Ep. 05 Severe Weather

Appalachian State University Emergency Planner and host Debi Trivette welcomes Jason Marshburn, Appalachian's Director of Environmental Health, Safety and Emergency Management and Emergency Manager, for a discussion about severe weather, its typical impacts on the Appalachian campus and preparations faculty, staff and students can make to mitigate the hazards.


Debi Trivette: Thank you very much for joining us today for our fifth podcast episode about emergency management at Appalachian State University. I'm Debi Trivette, Emergency Planner for App State and we have a special guest with us today, Jason Marshburn, who is my director. He is not only the director for Environmental Health, Safety, and Emergency Management, he is also the Emergency Manager for campus. Thank you for joining us today, Jason. Can you start off talking about what a severe thunderstorm is?

Jason Marshburn: Certainly, and first thank you for having me. I'm happy to be here and talk about weather and severe weather specifically as we kind of move into another severe weather season. Severe thunderstorm is defined by the National Weather Service as any thunderstorms that have wind gusts in excess of 58 miles per hour and/or hail that is at least one inch in diameter, or they may have a tornado with them.

DT: Sometimes we do have tornadoes here, we didn't used to but seems like we do sometimes now.

JM: Certainly.

DT: Can you tell us what some of the typical severe weather hazards in the Boone area are?

JM: Absolutely, that's a great question and it goes back to the question you just asked when we were talking about severe thunderstorms and keeping in mind that just because a thunderstorm may not be severe doesn't mean that there are not hazards associated with it. So, we can see a lot of hazards with thunderstorms throughout the year, one of which is lightning. Lightning can present just as many problems or hazards for someone aside from those severe weather factors and one of the common misconceptions about lightning is there may not be any lightning if we're not under the thunderstorm-if we're in an area outside of the rain-when in fact lightning can strike up to ten miles away from a thunderstorm. So, it is very important that if we hear thunder that we go inside and we seek safe shelter. Another hazard that we have to think about with thunderstorms in the mountains throughout the year is heavy rain and heavy rain can of course lead to flash flooding. So, just because we are in the mountains doesn't mean we are immune to flooding. Flooding is the number one cause of fatalities in thunderstorms. So it is very important that we be mindful of flooding and of flash flood risks in the mountains, keeping in mind that just six inches of water can knock a person over and just two feet of water can carry away most vehicles including large SUVs.

DT: Yeah, it's scary when you see flash floods coming. I don't think there is ever a safe time to drive in flash flood is there?

JM: Absolutely not, any time you see a flooded road or area, it's not safe to cross that. You never know what the road or even a walkway is like under that water. It could be much deeper than it appears, the road could be washed out so it's always best to turn around and don't drown.

DT: Some places are mapped out to be flood zones, to be that place that catches those waters. We have one of those on campus, right, that we need to stay away from when it starts flooding?

JM: Yes, Durham Park is an area that is designed to handle water and to flood that's why it's a park area and a green space. It's also very tempting to go and play in the water when we see it rising but that's not a safe place to go. It is designed to catch that water and we do want to stay away from that area when the water is high.

DT: Seems that every time that there is a flash flood situation or a flooding situation in Boone, Boone Fire and the responders always have to do rescues. One of the typical places is probably the Boone Mall, which is also mapped as a catch all for flood waters isn't it?

JM: Yes, so it's very important that we not only look at campus and the areas that may flood but we look at the surrounding areas that we live in and we may work in or shop in and be mindful of those areas that can flood. Just as we talked about, we want to avoid those areas whenever we see flooding.

DT: How does the campus prepare for severe weather?

JM: So, weather as you know, it is our number one hazard on campus and we see the greatest impacts each year because of the weather. So, we very closely monitor the weather each day and throughout the year. For severe weather specifically, we really look back to the National Weather Service and the severe thunderstorm risk categories that they developed. All of our plans are tied back to those different categories. So, it starts with our general thunderstorms, and we're certainly watching any thunderstorm activity around the area, especially when we have large events like football games or other outside activities; and that goes all the way up to the high end risk category where we may see wide-spread significant weather. And so, in between those risk categories, we're looking at what is the level of risk and how much communication and preparedness do we need to take based on that risk. So, it starts with just sharing general information on our social media pages and trying to build awareness on what the severe weather risk may be that day to as we move up in the risk category, we start reaching out to our different response teams on campus and making sure that they are prepared to respond to whatever the severe weather threat may be for that day. As the risk starts moving up, we may start pushing information out to campus to make sure that the community is aware. Sharing information via email, for example, making sure the community is aware of what could happen and then working with any special events to make sure that they have plans in place and that they know how to react should something occur.

