House Calls


Austin Straubel International Airport. Say what?

Hey AllisonHouse fans,

For those who use the Gibson Ridge placefiles, and GREarth, this past weekend I realized something, and it wasn’t good.

Several years ago, we had a database crash, and we lost all our METAR site locations. Every last one! Starting from scratch, we decided to download the FAA and two other databases that have all the sites in them, and merge them. This generally went OK. But it had an obvious problem: Many of the FAA METAR sites in the United States listed their airports, and not the city that they were in or served. Or, they did a poor job of doing so. And so, late last week, I saw a METAR site near Green Bay that said that it was “Austin Straubel International Airport”. Huh? It took me a minute to figure out that…yes, that was Green Bay, WI’s primary airport. And as I moused over other sites, I saw things that embarrassed me, as keeper of the database. “Wst Chgo DuPa” was West Chicago / DuPage County Airport just west of Chicago. Like you would know that, unless you lived there!

So: this past weekend, I added the city names out in front when you mouse over them. I might have missed one or two here or there, but I got as much done as I could. Also, if I missed one of your favorites, please let me know, and I will add them in. With some airports, they just prefer to be called by their city name, minus the word “airport” at the end…so I left it at that, for now.

I hope you enjoy the enhancement…and now, back to your originally scheduled squall line, already in progress.

Triumph and tragedy: the flooding in the southern U.S.

Rainfall totals image

This two week rainfall total from Texas and Oklahoma shows the extent of heavy rainfall, and why the flooding is so bad in this portion of the country. Data through 8 PM CDT May 28, 2015. Image courtesy of the National Weather Service.

In May of 2015, the southern Plains, and especially in the states of Texas and Oklahoma, heavy rainfall caused major flash flooding in a significant portion of the region. In those two states alone, 17 people have died as of May 28.

Don’t get me wrong: those are 17 people whose lives touched others. They were loved; they had family and/or friends who cared for them deeply, and now they are gone. It is a tragedy, make no mistake about it, that will leave those they left behind grieving for years to come. That’s the tragedy that we should mourn.

The triumph? Thanks to the data, and alerting and display systems we have in this country…it could have been worse….way worse. Similar flooding events of this magnitude kills thousands of people in one fell swoop in countries without adequate warning systems. That’s the triumph.

And yet, a further tragedy is that many of these deaths still could have been prevented. Some refused to evacuate in time. Many took their cars—at least one driving around a barricade—and drove right into the floodwaters. One person was canoeing when a dam was opened to release water, and the person couldn’t apparently get back to shore in time as the rush of water hit.

And, equally as disturbing are the scenes from Austin and Houston, TX, of literally hundreds of cars, now ruined, sitting in flood waters that went over the hoods of their cars on interstates. And that is tragic because, although the people in those vehicles survived…they now face a huge financial burden. Some cars aren’t insured, and others…the insurance company will only pay book value for. Not to mention the lost money from not being able to get to work, the stress, and other life factors on top of all of that.

The National Weather Service has an excellent campaign called “Turn Around, Don’t Drown(tm)”. That’s great advice, to be sure, but I think it’s time to take it to the next level. That advice, taken to it’s fullest extent, would have prevented much of the tremendous vehicle loss and most of the lives lost in the flooding across the region. But how about this: “Flash flooding? Stay home, unless you are in danger!”. Mind you, I’m not a marketing major, and this slogan won’t catch the world on fire (maybe readers better at this than myself can help me out here?). But it would have stopped the senseless driving of vehicles into flood water. “But I have to get to work!”. Some of you really do, and that’s when you don’t drive around barricades. But if you don’t, work from home that day. But if you HAVE to drive and you see ponded or rushing water on the road ahead, STOP. Don’t even try it. For most people, a day’s loss of income is better than a month…or a year’s loss of income because your vehicle is now a paperweight! Think about it. Otherwise, all the warnings in the world won’t help you if you don’t act on them. Your AllisonHouse Maps display shows you’re in a flash flood warning, but if you ignore it, it doesn’t do either of us any good.

