Tropical storms: How the deaf can monitor tornado warnings

[caution to the reader: this post has extreme snarkiness]

Unwelcome visitor: TS Debby

Yesterday was an eye-opening experience for me. Central Florida got slammed by tropical storm Debby which wrecked havoc in certain areas.  Debby unleashed 13 inches of rain in Pinellas county in 96 hours and caused flooding in the Tampa Bay area.  The 1945 record for wettest June in Tampa was broken.

[Water polo, any one? The local baseball stadium in the aftermath of Debby]

Of intense interest were the tornados that randomly spawned throughout the area.  Unlike hurricanes which, due to modern weather monitoring technologies, come with plenty of advance notice, tornados can pop out of nowhere. It is often only a few short minutes before one comes roaring into your vicinity and send you off to the Land of Oz.

What Bay News 9, the local TV station had to offer, or rather, didn’t offer:

First, I did what everyone else in Tampa Bay would do: turn on the TV to the local news for the live weather updates.  That should be easy enough, right?

[Hmm guys? Something’s missing here…]

I switched to Bay News 9 station which was continually providing local updates about Debby….and to my surprise, without closed captioning!  Apparently, the people at Bay News 9 think that everyone in Tampa Bay can hear (Halleujah!) and there’s no need to show any captions on this potentially lifesaving broadcast.

However, they may be surprised to learn that, according to The Florida Association of the Deaf, “Tampa Bay, Florida has one of the largest Deaf communities in the USA. The area is home to 348,000 Deaf people, the largest such community in Florida.”  BN9 staff, let that sink in for a moment.  Right now, it’s like you’re holding up a big fat middle finger to us all, telling us that our lives aren’t worth it.

Next up was to overcome this apparent inaccessibility wrought by BN9 and figure out another way to get the timely information about the violate weather situation.

Instant email alerts, NOAA’s NWS vs WeatherUSA

My highest priority was to get tornado alerts sent to my smartphone.  Having a mobile device during emergencies is important since the phone will still get updates after the power goes off at home, provided the cell towers are still functional.

I was most interested in the alerts about tornado warnings/watches in the Pinellas County, which is due west of Tampa proper.  I wasn’t interested in flood alerts since I don’t live in an area where this would be a concern.

The big name in extreme weather alerts is NOAA’s National Weather Service at the catchy URL: Their website is as ugly as they come, but hey, it’s a federal agency website- they’re all ugly.  It’s the email alerts I’m after, not a dissection of the bone-headed decisions behind the website’s design.  After finding the link to sign up for weather alerts, here’s what the alert subscription page looks like:

[Really, NOAA? How the heck am I supposed to find tornado alerts in central west Florida? This page could make a grown man cry…not that I did.]

So, NOAA has completely dropped the ball on this one.  Regular citizens visiting NOAA’s website have very little hope of finding the alerts they are truly interested in.

Moving on ahead….

My Google ninja skills led me to the weather alerts over at

weatherUSA Alerts is a free, real-time weather alert service which sends out weather warnings, watches, tropical alerts, and other advisories as soon as they are issued by federal agencies including the National Weather Service.

Hmmmm. WeatherUSA alerts are based on the same data from NOAA’s NWS? See the irony there? Doesn’t seem like the NOAA folks have yet.  WeatherUSA folks have more common sense as seen below:

[Whoo, there’s even local email alerts for the Pinellas County!]

With the most critical task out of the way, I can start focusing on getting more information about the tropical storm than what I’m able to glean from the TV (and I would like to reiterate the point here: not much due to the lack of closed captions on BN9).

Visualizing the alerts: Google Public Alerts

Getting the alerts via email is one thing but it’s entirely different when you are able to visually see them. Enter Google public alerts, where the map has visual overlays of the alerts!

Google public alerts about tornado warnings in Pinellas:

[The red color highlights make it easy to see where alerts are active.]

Tornado watch” alerts = weather conditions are favorable for a tornado. “Tornado warning” alerts = one or more tornados have already formed and are currently moving though the area. This difference is not well understood by many people, as we’ll see soon enough. The bottom line is: if your home is in the darker red area, you need to get to safety immediately and wait it out.

Being my own weatherman: Live Weather Radar and WeatherBug

While it’s all good to see current conditions, I also like to make my own predictions as to how weather could worsen or improve in my particular area during the next few hours.  To this end, I use two Google Chrome extensions:

Live Weather Radar

Live Weather Radar Google extension is a quick way to see an animation of how weather has been moving through your area.  Naturally, you want to see if the red or yellow blobs could approach your home area. This is the “bird’s view”


WeatherBug Google extension allows you to zoom in close to your home area to better measure how far away the storm is and if you should be worried or not.  As you can see above, I’m having a close call!

TweetDeck: Let the tweets flow!

The final piece of puzzle to monitoring the tropical storm for tornados is to get live updates from other people who are commenting on the ongoing storm.

Twitter is known to be heavily used by people to send out information during times of crisis.  A tropical storm is no different.  TweetDeck provides a way to show a constant live stream of tweets without the need for you to press a refresh button.

Three columns for maximum impact

I split TweetDeck into three columns:

Pinellas County (a custom list) column which consists of the twitter accounts of local news organizations and other local governmental entities.  This is the most trustworthy column for me but isn’t updated as frequently during the storm.

A search column showing tweets containing the words “Tornado warning” which in theory should show tweets about impending tornados. This column updates a bit more frequently but there are many tweets from people who clearly don’t understand the difference between “tornado watch” vs “tornado warning” and often incorrectly use these terms.

The third column searches for tweets containing the generic term “tornado” to show even more tweets from a wider audience.  This is a very active column with many tweets zipping down the column.  It’s a great way to get a pulse of what many people are saying about tornados but the challenge is to manually filter out those are from your area.  (There may be a way to automatically do this but I haven’t had time to look more into it).

So there, you have it – how deaf people can do an end run around Bay News 9’s lack of TV captioning and turn to the Internet to get everything they need to stay safe!

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