DT: The sandbags and stuff like that we see across campus—that's part of our preparedness for flooding and situations like that?

JM: Certainly, so taking a look at the different hazards that we may see related to weather, we have different measures in place to help us mitigate or prevent the impacts from those hazards. So, for like flooding being one of the hazards we can see on campus, we've taken a look at what are our flood prone areas and what we can do help lessen or prevent water from entering some of those areas. So, around some of the buildings, we do have sandbags that can be moved in place to help prevent water from entering those spaces.

DT: Can you give suggestions about what we could do as individuals to prepare for severe weather?

JM: Yes, so as you know, preparedness is so very important, and I don't think that we can stress enough to be prepared for any type of emergency. We really focus on that all-hazards preparedness and making sure we're prepared for the worse case or prepared for anything that may happen. So, whether it be weather or some other hazard, we always talk about the notification and the communication pieces. So, making sure that you have multiple ways to receive information about an emergency. So, in this case, we have multiple ways to receive information about those weather alerts when they come in. So, registering for AppState ALERT, something that again, we can't stress enough, we want to make sure people are registered to receive the emergency alerts on campus, so, the texts and the phone calls. Having a NOAH Weather Alert Radio is another good way to get weather information, especially the watch and warning information. And then really thinking about some other ways to get information, so, local media or sometimes social media and we encourage you to make sure you have a good reliable source but have multiple ways to get information. And then, knowing where to go, so, that's really part of having a plan, right. So, if severe weather approaches or hazardous weather approaches, having a plan that will outline where you are going to go, where are some safe areas that you can go to-for example, if we are going to see high winds or there is a tornado warning issued, we need to have a plan to get to safe shelter and know what that safe shelter is going to look like. So, away from windows and in interior parts of the building and things like that. Then the other thing that I'll throw out is if you do have outdoor plans obviously monitor the weather and don't be afraid to postpone those plans. Don't push the limit so to speak, there is nothing wrong with postponing plans if we are anticipating some sort of significant weather.

DT: So, how are decisions made about classes and work schedules during adverse and severe weather?

JM: It's a very dynamic process. There are lots of decisions to be made and a lot of people involved in that process but ultimately, we look at safety. Safety is always the top priority. So, we evaluate those risk categories that we talked about earlier. We look at what's our risk category; what are the potential impacts that we could see on campus; what's the timing of the weather, is it going to be during the day when classes are in session or will it be during a planned event or will it be a few hours after or a few hours before? All of those different factors come into play as we make that decision and we start evaluating what those impacts may be and again there is a lot of people involved in that discussion. We have several folks across campus; the administration is involved in that and we try to make a good risk-based decision.

DT: For like a flash flooding incident, we wouldn't really want to turn people out to go driving in that so we would just warn them to stay in, seek safe shelter where they are, stay in place and stuff-not be outside.

JM: That's an excellent point. Some of the situations may be developing very quickly like a flash flood and sometimes it is better to stay than it is to go so we start talking about that shelter in place concept and what that means. We try to make good decisions based on what the actual hazard is and what we're seeing out in the area.

DT: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

JM: Earlier we mentioned the terms watch and warning. I think it's an important opportunity to kind of remember what those terms mean. I'll say they are probably the most commonly confused weather terms and for a good reason. They kind of sound the same so to speak. Any time we see a watch that just means conditions are favorable for something to happen. So, a severe thunderstorm watch, a tornado watch, a flash flood watch, it just means that conditions are favorable for those things to happen. If we see a warning though, that means we need to take some type of action. There is something happening and that means that we need to take some type of action to protect ourselves. So, tornado warning-a tornado warning is issued, we need to immediately seek safe shelter and stay in shelter until the treat has passed. So, that means the warning has expired or we've sent out an alert saying it's safe to resume activities. So, it's good to know what those terms mean. The other thing just to re-stress or re-emphasize, we really need to encourage people to sign up for the campus emergency alerts, the AppState Alerts. You can go to appstatealert.com for step by step instructions on how to do that. Just a quick reminder for campus alerts and severe weather, we do send campus alerts for flash flood warnings and tornado warnings. That doesn't mean that other types of severe weather are not dangerous or that they don't present a hazard so again we want you to have multiple ways to receive that watch and warning information. So, if there is a severe thunderstorm warning issued for example, hopefully, you are getting that through a weather alert radio and through local media and you know what to do when that happens, that you will seek safe shelter.

DT: Thank you very much for joining us today, Jason, and thank you for listening in. Please listen in next month's episode of our podcast about emergency management at Appalachian State. For more information on emergency management related topics and training opportunities, please visit emergency.appstate.edu. Feel free to email questions to safety@appstate.edu. Thank you.