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National Weather Service talks storms in Big Sandy

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Responding to an invitation from Benton County Mayor Brett Lashlee, representatives from the National Weather Service (NWS) from Memphis hosted a gathering of interested citizens and emergency management personnel in Big Sandy on May 13 at the Big Sandy Volunteer Fire Department.

The purpose of the meeting was to begin discussion with the NWS and Benton County citizens that would better enhance their coverage and notifications to a rural community within their jurisdiction of coverage. Additionally, the townhall type meeting format was to also share resourceful information in an attempt to begin building better relationships with local citizens of the community who are called “spotters” and who assist the NWS in initiating alerts to Benton County.

Lashlee said that he was inspired from local spotters attending his monthly Townhall Meetings and the topics of discussion concerning the deficiencies Benton County seems to experience during weather related events. He explained, “From late warning issuances to radar systems, the spotters felt coverage of our county alert notifications and timely emergency responses could be improved. The Townhall with the NWS was a first step in roundtable discussions the begin addressing the concerns, but also to better prepare the needed notification and response infrastructure for Benton County.”

Lashlee continued, “Since taking office in September, I begun initiatives in building the emergency response infrastructure such as applying for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and partnering County EMA with Benton County E-911 to construct a County Emergency Operations Center (EOC); bringing local “spotters” into the advisory discussions and identifying coverage and notification weaknesses, building relationships with entities such as the National Weather Service to focus more on our location area, and lately promoting the county’s support of Code Red, which is an instant emergency notification system recently presented in the May county commission meeting.”

Lashlee stated, “Emergency notifications, tracking of hazardous weather events, and various county emergency departments response to citizens in need during an emergency crisis all need to work in unison for the utmost affect and positive impact to the community. The Weather Townhall and other recent information initiatives will hopefully become common place in allowing our citizens and emergency management personnel to address the notification needs of our future.”

Attending the NWS Townhall from the National Weather Service from Memphis were weather experts, Jim Belles, Meteorologist in Charge (MiC) and Gary Woodall, Warning Coordination Meteorologist. Local “Spotters” Ben Richardson and Richard Watts, along with Benton County EMA Director Richard Kee, E-911 Director Justin Whipple, County Fire-Chief Larry Waters and several area citizens and commissioners were also in attendance.

Belles and Woodall fielded a variety of questions and recorded several ideas and concerns to take back to their workgroups to discuss and possibly work out solutions. The National Weather Service-Memphis covers four states and 55 total counties in their area of jurisdiction. Benton County is served by four radars (Ft. Campbell, Memphis, Nashville and Paducah).

During opening discussions, Belles stated, “There is no more valuable resource in the notification process than that of community residents and local government getting the word out during a severe weather event.” He said that spotters and residents are usually the first to see and experience weather hazards and become the frontline eyes for the National Weather Service.

Spotter Ben Richardson advised the first step should be to become a Certified Storm Ready Community, a program offered to community leaders by the National Weather Service. Woodall of the NWS advised becoming a Storm Ready Community will make it easier to obtain future funding or grants that would aid in the building of emergency infrastructure and notification assets such as sirens, radio and cellular transmitters and other types of usable systems such as Code Red.

Richardson said our county already has a host of veterans and citizens who are willing to serve their county and volunteer for programs bettering our emergency notifications and asked the NWS to conduct more on-site Storm Spotter seminar training classes (online classes are available twice a year, but not live sessions on-site).

Lashlee suggested local veteran groups and County Veteran Service Office could offer Storm Spotter and weather alert seminars and classes hosted by the National Weather Service in the very near future, if they would agree to come. Woodall advised the classes are offered at other central locations twice a year by EMA, but entertained the offer to conduct one or two specifically in Benton County due to the community interest.

The NWS representatives emphasized inviting students and younger residents into the classes. The NWS suggested always keeping the schools, nursing homes, and hospitals in the loop of the conversations. Woodall said, “Many times, these places are vulnerable since they have no basements or a way to receive timely notifications. The elderly is not always connected to the technology of today via smart phones and the internet. Many rely on weather radios which lack proper programming to the nearest alert tower.”

Spotters Richardson and Watts offered their expertise to the community in programming weather radios and said they would attend future Townhall’s and Commission Meetings, should anyone in the public wish to bring in their weather radios for programming.
Referencing the recent heavy rains and flooding along the Tennessee River this past winter, the NWS said their flood level measurement at New Johnsonville river level needed to be more accurate during the storms. They are in the process of correcting this issue and hope to have a new revised level soon.

The NWS advised they do not give specific agricultural forecast, but Big Sandy Fire Chief Larry Waters advised of all the websites he has seen, the University of Kentucky Ag website is the best. Watts advised he gives a daily weather Ag indicator on his Facebook weather page.

Lashlee finished with, “The goals of the NWS and Benton County is to find the gaps in coverage, determine the communication weaknesses, fix the TN River measurement gauge for flooding, work to improve the notification systems, and emphasize more training and public awareness to the importance of weather notification and spotters. The StormReady component is the centerpiece.  Working together on this project will highlight gap areas to close and more importantly identify if outside resources are needed, for instance, grants.”

The meeting concluded with the NWS committing to improving their weather-related coverage to Benton County, alerting the weather media and emergency agencies to Benton County’s need for timely notifications, and assistance in building citizen weather spotter programs for Benton County. Lashlee thanked the all participants for the open discussion and echoed a community joint-partnership with NWS will make our county the role-model to follow in Tennessee.

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