trust. No two Amish communities are the same, each with its own rules and restrictions. What goes well in one community may not go well in the next. Based on our efforts, we have developed a toolkit for anyone interested in working with the Amish and off-grid communities. Our vision is that this toolkit provides a repository of information that any office can use to assist in their efforts to work with the Amish. But more than that, we hope this will spark dialogue and fuel the effort to work with this historically underserved population.

The Amish do not have electricity in their homes and they do not allow the use of modern technology, even something as basic as an AM/FM radio for the rest of the population. To sidestep that challenge, WARN teamed up with weather radio manufacturer Midland, who agreed to make a special weather radio that would be compatible with the Amish way of life: it does not receive AM/FM radio signals, it is solar powered with a hand-crank, and it will only receive weather radio broadcasts. The Amish-friendly weather radio costs about $30 each.

Self-proclaimed “digital nomads” Beth and Court who create content for their YouTube channel got wind of WARN’s efforts. Days ago, they used social media to try and raise $750 to buy special weather radios for families like the Amish that wouldn’t normally have them. As of today, their fundraising efforts have raised over $1,650 and they continue to raise more money today.

Midland is one of the largest manufacturers of weather radios in the United States, delivering weather forecasts and urgent lifesaving weather watches and alerts to those who have them.  Image: Midland
Midland is one of the largest manufacturers of weather radios in the United States, delivering weather forecasts and urgent lifesaving weather watches and alerts to those who have them. Image: Midland

“We know there are thousands of Amish communities across the country, as well as a significant number of similar communities, such as the Old Order Mennonite, Brethren, and so on … in addition to people who prefer to live off-grid,” Snyder said. He adds, “While we are immensely grateful for the support we have received through fundraising to date, we know it will not be enough to buy weather radios for every household in these communities that needs one. Our goal is to use these funds to purchase and distribute the weather radios to a few families in every Amish or off-grid community in Kentucky. Once word starts to spread about how useful they are, we hope people will order the radios in Midland. To promote radio and weather safety in general, we partner with The Budget, a weekly national newspaper serving these communities with a circulation of 50,000. The publisher of The Budget has agreed to let us advertise these weather radios for free as soon as they are on sale. We also publish a monthly column on weather safety in The Budget and in a monthly newsletter from the University of Kentucky Agricultural Extension Service that many Amish families receive by mail.”

Midland is also discounting the radios for bulk orders from the WARN task force and other emergency services such as emergency managers around the country.

Snyder says they’ve also applied for a grant to buy additional weather radios to distribute. “In addition to the radios, we hope to foster a culture of weather safety and preparedness for all types of hazardous weather.”

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