The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 15, 2013

Technology, cutting-edge communications stand ready to better weather the storm

By Brian Ojanpa
bojanpa@mankatofreepress.com

---- — MANKATO — As the saying goes, Everyone complains about the weather but no one ever does anything about it.

Well, yes and no. It's true that adverse weather can't be prevented, but that's not to say its adverse effects can't be minimized.

Technology and vastly improved coordination of emergency management entities are serving to better prepare citizenry when storm disasters loom and to rapidly respond to their needs in the aftermaths.

"We know that afterward there are four things people want most: water, electricity, communications and transportation," said Waseca County Emergency Management Director Dennis Dinneen.

The county's Emergency Management nerve center in the basement of the courthouse annex provides a snapshot microcosm of how far disaster-response technology and logistics have come in the past few decades.

Juxtaposed with the center's array of computer screens and communications equipment is a golden oldie that's been kept around for posterity. It's a clunky circa-1970s radar box once used by seafarers to detect brewing storms.

The county bought that equipment to use for similar purposes and it did the job, more or less, for years until the county replaced it with a slightly more sophisticated boxy piece of radar gear, then upgraded to a satellite dish storm-tracking system in the mid-1990s that, ironically, was vulnerable to the very storms it was tracking.

But here's the salient point: That first radar box cost $10,000, a substantial sum in 1970s dollars, while the sophisticated computer software that now propels the center's weather-monitoring efforts cost about $100.

"And anybody can buy this. From $10,000 to less than 100 bucks. Isn't that something. It's just amazing to me," Dinneen said.

He said advances in communications technology go hand in hand with weather-monitoring inroads to provide emergency personnel with the disaster tools they need. Instant mass messaging on mobile devices is a quantum leap from the days when every responder had to be contacted individually.

Also available today are code red warning systems the public can sign up for that serve a "reverse 911" function with warning messages delivered to subscribers' cellphones and land lines. Emergency Management operations also have their own websites (Waseca County's is waseca.mn.us) that deliver up-to-date information during crunch times.

This year, Dinneen said, the county is heavily encouraging people to buy weather radios — $25-$30 investments that give listeners real-time weather information.

That real-time warning function points to what may be the only Achilles' heel of state-of-the-art radar warning systems: Their 6- to 10-minute lag times.

As vital and important as tracking technology has become, Dinneen said there's still no substitute for boots-on-the-ground storm spotters.

"Trained eyes are the best. Technology, it's all great, but in essence it's there to support the spotters."

Dinneen said that network of spotters, interspersed countywide at strategic intervals, provide instant information in the event of tornadic activity that can well up in moments.

But where weather is concerned, even those best-laid plans can sometimes go for naught.

"Mother Nature will throw you a curve ball occasionally," Dinneen said, citing the March 19, 2012, tornado in the Lake Elysian area that was the second-earliest recorded tornado in state history.

"We had no indication of severe weather, no indication that this was going to go tornadic," he said.

"Sometimes, you have no shot."