Forecasters run social media ‘tornado drill’

By KRISTI EATON Published: March 11, 2014

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.