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Wording weather warnings: How Superstorm Sandy could change public advisories

Garrett Colmer works on a generator outside his stepfather's home in unincorporated Finzel, near Frostburg Oct. 31. The vast majority of homes in mountainous, western Maryland Garrett county lost power after Superstorm Sandy dumped more than 2 feet of snow in the area. The National Weather Service is considering changes to how it words watches, warnings and advisories to better inform the public of looming weather threats.
Garrett Colmer works on a generator outside his stepfather's home in unincorporated Finzel, near Frostburg Oct. 31. The vast majority of homes in mountainous, western Maryland Garrett county lost power after Superstorm Sandy dumped more than 2 feet of snow in the area. The National Weather Service is considering changes to how it words watches, warnings and advisories to better inform the public of looming weather threats. (AP File PHOTO , Carroll County Times)

The warnings are posted to the Internet, Facebook and Twitter.

They are relayed via radio and television alerts.

They can even be sent as text messages directly to cellphones for no additional charge.

When inclement weather looms, government weather agencies have multiple ways of alerting the public faster than ever. With communication and forecasting acumen improving, the weather agencies are testing how to best word advisories so the public knows what threats loom.

The National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla., are both revisiting the wording of advisories, watches and warnings issued prior to, and during, severe weather.

"The first thing we're doing is to try and get people to understand the hazards better," said National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb, of his plans this winter now that the tropical Atlantic hurricane season is over. It ended Dec. 1.

Knabb, and former National Hurricane Center Directors Max Mayfield and Bill Read, discussed the future of hurricane advisories at a joint press conference for the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the effects from natural and man-made disasters.

The three National Hurricane Center directors spoke just a few days after Superstorm Sandy made landfall along the New Jersey shore Oct. 29.

The National Hurricane Center did not issue hurricane warnings prior to Sandy making landfall because the forecasters there thought the storm would lose its tropical characteristics before landfall.

Several meteorologists criticized the National Hurricane Center for not issuing the hurricane warnings, particularly since hurricane-force wind gusts were expected along the coast.

The forecast for Sandy was known long in advance with some long-range computer models forecasters use to track the weather correctly predicting Sandy's effects up to a week in advance.

"You couldn't have asked for more warning," said Paul Kocin, a meteorologist and winter weather expert for NOAA's Climate Prediction Center in College Park, who said the forecast of what to expect was consistent.

Even so, Knabb, a former on-air personality for The Weather Channel, said he is always looking for ways to improve communication with the public and the media when major storms loom.

In the future, Knabb said he would like to see the National Hurricane Center issue storm surge warnings along the coast, which detail the significance of flooding expected.

"During the event, we want to make sure the products and services we are putting out explain the threats as clear as possible," he said.

The National Weather Service is testing new ways to alert the public this winter at http://www.nws.weather.gov/haz_simp.

"This proposal is based on recent surveys and other interactions which indicate that our current messaging system can be cumbersome and even confusing," said Eli Jacks, of the National Weather Service, in an audio message accompanying a PowerPoint presentation unveiling the test.

Currently, the National Weather Service issues watches, warnings and advisories ahead of inclement weather. Watches are issued when the potential for a certain type of weather exists. Advisories are issued when caution should be issued for a notable weather hazard. Warnings are issued when a dangerous weather phenomenon is imminent or occurring.

During this winter's test, the National Weather Service is changing the wording by eliminating the use of watches, advisories and warnings and changing the language to make the advisory products more specific.

Watches would be replaced by the words "forecasting the potential." Advisories would be replaced with "advise caution." Warnings would be replaced with "warning for a dangerous hazard."

The changes are still in the proposal stages. Currently, the National Weather Service is issuing warnings, watches and advisories for winter storms, wind and a variety of other threats.

But this winter, the National Weather Service does want feedback on its proposed changes so that the messages that can be easily sent out are as clear and understandable as possible.

"One of our goals of our weather-ready initative is to ensure all of our communications are as clear and as understandable as possible," Jacks said.

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