Weathering the storm
Tornado warnings set off DES/PAO notifications
By Philip H. Jones
Chief of Command Information
The storms, which caused minor damage on Fort Meade, were the first severe weather storms of the summer and part of a larger weather system that resulted in 10 confirmed tornadoes that touched down in Maryland, according to the National Weather Service.
"On Tuesday, a NWS meteorologist said his initial assessment of damage at Fort Meade indicated two very weak tornadoes touched down on the installation," said Lt. Col. J. Darrell Sides, Fort Meade provost marshal and director of DES. "The NWS said it would review its information before making a final determination."
At approximately 5:29 p.m. Friday, the NWS issued a tornado warning for western Anne Arundel County, which includes Fort Meade, said Sides.
"We received a report that two of our police patrols spotted what appeared to be swirling winds similar to a tornado or water spout near the Post Exchange areas on Reece Road," Sides said. "The gate guards at Reece Road also witnessed a circular-spinning cloud approaching them with debris being thrown at ground level."
There were no reports of injuries Friday as Fort Meade remained under the tornado watch as well as a flash flood watch until 2 a.m. Saturday, Sides said.
As a result of the NWS warning, Sides approved the airing of a tornado warning message on the installation's public address system, also known as the "Big Voice." (To hear the warning message, visit http://ow.ly/bnooH.)
However, the deafening sound of the rain during the height of the storm made it difficult to understand the tornado warning announcement, Sides said, leading him to order a second airing of the safety alert.
The first storm cleared the area at approximately 6:30 p.m., Sides said. But less than 30 minutes later, the NWS issued a second tornado alert for the greater Fort Meade area. Sides ordered another airing of the tornado warning alert.
One of the challenges of using the installation's public address system for emergency announcements is that people do not always understand the purpose of the system, Sides said.
"People have reported that they really can't understand the 'Big Voice' if they're in their homes or in a building," he said. "That's because the 'Big Voice' is designed as an alert system for people who are outside. If you are inside, please start actively monitoring the weather reports on TV, radio and on the Internet. Listen for updates and information about what's going on around you."
Sides emphasized that it's important for people to realize that they should also monitor multiple media sources for severe weather information.
Another integral part of the post's emergency notification system is the Fort Meade Public Affairs Office. The PAO issued its first update on the installation's Facebook page and Twitter account early Friday afternoon, alerting the Fort Meade community that severe weather was forecasted.
The PAO continued posting updates as the storm intensified and instructed its social media users to take cover and move to an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building, and to avoid windows at the height of the storm until the tornado warning expired at 8 p.m.
"We reached more than 11,000 people on Facebook alone," said Jason Kelly, Fort Meade's emerging media manager. "People have come to count on us to provide credible information when time and safety matter. We're constantly looking for opportunities to find innovative and effective ways to serve our community."
Text alerts from the Fort Meade PAO are one of those innovations.
Sides and Kelly suggested that members of the post community consider signing up to receive the messages, which were first used during Hurricane Irene last August.
Users have the option to receive text messages, either through the enhanced mobile website or as a text message, Kelly said.
To receive text messages, users text the message "follow ftmeadealert" to 40404, without the quotation marks. Once registered, users will automatically receive a text message for safety and weather alerts. The text is sent through Twitter but doesn't require users to be registered Twitter users. Standard text messaging rates apply to anyone receiving text alerts, Kelly said.
Fort Meade patrols and 911 calls reported minor damage along Cooper Avenue and on both sides of Reece Road leading to Route 175, including a fallen tree that blocked traffic on Reece Road, Sides said.
The Fort Meade Fire Department responded to the damage reports and used chain saws to clear the fallen tree.
The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and the Fort Meade Directorate of Public Works responded to reports of downed power lines that knocked out electrical power to residents in the Normandy Bluffs residential neighborhood.
Other damage included fallen trees adjacent to a facility used by Child and Youth Services (Bldg. 902) that destroyed a section of the fence, covered a storage shed and blocked a door in the rear of the building.
Two metal gate-access control bars at the Demps Visitor Control Center at the Reece Road gate also were damaged, and a variable message board sign was knocked down. In addition, power lines and two transformers located near Route 175 were reported damaged by the storm, knocking out power to the Normandy Bluffs community.
Sides also urged the post community to consider safety first during severe weather.
"When you hear a tornado warning on a public address system, it not the time to run outside and take photos with your iPhone," Sides said.
He advised people to move to a safe location inside their homes such as the bathroom or beneath a stairwell during a tornado.
"Tornadoes rarely level an entire structure," Sides said. "One of the safest areas is an interior room in the center of your home. During a tornado, you really do not have time to drive to a shelter."
For more information on severe weather preparation, visit Ready Army at www.ready.army.mil; American Red Cross at www.redcross.org; the Department of Homeland Security at www.ready.gov/america/makeaplan/index.html; or the Federal Emergency Management Agency at www.fema.gov/plan/prepare/index.shtm.
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