CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — When severe weather season is upon West Michigan, National Weather Service meteorologists can decide within seconds to issue a warning.
Ground zero for the watches and warnings is the National Weather Service office next to the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Meteorologists like Bob Dukesherer, who has worked for the NWS in Grand Rapids for nearly 30 years, are always watching the skies.
“We’ve got 17 meteorologists here … and we only step to the podium when it matters,” Dukesherer said. “So normally on any shift, we have two to three people working operations around the clock every day of the year.”
In the hours leading up to potentially severe weather, the NWS will often get a phone call from Norman, Oklahoma, to discuss issuing a severe thunderstorm or tornado watch.
“We get an alarm that there’s a conference call and we’re all on it within about 60 seconds,” Dukesherer said. “It’s led by the lead forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center, and we discuss it.”
The decisions can be tricky when the Grand Rapids office is on the line.
“I think in many parts of the country, it’s pretty straightforward, but they lean on us a little bit more,” Dukesherer said. “One of the most problematic areas in the country to forecast for is downwind of the (Great) Lakes, especially Lake Michigan.”
Once the decision is made on whether to institute a watch, it’s a waiting game. The Grand Rapids office is responsible for warnings in 23 counties in southwest Lower Michigan, a region loosely bounded by the cities of South Haven, Ludington, Clare and Jackson.
“When you get to the actual warning phase, that is on the local office to issue that,” Dukesherer said. “We start typically with special marine warnings out over the lake.”
That is when that teamwork comes into play.
“We will have at least one radar team,” Dukesherer said. “So there’s two people working radar and then a couple of other people doing other jobs with social media and observations. But the radar team decides where and when a warning is going to go out.”
Once the radar team has determined a storm has the capability of producing either 60 mph winds or 1-inch hail — the criteria for a severe thunderstorm — it’s time to put out a warning.
“You make the decision to go and then you go into a software program and it should take less than 60 seconds to get the warning out,” Dukesherer said. “We go into a program called WarnGen. You open WarnGen, opens up this box and you have this ‘Drag me to storm’ (option). And we would drag this to a storm, make sure we had the timing right. It’s following the leading edge of the thunderstorm or the area of large hail. We trim off counties that we don’t want.
“And then when you’re good with it, you make sure in the box (that) the different things that are going to come up in the warning are good. You hit create text and … it pops up the warning with the counties in it, and you hit enter and it goes. So … you should be able to do it in 30 seconds.”
GET ALERTS VIA PHONE, SIREN, WEATHER RADIO
The NWS alerts get picked up by TV stations and air on weather radios. You can sign up to get them on your phone, which in this day and age is the most popular method of notification.
“A lot of people get their alerts from the cellphones. I love it. Most of us are kind of linked to our cellphones any hour of the day and I guess for emergency management’s perspective, we like to see people with redundant ways to get those alerts,” Ottawa County Emergency Management Director Lou Hunt said.
In Michigan, 5.7 million adults carry a cellphone daily and can activate the National Wireless Emergency Alert System or sign up for an app that lets them customize alerts. There are still cellphone dead zones, however; particularly at the beach.
As severe weather moves through, each city or county that runs tornado sirens decides when to alert them. The 74 sirens in Ottawa County are used an all-hazard alert for anything from severe weather to a dangerous chemical spill.
“What we really want people to do when they hear the warning sirens is to go inside and seek more information. So you can’t just assume it’s for a tornado,” Hunt said.
Sirens sound at between 400 and 600 hertz, which was proven to be the best frequency to get people’s attention. They have been around since the 1970s and Michigan has quite a few compared to other states — some don’t have any.
But they aren’t perfect. Each siren’s audio radius is about 1 mile, which limits who can hear it. Some West Michigan towns aren’t covered at all. Others have sirens that are so old they no longer work.
“Sirens are outdoor warning sirens, and we really like to push that vocabulary because people think inside their house, they’re going to hear those. Modern construction nowadays, you don’t necessarily hear those (sirens). Houses are pretty tight,” Hunt said.
The sirens are also expensive.
“I’ve been told about $20,000 for each of those sirens,” Hunt said. “They’re technically owned and maintained by the townships, cities and villages where they’re at, so even though Ottawa County has a part in activating them, we don’t actually own them.”
If you’re traveling, you may spot weather hazards displayed on digital highway signs. The Apple and Google maps apps will alert you to warnings if one is in effect while you are following directions.
The most reliable notification, which doesn’t depend on cellphone signal or proximity to an alert, is a weather radio. They work anywhere — beach, cottage or your kid’s soccer game — and will alert you immediately if the NWS warns a storm.