How to get alerts for smaller, tough-to-track tornadoes

Williamson County

The EF1 Tornado that touched down in Leander and Liberty Hill Sunday provided several reminders for both citizens and public officials about how tough it can be to warn ahead of smaller tornadoes. 

After Sunday’s tornado impacted several rooftops and yards, people living in Williamson County contacted KXAN with concern that they hadn’t received weather alerts.

Some told us they hadn’t received any alerts whatsoever. Others like Leander resident Andrew Johnson said they got the National Weather Service alert, just not soon enough. 

“About five to 10 minutes after it happened, we got the warning on our phone,” Johnson laughed. 

Johnson, who is new to Texas and doesn’t have much experience with tornadoes, explained that by the time he realized that the storm outside his home might be a tornado, he ran to wake up his wife. But by then, the tornado had passed, toppling the fence in his yard. 

Paul Yura, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service out of Austin-San Antonio, said that NWS did issue their alert minutes after the tornado started.

Yura said the only reason NWS knew the tornado was happening because they received reports of debris in the area, which prompted them to issue a warning.

And that it is a fairly common chain of events, Yura said, noting that with most small tornadoes in Central Texas, NWS has little to no warning for them — these tornadoes often don’t appear on the radar. 

He added that small tornadoes can happen quickly which leaves not much time to issue warnings. 

“It takes a community to warn about these things because they’re so small,” Yura said. He recommends that people on the ground who see evidence of tornadoes first make sure they’re safe, then call first responders, and as soon as possible after that, notify the National Weather Service so that they can issue alerts. 

While the National Weather Service used to issue weather alerts to anyone in a county or region where there was a threat, now they issue more specific geographic warnings meaning that the only people who’d receive the alerts are those who live in the “polygon” shaped areas where threats are predicted

Yura recommends, as does Williamson County, that people living in Central Texas register their cell phones for “Warn Central Texas.” He advises the public to have multiple ways to get cellphone warnings or even invest in a NOAA weather radio. 

Receiving those alerts can be even further complicated depending on your phone carrier and cell service.  

“The unfortunate thing is that once that warning leaves our office here, it’s all up to the cellphone carriers,”  Yura said, explaining that even in his own office, his peers will receive weather alerts at different times depending on their cell phone carrier.

“Different areas around the county can vary, so there are some areas where it’s hard to get those automatic alerts if you’re not close to a cell tower,” explained Connie Odom, the public affairs manager for Williamson County. 

Odom explained that the county received complaints from people as well who were concerned that they didn’t get alerts on their phones. Consequently, the county has been trying to get out more information about other resources people can turn to.

Odom also recommends checking your phone to make sure you are opting in for government alerts, that will loop you in to make sure you’re getting the NWS updates. 

On an iPhone, you’re able to check those settings at the very bottom of the notifications page in Settings. 

“During this time of year, any chance of rain could bring up a sudden storm like this, so it’s always best to be prepared,” Odom said. 

She also recommends that Central Texans make a plan and talk to their families about the type of action they’d take if a tornado hits, where they’d seek shelter inside of their home, and where they’d evacuate to. 

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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