The difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. Image Credit: Athens, GA Weather
A screenshot of reflectivity radar during the tornado warning over Athens-Clarke County at 7:32 AM EDT this morning. Image Credit: RadarScope
A screenshot of reflectivity radar during the tornado warning over Athens-Clarke County this morning. Image Credit: RadarScope

Athens-Clarke County saw a Tornado Warning last Tuesday morning (10/14/14) from 7:10 a.m. EDT to 7:45 a.m. EDT. Thankfully, everyone around the UGA campus and surrounding areas were safe. However, there were problems along the way, particularly with how emergency preparedness was done. Below, you’ll see my story, along with other students’ stories that tell the tale of how poor planning affected student living. I believe there are some problems to be solved. Is UGA prepared for a tornado warning? The University might be prepared, but are the students?

My Story:

I am a sophomore at UGA, living on campus at Reed Hall. I was awoken by the sound of my roommate’s phone ringing just after 7 a.m.. It was UGA Alert, telling us about the tornado warning that was just issued for Athens-Clarke County. As my roommate told me, I woke up in a daze from my sleep on my futon, but I was active and ready to take cover. I immediately checked RadarScope on my phone, and saw something like the screenshot I captured above. It is known as an inflow notch behind the main line of storms, technically called a QLCS (Quasi-Linear Convective System Mesovorticies). Translation? Real possibility of a tornado. My roommate and I quickly alerted our suitemates, who had also woken up from the UGA Alert phone call. I told them to grab some pillows, and we made our way towards the ground level of Reed Hall. Along the way, I passed two girls talking to one another, who sounded like they were coming from the front desk.

One of them said something like this:

“I just talked to one of the RAs.  She guesses she’s going to start knocking on doors.”

She guesses that she’s going to start knocking on residents’ doors? I’d certainly hope so. This is a TORNADO WARNING, something that’s not to be taken lightly.

We got down to the basement, where there were probably about 50 other people sitting along the walls. My suitemates and I joined them. We continued to sit there until the tornado warning was lifted. We were safe in the end. However, during the duration of the tornado warning in which we sat there, there was only one RA who said that we should stay put until the warning is lifted.  This guy did not announce it to the entire group of us, he casually passed the word down the hall as he walked.  There was no further information, such as where the tornado was coming from, where it was headed to, and how to take cover accordingly, such as taking cover in front of the wall and holding your head down.  I personally never saw my own RA, and neither did my roommate or any of my suitemates.

Where was the instruction?  Where was the protocol?

We knew several days in advance that severe weather was a possibility for Tuesday. Peachtree City NWS even highlighted the concerns for October 14, 2014.
We knew several days in advance that severe weather was a possibility for Tuesday. Peachtree City NWS even highlighted the concerns for October 14, 2014.

Stories From Other UGA Students:

Katelyn Caudill is a senior at UGA, and a fellow resident of Reed Hall. As soon as I learned of the tornado warning, she was the first person I got in contact with. As a former atmospheric sciences major herself, even she was confused on where exactly to go.

 “I straight up had no idea if I was supposed to go to the basement or sub-basement. When I quickly settled on the basement, I walked into a cluster of unorganized students sitting in the hall with no way of really knowing what was going on because there still were no RAs to be found. When one of the RAs did arrive, he simply answered a question about the situation dismissively and then moved on with his ‘duties’.”

She believes that this was a problem up top with UGA Housing, as the RAs didn’t really seem to know what to do. Are RAs not trained for severe weather safety instruction?

Katelyn leaves me with a thought provoking idea:

“I mean, I understand the RAs are students, that will be the problem in getting protocol set up. But honestly, we have somebody who’s an adult living in the building. If they have to purchase some bullhorns or new alarms so everyone wakes up, then that’s what they have to do. In all, it was handled poorly. Tornadoes are an extremely serious threat to student safety. All you have to do is look back at Tuscaloosa [during the April 2011 tornado outbreak] to know that just because we’re a college town doesn’t mean we’re exempted from natural disasters.”

Katelyn came back to me later with an email from her RA, who apologized to everyone on her hall that she wasn’t available during the tornado warning. What happened, you may ask? She slept through it completely.

Emily Simmerock, a sophomore at UGA, and a resident of Building 1516 in East Campus, shared a similar experience.

“I mean, [the protocol] was okay.  A bunch of us who didn’t have 8 AM classes didn’t hear the tornado sirens because we were sleeping. My friend walked down 2 floors and banged on my door to wake me up because her RA was already getting people up, but I didn’t even see my RA. They put us on the first floor, realized that was dumb, and had us take the elevator down to the basement where we waited it out. We just sort of followed instructions more than automatically knowing what to do.

