Local meteorologists, schools prepare for Tornado and Severe Weather Awareness Week

Wisconsin citizens will be prepped on how to be safe during severe weather

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Local meteorologists, schools prepare for Tornado and Severe Weather Awareness Week

Doppler Radar is a tool meteorologists use to track storm strength.

Doppler Radar is a tool meteorologists use to track storm strength.

©2019 Taylor Pomasl

Doppler Radar is a tool meteorologists use to track storm strength.

©2019 Taylor Pomasl

©2019 Taylor Pomasl

Doppler Radar is a tool meteorologists use to track storm strength.

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  • WQOW uses a viewing area map to determine how to react to certain types of severe weather in different parts of the state. ©2019 Taylor Pomasl

  • Doppler Radar is a tool meteorologists use to track storm strength. ©2019 Taylor Pomasl

  • Because the best time for severe weather is early afternoon to evening, Maier normally works ahead to prepare shows in the evening newscasts at 4 p.m., 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. ©2019 Taylor Pomasl

  • Beth Westrat (left), Nora Tepsa (center) and Katie Fredrick (right) teach third grade at Lakeshore Elementary School in Eau Claire. They take the week to prepare students for severe weather events. ©2019 Taylor Pomasl

  • Each class has a specific space designated for them during severe weather. ©2019 Taylor Pomasl

  • During drills, students hide under lockers and in rooms to practice positioning. ©2019 Taylor Pomasl

  • Sirens in Eau Claire County are used during severe weather and tornado warnings. ©2019 Taylor Pomasl

  • As a meteorologist, Nick Grunseth, chief meteorologist at WQOW in Eau Claire, relays watches and warnings sent from the National Weather Service to viewers at home. ©2019 Taylor Pomasl

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Spring weather in the Midwest means an end to the winter tundra, but it brings a chance for a new type of extreme weather. According to the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, Governor Tony Evers has declared April 8 through 12 Tornado and Severe Weather Awareness Week for Wisconsin.

The week will focus on education on various types of severe weather topics. Wisconsin Emergency Management, the National Weather Service and the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association are working together to sponsor a statewide tornado drill at 1:45 p.m. and 6:45 p.m. on April 11 as an opportunity for schools, businesses and residents to practice reacting to severe weather.

The drill will feature mock tornado watches and warnings, as well as mock alerts sent to NOAA Weather Radios and cell phones. Many counties will also test their severe weather sirens.

According to the National Weather Service, Wisconsin averages 23 tornadoes each year. However, the NWS confirmed 33 tornadoes in the state last year, including 19 tornadoes on Aug. 28, the second largest August tornado outbreak in Wisconsin’s history.

While some in Eau Claire educate themselves and prepare safety plans, others weren’t aware the safety week existed.

“I didn’t even know this was a thing,” said Ethan Laferriere, who has lived in Eau Claire for the past four years. “I guess I would probably go to the basement and call my parents. Maybe pray.”

Nick Grunseth, chief meteorologist at WQOW in Eau Claire, said the main purpose of the week is to increase awareness of severe weather and to relay how to prepare for it.

He said he will spend the first half of the week preparing the public for Thursday’s drills and educating citizens on different types of severe weather, such as thunderstorms, lightning and flooding, as well as how to react to it.

He said a fraction of the area reactions appropriately when severe weather rolls in, but not everyone takes the situation seriously.

“There’s another fraction of the population that are influenced by three biases that are going on,” Grunseth said. “The confirmation bias — I say a tornado is coming, and they need to go outside to check. Normalcy bias is when someone thinks ‘Well, this hasn’t happened here before, so why would it happen now?’ The optimism bias is when people come up to a flooded road and think ‘Well, I’ve always had good luck. I’ll be okay.’”

Darren Maier, chief meteorologist at WEAU In Eau Claire, said refreshing people and preparing younger generations is an important part of next week.

“We can go years without having a big storm or tornado in our area, and we can really be desensitized by that,” Maier said. “In the end, my job is a public service. The most important part is on these days. It’s about keeping the public safe.”

When severe weather strikes

Maier said Tornado and Severe Weather Awareness Week typically falls in April, because the severe weather season occurs near the end of May through July, allowing people to adequately educate themselves and prepare.

Local television and radio stations have the ability to cut into programming and use social media to spread alerts if thunderstorms roll in.

“Anytime during the spring and summer, even if I’m not expecting a severe thunderstorm warning, I basically tell people if there’s a thunderstorm, take cover, get inside, take it seriously, because I’ve seen thunderstorms go from very small and innocent to all of the sudden blowing up,” Maier said.

