National Weather Service rolling out flood prediction tech across US


Did you know flooding is the largest cause of death when it comes to natural disasters? Things change in a flash, and having the right information available at the right time means fewer lives lost.

That’s why the National Weather Service is working alongside the National Water Center on the University of Alabama campus on new technologies that offer a more accurate look at an area’s potential for flooding.

After a successful rollout in Texas and along the Atlantic Coast, NWS is expanding its flood prediction capabilities across the U.S. over the next few years. The goal is having operational flood inundation maps available for nearly all of the country.

So what are flood inundation maps? They’re highly detailed, frequently updated models that can determine where major flooding will happen based on current conditions alongside short- and long-term predictions.

These maps ensure meteorologists and emergency response agencies have better data available at their fingertips, meaning they can share their knowledge with the general public while there’s still time for flooding preparations or evacuations.

National Weather Service Director Ken Graham said lives will be saved because of this new technology.

“It’s one thing to say there’s a flood warning, Graham said. “It’s a whole other thing to be able to have a map to show were those areas that are flooding are.”

About 10% of the country will be covered by these maps by the end of the year, with a goal of covering the U.S. by the end of 2026. That’s especially welcome for local emergency management agencies that are responsible for keeping their residents safe.

This is a game changer for an emergency manager,” Graham said. “It’s one thing to say you’re going to have flooding in a few days, but for an emergency manager to have a map that shows the actual areas, the infrastructure, the buildings, the roads that are going to actually flood.”

Agencies will be capable of prepping for critical infrastructure needs and getting residents evacuated before major flooding happens.

“This is a capability we didn’t have before,” Graham said. “And thanks to the incredible people here at the National Water Center, they’re going to build that capability for those emergency managers.”

Just like emergency management agencies, meteorologists hold lives in their hands when there’s severe weather. They’re responsible for getting onto residents’ TVs, smartphones or radios and warning when something devastating is on the way.

“Can you imagine a television station showing a map that shows the areas that will flood in the next couple of days and people view that and say ‘I’m in that area. I really need to take caution,’ ” Graham said. “A picture is worth a thousand words, and we’re trying to take our words and make pictures out of those. I think that’s going to make a big difference.”

Getting such critical technology out of the planning stages and into the right hands doesn’t happen overnight, and there’s good reason. If these maps are off by even a little, some lives could be at stake while others are taking precautions that aren’t necessary.

“The biggest thing is our ability to communicate directly to everybody has never been greater than it is today, Graham said. “Social media allows us to get information to communities that we’ve never been able to in the past.”

Alongside social media, the proliferation of smartphones means people have emergency warnings available at the swipe of a screen. And NWS is working on making its troves of data even more accessible.

“We’re looking at cutting the cord at our offices and going toward the cloud to allow our forecasters, our hydrologists, our meteorologists and others to get out of the office and right in there with the decision makers across the country,” he said. “They need us more than ever. So we’re gonna get more and more of our weather service employees face to face with with our decision makers.”

The NWS’ mission, Graham said, is all about ensuring the people in charge of emergency response and information dissemination have that essential information available when they need it most. So putting NWS employees inside emergency management agency headquarters ahead of a major weather event means better communication and up-to-the-second updates.

“(Emergency managers) have tough decisions about calling for evacuations,” Graham said. “They could be getting patients in a hospital out of harm’s way or building sheltering resources. We want to be there for them, offer support for the science, translate that into risk and help them make the big decisions.”

For the general public, being weather aware and having ways of getting important updates is a must, especially for anyone living in areas with higher-than-average bouts of severe weather like West Alabama.

“Pick your favorite,” Graham said. “(NWS) works with all sorts of apps out there. Make sure you get weather alerts because that’s the way to wake up in the middle of the night, to be able to hear those warnings. But also have an NOAA weather radio, because it’s such an incredible tool to have right there at your bedside. I urge everybody to always be prepared.”

Part of being prepared includes having a disaster plan for your family. Where do you go when there’s an evacuation? Where do you take refuge when there’s a tornado warning? What’s in your “we have to leave now” bag, and where is it?

“We need everybody to be prepared,” Graham said. “The warnings only go so far. If we have everybody prepared, then we save lives.”

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