UGA Alert did okay at keeping us posted. I did think it was weird that they took us to the first floor, but I’m wondering if it was just so they would have us all together. It gave us all a minute to talk to parents who didn’t hear. I don’t actually know how my RA handled it since I never got to see her. She might have known procedure and everything, but I just wasn’t around to see how she handled it. I’m also at the opposite end of the hall from her so she might’ve just not gotten to my door yet. I don’t think it was handled poorly so much as it could’ve been handled so much better.”

Michael Stewart, a junior at UGA, resident of Rutherford Hall, and President of the UGA Student Chapter of the American Meteorology Society, weighs in:

“You wouldn’t believe the confusion here.  I went to wander around to try and figure things out and the halls were packed in the entry way.  But there wasn’t any communication to do so.”

Arguably the most astounding response I heard was from Olivia Haas, a sophomore at UGA, and a resident of Building 1516.

She recalls the following:

“I slept through the majority of the alarm. Only once my roommate was finally woken up by the siren, and we went downstairs, which was around 7:35 a.m. So, about 20 minutes later. No one knocked on our door or anything. My RA hadn’t even gone downstairs. She was chilling in her room, so we didn’t really know what to do. Having taken Dr. Knox’s GEOG 1112 class, I knew the difference between a warning and a watch, but my poor terrified freshman neighbor did not. But once my roommate and I finally made it to the basement, the RAs who were working were doing a good job.”

Even students who live off campus are expressing concerns.  One of these students, Sarah Huddleston, a sophomore at UGA, voices her thoughts:

“I didn’t really know where the nearest tornado shelter was. I listened to the news and that was fine. I’m more upset about the fact that classes are continuing even though there was a tornado watch going on. Not because I’m one of those silly people who just want to skip class, but I truly believe that the University should take into account that it isn’t really safe for students to be commuting to and from campus and even when they are on campus. I live just behind downtown, and I saw 2 crashes just in between Milledge Avenue and the start of campus on Lumpkin Street. Not just small crashes, but the cars had been completely smashed.”

Fellow sophomore Austin Haney offers a similar outlook:

“I am always upset at how poor the alerts address our actual purpose at being in college, going to class. In the alerts, it needs to be clear about what to do with classes. ‘Go about your business’ is not sufficient. It was 7:45am and most people were not sure if they had their 8am classes this morning. I actually emailed back and forth with the Office of Emergency Preparedness after the MLC/SLC incident, and they said they would look into being more specific towards ‘class awareness’ in the future.”

Thoughts and Analysis:

Clearly with so many students giving their testimonies, the preparedness did not go well at all with this tornado warning, especially with on campus housing. Now, the purpose of this post is like an open letter of sorts to UGA Housing. I am the first one to realize that it was not necessarily the RA’s faults here. They clearly did not know what to do. The real problem here lies within how UGA Housing trains the RAs when the year begins. I know they go through a vigorous training process, but clearly severe weather preparedness is not something that is touched upon in great detail. Why were some of the RAs asleep, and continued to sleep through the entire duration of the tornado warning? Why didn’t some of the RAs not know the difference between a watch and a warning? Why wasn’t there a more strict protocol to be followed? In my opinion, when it came to preparedness of a tornado warning to those of us that live on campus, it took on an air of “you’re on your own”. As residents of on campus housing, we look towards the leadership of our RAs to guide the way. For the most part, they failed to do so. That is again to not blame them, that is meant to scratch our heads at UGA Housing, and how they go about preparing their RAs for severe weather situations.

How can we improve this situation? Obviously UGA Alert did not work for everyone. Should we have an alarm that turns on in all dorms when a tornado warning has been issued? Should we have additional signs in the dorms that tell you where to go in case of a tornado emergency? How can we teach the public the difference between a watch and a warning? You can look at a weather app and it will tell you thunderstorms for the next day. However, it does not tell you about the timing of the storms, the impact, or the threats. How can our generation be more weather aware and less dependent upon weather apps?

Tornadoes have hit several schools over the past several decades. For instance, check out this video that was taken on April 27, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. An EF-4 tornado was hitting the city near the University of Alabama. A group of fraternity brothers decided to watch the tornado and film it outside. Not only is this an example that tornadoes can hit campuses, but an example of something you should never do. First of all, you could barely see the tornado. How do you know it is moving away from you? The flying debris in the air could hurt you several miles away from the tornado. Videos like this can be very frustrating. Folks, never do this. Always go inside and take shelter immediately.

So What Happens Now?

EDUCATE YOURSELF! For one thing, here’s something that not only RAs should know, but EVERYONE should know:

The difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. Image Credit: Athens, GA Weather
The difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. Image Credit: Athens, GA Weather

On the little image to the left is the tornado watch that was issued in our area that day.  Tornado watches often cover big areas like that, as this one covered most of the state of Georgia, as well as parts of Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina.  The tornado warning is always more condensed over a particular area, such as a county, city, or town.