According to the National Weather Service, a severe thunderstorm watch and warning can be issued when winds are moving faster than 58 miles per hour, 1 inch or larger diameter hail is present and if tornadoes are a possibility.

Tornado watches and warnings come from rotation within a severe thunderstorm. Grunseth said meteorologists use a variety of tools, such as Doppler Radar, geography and satellite, to track these storms. By analyzing the environment, warmth, humidity and wind shear, meteorologists can predict severe weather.

“The higher above the ground I go, the wind gets stronger, and it actually turns direction,” Grunseth said. “That actually causes the twisting motion in the atmosphere and allows thunderstorms to get bigger and stronger.”

Maier said meteorologists’ main goal is to inform people when conditions threaten their life or property.

“We may not be perfect, but we think this is happening,” Maier said. “I think most people are like ‘Darren’s serious.’”

Maier said people outside away from phones and radios can still tell if severe weather may be coming. Besides dark moving clouds, air rushing across the ground and blowing up indicates wind shear.

“You can actually see the grass moving,” Maier said.

When severe weather reaches the area, the National Weather Service and local meteorologists work together to relay information to the public.

“We take it over from a broadcast perspective,” Grunseth said. “The National Service is taking the lead. They’re issuing the warnings and other kinds of statements, and we’ll add information, but we rely on that warning to add that substance.”

Grunseth said preparing for severe weather ahead of time and relying on meteorologists when it arrives is essential to safety. He said while it can be tempting to go outside and confirm severe weather, it’s important to stay indoors and safe.

“It’s our psychological makeup as humans, but we need to take it seriously and trust what is said,” Grunseth said.

Taking extra steps, like preparing a safety kit in the lowest level of a home or business, can save lives.

“Knowing where to go is one thing, but what do you have access to in your severe weather safety place?” Grunseth said. “Do you have shoes to walk on glass and nails? Or if you’re trapped in your basement for a long period of time, do you have necessary medication if you have a condition?”

Maier added it’s important to stay calm and take immediate action when severe weather strikes.

“This is now. This is what you prepared for. Now, let’s put it into effect,” Maier said.

Eau Claire County response

Tyler Esh, the emergency management coordinator for Eau Claire County, said the safety week will be a great opportunity for his department to educate on where to go and what to do for a variety of weather conditions.

Next week, his department will check Eau Claire County’s Emergency Notification System, which sends out text and email alerts countywide, and activates the county’s storm sirens.

“It’s a chance for us to say, ‘Do you have a plan?’” Esh said.

Esh said every county in the state reacts differently to severe weather. According to the Eau Claire County website, the Eau Claire County 911 Center is in charge of activating storm sirens in each municipality when severe storm or tornado warnings are issued.

“My biggest goal is to get people thinking that severe weather is around the corner,” Esh said.

It’s also a chance to begin a conversation on several weather-related issues in the area, such as providing a safe space for mobile home parks and providing a safe place for animals when families needs to evacuate.

“It’s some of the stuff that we continually try to learn about and figure out,” Esh said.

Area schools also utilize this time to refresh students on what to do if severe weather occurs during school hours. Students have the opportunity to practice reaching their assigned space in the building and positioning their bodies safely under lockers, in hallways or in enclosed rooms.

“It’s part of normal school life,” Beth Westrate said, a third grade teacher at Lakeshore Elementary School in Eau Claire.

Katie Fredrick, a third grade teacher at Lakeshore Elementary School in Eau Claire, said it’s important to have several opportunities before and after the drills to prepare students and convey the seriousness of severe weather.

“Younger kids are the ones that are more anxious, and as you get older, those are the kids that we need to instill the seriousness of the situation,” Fredrick said. “With the younger kids, we have to downplay it a bit more and make it seem like it’s not scary, but the older kids can take it seriously.”

Katie said this helps the kids build a routine and bring the lessons they learn at school back home.

“If it ever does happen, I want them to be able to not panic,” Fredrick said. “They can have that confidence even though things are crazy around them.”

Extra preparation

To further prepare the public for severe weather, there are several opportunities in the Chippewa Valley this month to learn how storms develop and how to react appropriately.

The first class will be held at 7 p.m. April 9 at the Chippewa Valley Technical College Energy Education Center in Eau Claire.

The second class will be held at 7 p.m. April 17 at the Augusta-Bridge Creek Fire and Rescue Department in Augusta.

The third class will be held at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. April 24 at the Chippewa County Courthouse in Chippewa Falls.