The Ottumwa Courier

September 4, 2013

Open house will showcase changing weather tech

Courier staff writer

---- — JOHNSTON — The National Weather Service wants good weather on Sept. 21. They really, really want it.

Sure, you might think. Nice weather makes life easier on everyone (and makes the forecasts simpler in most cases). But Sept. 21 is a special day for the Des Moines office. They're having an open house for the first time in years.

Nice weather should help draw more people, but imagine what happens if part of the office's 51-county area is hit with a severe outbreak while people are walking through the facility. It's a recipe for confusion.

Jeff Johnson, a warning coordination meteorologist out of Des Moines, said more is planned than just a quick tour through the office in Johnston. It hasn't happened in some time.

“It's been since '07, so every five or six years,” he said. “We'll have our partners out front as well. We're hoping for a good turnout. We're looking forward to it, think it's going to be a good thing.”

Johnson's office is where warnings for most of this area originate. Wapello County is on the southeastern edge of the office's responsibilities; Keokuk, Jefferson and Van Buren counties are part of the Quad Cities office's territory.

Technology has changed not just how forecasters get their information, Johnson said, but how they send it out to the public. Social media efforts for the National Weather Service are growing. So is a move to direct alerts over the nation's cell networks.

Wireless Emergency Alerts started last year, but you probably haven't seen them unless you've updated your phone comparatively recently. Most major carriers signed on with the technology, which sends weather alerts to cell phones based on which towers they are in communication with.

The system was in place for this spring's severe weather season, but Iowa didn't have much of a season this year. The way Johnson figures it, the first big chance for people to receive the alerts will probably be this winter.

“It's invariably going to happen: We're going to have a blizzard warning. The phones are going to go off and everyone will ask, 'What the heck?'”

That sort of thing is why forecasters hope for a good turnout at the open house. It's a golden opportunity to get the message out about how people can stay aware of weather conditions and react if things turn dangerous.

The open house is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21. The Des Moines office is located at 9607 NW Beaver Drive, Johnston. Forecasters can't guarantee good weather that day, but they have their fingers crossed.