Example of the tornado watch that was issued for our area early Tuesday morning of October 14, 2014.
Example of the tornado watch that was issued for our area early Tuesday morning of October 14, 2014.

I HIGHLY encourage everyone to go out and buy a NOAA Weather Radio. You can program them to only go off when there is something significant that has been released by the National Weather Service for your area, from severe thunderstorm watches to blizzard warnings. I believe it should be mandatory that all UGA residence halls have a weather radio at the front desk. A best case scenario would be that there is a weather radio in each room that the RAs reside in, so that way they will be the first to know when severe weather approaches the Classic City. If you don’t have a weather radio, you can also purchase apps on your phone that can go off like an alarm when a warning has been issued. What is great with these apps is that they lock on to where you are located through GPS technology. If you are in Fulton county when a tornado warning has been issued, your phone will go off to let you know. iMap Weather Radio, a local TV station app in the Atlanta area, ReadyGA, and even RedCross Tornado apps can be useful.

Never rely only on tornado sirens. This is technology meant to alarm you if you are outside. Since sirens are all around the campus, it is easy to hear and detect. However, in most real life situations, you probably won’t be close enough to hear a siren.  We saw several people on social media depend only on the siren. While it worked for some, it didn’t work for others. The people complaining they didn’t hear the siren means they are only relying on one source for weather information. We urge you to have multiple choices as mentioned above.

A NOAA weather radio is a must! Image Credit: NOAA.
A NOAA weather radio is a must! Image Credit: NOAA.

When a tornado warning is issued for your county or city, what should you do? Don’t play with Mother Nature. Go to the lowest interior room of your house, which is usually the downstairs bathroom or closet. If you can, bring pillows and/or couch cushions with you for extra protection. If you have a bicycle helmet, put it on. Stay away from windows and mirrors. DO NOT leave until the tornado has passed your area. This is the exact situation in which a weather radio would come in handy! When in a residence hall, it is very important to go to the basement of the building first, not the first floor. In fact, on the UGA Office of Emergency Preparedness website, they say that residents should go to the lowest level of your building. You should always go to the basement FIRST. If the basement is completely full, then it is alright to advance to the first floor. Be as low as possible. If you’re not able to get indoors, or if you are in a car, crawl into a low lying ditch, such as one on the side of a road. Lay there flat with your head covered. It is important that you never stay inside a vehicle. It is a death trap.

Example of a tornado warning. This is the same warning that triggered the sirens in Athens on October 14, 2014.
Example of a tornado warning. This is the same warning that triggered the sirens in Athens on October 14, 2014.

Hopefully, it’ll be a very long time until we see another tornado warning. But with weather constantly changing, you never know when severe weather may strike. It’s always a good thing to air on the side of caution when a tornado could be affecting your area. Take all WARNINGS seriously. We need to find a way to be prepared next time severe weather hits the area. We must eliminate the confusion. I urge that we use the event of October 14, 2014 as an example of improving our system. If we don’t, the next time a tornado warning is issued for our area, we might not be as fortunate.

1 COMMENT

  1. Good job, Ian. Here’s what I did as instructor of GEOG 1112, Introduction to Weather and Climate, before and during this weather event:

    1) I gave a heads-up to the class via our Facebook page almost a week in advance that severe weather could be a possibility early in the week. As I recall, I linked to information from either AthensGaWeather or Matt Daniel’s WMAZ-TV page.

    2) On Monday morning in class, I told the class that severe weather was likely between 9 am and noon on Tuesday and that if they had a Tuesday morning class, they should be very aware of where to go in their classrooms in the event of severe weather. I even pounded my fist on the laminated severe weather safety sheet posted in our classroom.

    3) On the morning of the event, as soon as the sirens sounded (I heard them inside, although THAT IS NOT HOW INDOOR FOLKS SHOULD GET THEIR WARNINGS) I went on Facebook and relayed up-to-the-moment info about the tornado warning, in case anyone thought to check our FB page. I also communicated the all-clear when the warning was over, as I recall… the all-clear info was probably the weak link in the whole UGA Alert/UGA web site chain.

    4) On Wednesday, the day after the event, I passed the microphone around so that my 1112 students could tell their stories of being hustled to the basement, or not, or having clueless RAs, or never waking up at all.

    BUT… I’m still kicking myself for not telling the students on Monday that the severe weather could arrive early enough to catch them in bed at 7 am instead of at class at 9:30 am. I had a little too much faith in the models re: the timing, even though the models had been all over the place re: timing. That was dumb of me. I won’t do that again.

    P.S. I will communicate this link to the director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness at UGA (I’m on their board of advisors). Thanks for doing this anecdotal-but-useful survey… it is consistent with what I heard from my 1112 class after-the-fact, a much larger sample.

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