Monitoring storms on Gasparilla Island: What’s the best way?

January 15, 2016
By Marcy Shortuse

946782_1540115736018072_1791807868659584811_nBY MARCY SHORTUSE – On Saturday, Jan. 9 an EF2 tornado with winds upward of 130 mph tore across Cape Coral and left up to 10,000 people with property damage and without power. January in Florida is just as good a time as any for some severe weather, a fact we’ve found out firsthand and very close to home.
In one news report, a person interviewed in Cape Coral said, “I had no idea there were tornados in Florida.” The truth is, you don’t have to be anywhere near “Tornado Alley” (Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa and Missouri) to experience a tornado. Florida actually has more tornados per square mile than any other state, but they aren’t as large or severe because of our climate pattern.
In an interview with the Palm Beach Post in 2011, Florida State University Professor James O’Brien said that mild winters and hot, still summers aren’t good for the health of a blossoming tornado. What needs to occur for optimal growth is a “clash between really cold air and really warm, moist air,” he said.
So what do we do if the weather turns for the worst here on Gasparilla Island? The first and most important thing is to pay attention.
While we do have a siren that sits atop the Boca Grande Fire Department, Chief C.W. Blosser said there is no formal plan for its use.
“In the event of an impending weather event or other emergency, we would sound it if we received notification from the Lee County Emergency Operations Center and the National Weather Service,” he said. “Based on the event in Cape Coral last weekend, I am reaching out to our emergency management partners to establish some type of weather warning notification system.”
Blosser said your best course of action is to follow the National Weather Service or NOAA through the use of emergency weather radios, or by cell phone.
Charlotte County Emergency Management Executive Director Wayne Sallade agreed and said sirens are “antiquated technology.”  12493711_1540116052684707_7639721462255709040_o
“Sirens just don’t deliver in Florida’s climate, nor meet the needs of a primarily retired population,” he said. “Sirens on an island are really stupid, because only people right next door will be able to hear it. People just don’t understand that there is no magic bullet for alerting people to impending severe weather along a coastline. Things change very quickly when weather systems interact with the mainland. All systems that alert people to severe weather are driven by the NWS, so why don’t we encourage every household to purchase a weather radio that sits silently in your home until dangerous weather threatens and then provides details of what’s is coming? People can go out and drop $200 on drinks and dinner but won’t let go of $30 for something to protect their family. Also, the most recent smartphones are all part of what is called IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System), a FEMA initiative that puts watches and warnings in your pocket and alerts you via cellphone towers in the path of whatever is looming.”
Wireless emergency alerts are issued through IPAWS in Charlotte County. Emergency officials can send warnings directly to cell phones in affected areas. They are called Wireless Emergency Alerts.
They come across as what looks to be a text message, but unlike a regular text they are sent directly to your phone number and are broadcast to all phones within range of the cell phone towers chosen through the Commercial Mobile Alert System. These alerts give a description of what type of warning is issued, what the affected area is and how long the warnings are in effect.
Once you get a wireless emergency alert on your phone, you should prepare to find shelter and a weather radio or a television.
The alerts have a strange sound, somewhat like the old emergency signals on the television. They don’t interrupt calls in progress. If you are on the phone when the alert is issued, you will receive it when the call ends. You can also turn them off if you like.
You don’t need to have a Global Positioning System or any other features turned on to receive the alerts, but the age and type of phone you have might be an issue.
According to Charlotte County Emergency Management, if you have an older model phone you may not receive the WEAs. Other newer phones, such as newer-model iPhones and Androids, will soon receive software updates that will add this feature. Check with your service provider to see if your phone is WEA-capable. AT&T, Cricket, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon all have information about the alert system on their websites.
In Lee County you can go to leegov.com/publicsafety and sign up for CodeRED emergency alerts. You can sign up for text messages on your phone or messages by email, and it works much like Charlotte County’s system.
Those are your best options as far as severe weather notification goes on Gasparilla Island. They are not always as efficient as we would like, as one man in Cape Coral attested. He said that from the time his phone issued the alert until the tornado hit, approximately 15 seconds elapsed.
This means that your very best bet is the first thing listed above – pay attention.