So let’s take this to the next level: no more deaths, no more flooding of cars by driving into water because you had to be somewhere. If you are on high ground, stay there. If not, then evacuate, but do so very carefully so you don’t become a victim. We don’t need any more unnecessary damage and fatalities. And if there’s some way we can help you be more alert and tuned in to the dangers of severe weather, please let us know privately or in the comments section!

You never think it’s going to be you…until it’s you

Roughly two minutes after the tornado had passed, stunned victims overlook the far east side of Fairdale, IL.

Roughly two minutes after the tornado had passed, stunned victims look over the east side of Fairdale, IL.

One of the things that makes an Emergency Manager or a meteorologist want to bang their heads against a wall about is one phrase, explicitly said or implicit in one’s behavior:

“It can’t happen to me”.

I work behind the scenes on nights and weekends here at AllisonHouse, grabbing new data sources, and making sure the ones we have now are stable. But here’s a confession, which my boss Tyler probably could easily have guessed, but here’s a public confession:

With only a few brief exceptions until April 18, I haven’t been on duty at AllisonHouse. Why? Am I a lazy slacker? Hardly.

9 days ago, I watched people die in front of me. I didn’t see people die, but I had a very strong hunch at least one did. Based on the tornado I saw…it left me with little doubt.

At my main job at a major University, I was protecting them from a large, violent tornado. None had happened since 1990…and the prevailing attitude around here to a large extent was…it won’t happen again. August 28, 1990…that was a fluke. Even among some emergency folks, it was almost unthinkable that something so bad could happen here, or nearby.

But April 9, 2015 changed all of it, in an hour of rampage.

That’s when a supercell thunderstorm formed late in the afternoon near Annawan, in north-central Illinois. Moving northeast, it followed a warm front, but one that was reinforced by a previous supercell north of it that caused even more wind shear along the front. And then the sun came out, making the atmosphere more unstable. For me, it was like April 20, 2014, when a strong tornado hit Utica, IL, as the storm “rode” along a warm front. It was deja vu all over again.

I notified my employer of the tornado developing over Franklin Grove, and then took off from my house. 20 miles away, just after I left my subdivision, I could see it. I get on the phone with my employer, and I notified them about the tornado. I notified my city. Then, I blasted west, going behind hills and dips until finally, west of Malta, IL, I could see it 7 miles away to my west-northwest. It was big. One of the biggest I had ever seen…now nearly a half-mile wide, and growing.

It had just hit Kings, IL, and a restaurant called “Grubsteakers” at the northeast corner of state route 64 and U.S. Route 251. And now, it was making a beeline for either Kirkland, or Fairdale. At first, it looked like Kirkland would take a direct hit. But as I headed north to Esmond Road, and got north of Esmond, I watched Fairdale largely disappear in front of me, with some of the fastest, most violent rotation I had ever seen in 26 years of storm chasing.

I reached Fairdale less than 2 minutes after it hit. The scene was shocking to me, even though I have seen towns devastated by tornadoes before. The overwhelming smell of broken pine and other trees, mixed in with a little propane or natural gas odor, is one that is repeated in every town just hit by a tornado. I hate that smell. I hate it even more today.

I blocked off the road as aloof travelers were trying to get through. I called 911, offered to help those who were emerging from a collapsed shed, and then called my city to let them know what happened. A few minutes later, as EMS personnel began to arrive, I let them do their work. As volunteer fire crews were arriving in Kirkland, I let them know Fairdale was mostly gone.

I now know that one of the fatalities and several of the 22 injured were preventable: they ignored the warnings they received, or didn’t act on them properly.

A week later, after working late into the night every night, answering phone calls, emails, media interests…it struck me again. You can have GRLevel2, 3, Analyst, Earth, RadarScope, PYKL3, and AllisonHouse Maps…or other products we produce or serve…and ignore the warning. Or, you see it, you call friends and family, and they blow you off. Can I give you a little advice?

Take care of that issue RIGHT NOW.

Use our products to help you understand what’s going on, to pass to your family. Your friends. Your neighbors. Your city. And make sure YOU understand it. Because when it comes to weather, the atmosphere could care less about you. It just needs to equalize the imbalances in the atmosphere. When that happens over you or those you care for, be ready.

Because you never think it’s going to happen to be you…until it’s you.

My prayers continue to go out to the injured and the other victims of this terrible day in northern Illinois.