Forecasters run social media 'tornado drill'

FILE - In this May 20, 2013, file photo, a tornado moves through Moore, Okla. as northbound traffic on Interstate 35 stops at Indian Hills Road in Moore, Okla. The National Weather Service in Norman has used Twitter and Facebook for years to disseminate weather warnings. But they tried a new approach recently, holding an online “tornado drill.” (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams, File)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Melody Holeman has no TV and lives in such a rural part of the Oklahoma Panhandle that she can't even pick up a signal on the weather radio that the Red Cross gave her.

When powerful storms barrel through the area, Holeman and her husband turn to weather websites on their computer for regular updates.

"We're pretty much depending on the computer because the radio doesn't do anything," said Holeman, 64, who lives in Boise City.

Forecasters say Holeman and others in similar situations can benefit from an additional source of weather-related information: social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The National Weather Service office in Norman, Okla., deep in the heart of the large swath of land known as "Tornado Alley," has for years been at the forefront of using social media in disseminating weather-related information.

But they are trying a new approach in an attempt to find new and better ways to reach people, holding an online "tornado drill."

The recent effort entailed posting a tornado drill message — in English and Spanish — to both Facebook and Twitter and asking followers to "like," share and retweet it. The post gave tips for using the sites during severe weather.

The Norman branch is the first office in the country to conduct the drills on social media.

"One of the purposes is to demonstrate the power of social media when it comes to sharing weather information," said Rick Smith, the warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service in Norman. "But also, to demonstrate the limitations of using social media for weather information."

The Facebook post had reached nearly 800,000 people 12 hours after it was posted. But that's little help to forecasters who have on average a 15-minute lead time for a tornado warning. It's not clear where the people who saw the post were located, and Smith said the majority of them saw it because one of their friends "liked" or shared it.

"That's one of things we actually wanted people to get out of this and point out. While social media is a powerful tool for sharing weather information, you can't totally rely on it for being your sole source of warnings," Smith said, adding that Facebook and Twitter are useful in getting information out days or hours before a tornado.

The Facebook post reached 46,000 users within 15 minutes of it being posted and more than 290,000 users within an hour of its posting, according to Smith. An analysis of the reach on Twitter hasn't yet been completed.

Smith said people should have at least three sources for obtaining tornado warnings, such as a weather app on a phone, a radio station and a television meteorologist.

Ryan Willis, 35, said he has been closely following the National Weather Service on social media for years. Willis, who lives just about a mile from where a tornado tore through the city of Moore, Okla., last year, was one of the thousands who took part in the recent social media experiment.

"Everyone around here follows the weather, I think, much more than other parts of the country really because the weather can kill you here," he said. "Twitter is pretty instantaneous, and the weather service has kind of earned my respect for how timely they are with their updates."

Tornado season generally ramps up in April and lasts through June for the upper Midwest.


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