CALERA, Ala. (WIAT) — 12 years ago today Alabama was hit by a weather nightmare: one of the largest tornado outbreaks in United States history. It claimed the lives of over 200 people and injured thousands more.
Looking back on that day, meteorologists at the National Weather Service office in Calera said that day has changed forecasting in the years since.
Weather coordination meteorologist John De Block told CBS 42 the 2011 tornado outbreak is generational.
So, he said now is the time after the lessons learned from that day to look into the future and prepare for the next generational outbreak.
Right now, De Block says tornados are analyzed and warnings are issued with a polygon system.
He said they will watch the radar as the storm moves through the polygon and manually issue another one when it nears the end of that first one. This can cause delays in notices for people.
Looking to the future De Block said they are learning how to optimize radars to their greatest abilities.
“Somewhere down the road we’re talking about the possibility of phase to ray radars,” said De Block. “That’s a real futuristic kind of a thought there. That would basically give us instantaneous looks at the atmosphere. It would be incredible technology to add to our arsenal, but in the meantime, we’re looking at ways that we can issue warnings just a little bit differently.”
De Block said they currently have tools like lightning and satellite data to supplement radar data for issuing warnings with the polygon system.
But looking to the future, De Block said they want to improve notice times so more people have time to prepare for severe weather.
He said a new concept is in the works titled FACETs- Forecasting a Continuum of Environmental Threats.
“There’s going to come a day, hopefully in about a 10-year time frame, where the warning, meteorologist will initiate that warning, and our system will automatically advance that warning basically every minute down the line so that more people can have more advanced notice that a storm is coming,” said De Block.
De Block said until FACETs is set in motion they will continue to invest in their people with education and training, providing the technology needed for the best decision making when forecasting.
Jim Stefkovich was the meteorologist in charge during the April 27 tornado outbreak. He has since retired from the National Weather Service but said a ton of research has been done since that event.
Stefkovich said one of the first things done here at the weather service following that day was improvement of issuing tornado warnings.
He said tornadoes can now be confirmed with radar data which was not the case in 2011.
Stefkovich also said he wishes a better job could be done to make our buildings sturdier through anchoring j-bolts, placing hurricane clips on joints around the house and strapping down mobile homes.
“People don’t think about how their homes are being built,” said Stefkovich. “And they’re more interested in how their counter tops look or what type of cabinets they’re going to get but we can construct our buildings, including manufactured homes which people commonly called in the old days mobile homes, even those can be made to withstand higher winds.”
Stefkovich said Alabama still leads the nation in tornado fatalities, and he would like to see that reduced moving forward as new technology continues becoming available.