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Gadgets benefit twister warnings

Phone apps, social media aid by Kenneth Heard | May 26, 2014 at 5:33 a.m.

Jackie Fowlkes received warning of the April 27 tornado that killed 16 people in central Arkansas on her cellphone while attending church in Vilonia. She told her pastor, who gathered people into the church's basement, and then checked her Facebook page to confirm that the twister had struck nearby.

"I knew instantly that it touched down, and it was bad," Fowlkes said.

Charlie Stender of Mayflower calls himself "old school" and steers clear of as many high-tech gadgets as he can. He learned of the approaching tornado when a friend who saw televised reports called him.

Stender then went outside and "watched" for the tornado.

"I saw it," he said. "It came down [Arkansas] 365. It was huge. I could only see one side of it."

Others relied on more traditional methods such as radio reports, weather radio warnings and tornado sirens. At least one person's home security system advised him of the approaching storm.

With advancements in technology, including Facebook, Twitter and other social media, and phone applications that provide storm warnings, people are being notified of storms earlier than in the past, National Weather Service warning coordinator John Robinson of North Little Rock said.

"When people are faced with danger, they seek confirmation," Robinson said. "They need proof. That's why they may go outside and look for the tornado.

"A few years ago, we wouldn't see the instant pictures [on the Internet] of damage," he said. "Now we are seeing pictures of what the tornado looks like immediately. It's powerful confirmation."

The weather service conducted a survey on its Facebook page after the tornado and asked people how they received warnings of the storm. Robinson said the weather service received more than 200 responses.

"Nothing stood out as one main way," he said. "They received warnings by quite a few methods.

"We heard 400 people took shelter in the high school safe room in Vilonia," he said. "That speaks well of their reaction and the lead time they had of the warning."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said warnings are issued an average of 14 minutes before storms strike. Some Arkansas residents were given up to 40 minutes advance notice of the April 27 tornado.

Fowlkes said that as her church's service ended that evening, her phone gave off an alert. She had downloaded an app called "Code Red," which broadcasts emergency warnings.

She soon saw early pictures of the tornado on her Facebook page. Snapshots of the twister as it bore down on Pulaski County and as it neared the Arkansas River quickly went viral.

Storm chasers who were in the area because the weather service had forecast the potential for volatile storms for much of the state also downloaded videos of the storm's destruction almost immediately after it hit.

Glenda Sellers said she sought confirmation after her father called her to warn her that the storm was bearing down on her Vilonia home.

She looked outside and saw that the trees in her yard were still, but other trees about 100 yards away were "whipping."

The sirens began wailing. "Here it is," she said her father told her over the telephone.

Sellers and her husband ran for the storm shelter. The door didn't close properly, and Sellers hung onto its handle, watching trees fly past outside.

Fifteen minutes later, they climbed out of the shelter and saw that the twister had blown away their home. All that remained was the concrete slab the home had rested on.

"We let some of our family know through Facebook that we were OK," she said.

Walt Hollis, the pastor of Lifeline Church in Mayflower, said he received a telephone call from a friend. He, too, sought additional confirmation and watched for the twister while standing on his porch.

Hollis lives in the River Plantation area of Mayflower. His home received some damage, while just two blocks away, many homes were destroyed.

"I was running around like a chicken with his head cut off," Hollis said. "I went in the living room, and the windows blew in. I ran to the garage, and the door blew off."

Hollis' wife was not at home during the storm and could not return to their house because of debris across the roads. The two sent brief texts advising each other they were safe.

The twister toppled Verizon's 250-foot- tall cellphone tower in Mayflower, disrupting some service.

Leo Perreault, executive director of the telephone network's southern region, said workers installed a temporary tower within an hour to help facilitate service for emergency workers. They also set up a "CROW," or Cellular Repeater on Wheels, in Vilonia to add more capacity to the area.

"A lot of people have come to rely on wireless services," he said. "You have to have communications available to run operations and for search-and-rescue teams. Everything they do relies on communication."

Stender said that despite his dislike for newer technology, he texted friends to let them know that he was safe after the storm.

"The system was overloaded at first," he said of his cellphone service. "We couldn't put out wordy texts. We'd send short, two or three words. 'We're OK' -- things like that. Friends then posted that on Facebook to let others know we made it."

In addition to improvements in communication, advances in weather radar were also credited for getting the warnings out quicker, Robinson said.

Last month's tornado was viewed on the weather service's fairly new dual polarization Doppler radar, which was installed in October 2012. The radar gives meteorologists a closer look at the inside of a storm and enables them to give more detailed warnings.

The radar picked up the "debris ball" of the April 27 tornado, an indication that the twister had touched down and was destroying homes, trees and other things.

"I think people saw the seriousness of this when they saw that debris ball image on television," Robinson said. "That put some people into action. Images of that quickly appeared after the tornado formed. We were getting damage reports almost immediately."

It also helped the weather service put out more "strongly" worded warnings, he said.

"I think the advances helped save lives," Robinson said. "I think all that helped us do most things right."

State Desk on 05/26/2014

Print Headline: Gadgets benefit twister warnings

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