Big storms really do keep meteorologists awake at night, but the most dangerous ones aren’t the epic disasters you see on the Weather Channel. No, the greatest threat to your safety likely isn’t a scale-topping hurricane or a tornado that scours a hole in the earth. Instead, it will be a preventable tragedy, the result of an everyday storm we ordinarily wouldn’t think twice about.
Take some examples that all happened this summer. Strong winds ahead of a severe thunderstorm in July capsized an amphibious duck boat on a lake near Branson, Missouri, killing 17 passengers—the highest death toll of any single U.S. thunderstorm since 24 people died in the EF-5 tornado that tore through Moore, Oklahoma, in 2013. Fourteen people were injured by falling debris in August when a strong thunderstorm struck a casino in Oklahoma City where people were waiting for a concert to begin. Earlier that month, an intense hailstorm at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs injured 16 people when ice pelts as large as baseballs hit the area.
What can we learn from these incidents? The threat posed by storms at outdoor events is far greater than you might think—but the harm is also entirely preventable.
Now, I’m not here to feed potential weather phobias; I've spent years covering the weather in a way that counters the hype you hear everywhere else. The weather on most days will behave normally and most people will get through most thunderstorms just fine. But things can change in a hurry and staying a step ahead of mercurial weather could make all the difference—especially if you’re going to be spending an extended amount of time outdoors.
The thing is, severe-weather warning systems have improved by leaps and bounds over the past few decades, which means you really have no excuse to venture outside—be it just into town or into the backcountry—without some inkling of what type of weather to expect. Weather models and forecasting techniques have advanced to the point that NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center can issue accurate severe thunderstorm forecasts many days in advance. Doppler weather radar allows meteorologists to see damaging winds and tornadoes before they strike, giving people in harm’s way up to an hour of warning, in some cases. While meteorologists still have plenty of work to do on the false-alarm rate—it's around 70 percent for tornado warnings and 50 percent for severe thunderstorm warnings—most dangerous storms are predicted accurately in advance.
You carry all this tech in your pocket. Modern smartphones are equipped with wireless emergency alerts that push flash flood and tornado warnings right to our screen with an annoying tone to catch our attention. Severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings also come across most reputable weather apps, television, and radio the moment they’re issued.
It’s up to us to hear and heed those warnings. Here are the best ways I’ve found to do just that.
Check the Storm Prediction Center Website
The best way to keep up with severe weather forecasts is to check the Storm Prediction Center’s website at least once per day. The agency issues severe weather outlooks on a 1-5 scale ranging from “marginal risk” to “high risk.” These forecasts are also relayed through local National Weather Service offices and local news broadcasts.
Download the RadarScope App
You can keep up with storms in real-time by downloading weather apps capable of displaying radar. The best app for this is RadarScope (found on Google Play and iTunes). The only downside is that the app costs $9.99. I'd argue that $10 is well worth it if you’re serious about tracking storms, but if you’re only looking for the location of storms at a glance, radar images from free apps like Weather Underground should work just fine.
Use Your Phone Like a Radio
Always keep your wireless emergency alerts activated—at least for tornado warnings. You can also receive watches and warnings in real-time through any reputable app like those run by the Weather Channel, Weather Underground, AccuWeather, or WeatherBug. It’s also a great idea to have a NOAA weather radio on hand. These devices are like smoke detectors for the weather, sounding a loud siren when a watch or warning is activated for your preferred counties.