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VDEM and how to prepare for severe weather season

Virginia Department of Emergency Management

Virginia just wrapped up Severe Weather Preparedness Week – an opportunity for Virginians to learn more about how to be best prepared for disaster as the calendar turns to spring.

We cover a lot of weather and climate topics here, but for this edition of CommonWx, I thought it’d be good to get a severe weather preparedness perspective from the people responsible for helping Virginians recover from the worst of what Mother Nature has to offer.

Lauren Opett is the Director of Communications and the Chief Agency Spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. I spoke to her about what the agency does to prepare for weather of all types and what you need to know with warmer weather right around the corner.

Nick Gilmore: When it comes to severe weather, how does VDEM prepare? And when disaster does strike, how does VDEM help impacted Virginians?

Lauren Opett: At VDEM we actually prepare for our hazards and disasters 365 days a year no matter what else is going on. There are obviously always unknowns that will happen with even our best plans in place. But each year we assess our readiness for the upcoming severe weather season. We start to review our plans, we’ll revise those plans, we identify resource gaps or needs that we have, or our localities may have. And then we also actually work to get the entire Virginia Emergency Support Team – also known as the VEST – ready to respond when they’re needed. And we do that through our regular training briefings and exercises. When disaster strikes, and before disaster, our agency actually has seven regional offices that work directly with our localities on a very regular basis.

NG: You mentioned that you all change your plans from year to year – can you tell me a little bit about what that looks like? Do you collaborate with the National Weather Service, you know, ‘It looks like maybe the spring is going to be a little bit more severe weather prone.’ Just tell me a little bit about how things change from year to year.

NOAA: La Niña is no more

NOAA Climate Prediction Center forecast for each of the three possible ENSO categories for the next 8 overlapping 3-month seasons. Blue bars show the chances of La Niña, gray bars the chances for neutral, and red bars the chances for El Niño.
Graph by Michelle L'Heureux
NOAA Climate Prediction Center forecast for each of the three possible ENSO categories for the next 8 overlapping 3-month seasons. Blue bars show the chances of La Niña, gray bars the chances for neutral, and red bars the chances for El Niño.

After a year and a half, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believes our current La Niña phase is finally coming to an end.

La Niña is the cool phase of what’s known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation – or ENSO. That’s essentially a measure of sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean – which can have great impacts on global weather patterns.

La Niña conditions are typically tied to drought conditions in the southern U.S. and warmer and wetter weather in Virginia.

NOAA predicts ENSO will be in a neutral stage through the spring, but what about beyond that? The current model projections show a transition to the warm phase – El Niño – is looking more likely by the end of 2023. That pattern tends to lead to drier than average conditions for our neck of the woods.

There is still a lot of time left until the calendar turns to winter again and many variables that go into that prediction, but there has never been four or more years in a row that the world has gone without an El Niño since historical records began back in 1950. If that doesn’t develop later this year, it would be five years without an El Niño.

Nevertheless, NOAA stresses the historical record is relatively short for a phenomenon that has decade-to-decade variability. In other words, only time will tell.

LO: The biggest thing that we use is after-action reports. After every activation that we do, there is an after-action report created by a third party through interviews and through looking at documentation from the event. And we really love those because that gives us actual things that happened, and we take a look at our strengths, and we take a look at our gaps. And then any gaps that are identified, we develop corrective actions that we can use to take back and then look at the plan, revise the plan and then we sort of start that training and exercise all over again. It’s really just a constant cycle of readiness and reviewing plans and revising plans based on the current environment. And this partnership that we have this week with the National Weather Service is really to promote this to the general public. We’re reminding people, educating them about our seasonal threats that we face, how to avoid them… and when I mean avoid them – we can’t make the tornadoes stop, but we help people be ready for them.

NG: The state is wrapping up the Severe Weather Awareness and you mentioned how you all have partnered with the National Weather Service – can you just tell me a little bit more about how efforts like that help Virginians be better prepared for the worst?

LO: I think a lot of people maybe don’t see spring storms as severe as hurricanes or they don’t see flooding as a threat to themselves. And so what we want to take a look at is all the potential hazards that could impact Virginia. And most of our impacts from severe weather are statewide. Tornadoes aren’t always a southwest and central Virginia threat and flooding isn’t always a coastal threat. We get snow statewide – all the impacts. Just making sure that people understand how they can be prepared. We really want to encourage people to have those kits year-round, have a plan year-round, stay informed… And the good thing is that if you do it for severe spring season, it carries over into hurricane season and then into winter weather preparedness season.

NG: Is there something that you would say VDEM does exceptionally well when it comes to disaster response and is there an area that you’d like to see the department improve.

LO: I think the biggest thing that we do well is collaboration – and that’s before, during and after an event. There’s kind of an old saying in emergency management that the scene of the disaster is not the time to be swapping business cards. And really, we take a very proactive approach in creating partnerships, developing those partnerships and maintaining those partnerships. And that’s not just with our Virginia Emergency Support Team partners – that’s across the Commonwealth with our localities and then down to the general public.

We have a lot of unknown events or no-notice events or things that have not happened for a long time. You take COVID as an example – we haven’t had the level of that pandemic in a long time, at least not since I have been alive and many others. And so, you have your plans based on what historically has occurred, but the environment today is very different than some of the larger pandemics that happened decades, hundreds of years ago. It’s really difficult to predict every single thing that will happen, and we try our best to be an all-hazard emergency management program – but some of the best plans that you have, you just have to realize that “ok, this didn’t work” and you step back and revise your plans.

We can’t make the tornadoes stop, but we help people be ready for them.

Virginia Department of Emergency Management

NG: Is there anything else you wanted to add – something Virginians should be aware of as it comes to severe weather in the spring and summer months?

LO: You know one of the biggest threats – especially out in the southwest Virginia portion of the Commonwealth – is really the flooding. Making sure you have adequate insurance coverage, no matter where you live. It’s important to recognize for everybody. Some people don’t realize until they are in that situation and unfortunately do not have coverage that storm-related losses like flooding aren’t actually covered under traditional insurance policies.

And just start getting your property ready. Cleaning, clearing out drains, securing loose articles, testing generators – all of those things seem small, but they do go a very long way in ensuring that you minimize property loss and life safety actions as well.

NG: Lauren, thank you so much for that information. I really appreciate it. And thank you so much for your time today.

LO: Absolutely! Thank you.

Thanks for checking out this edition of CommonWx — the weather and climate newsletter from RADIO IQ. Use this link to get the newsletter sent to your inbox.

Nick Gilmore is a meteorologist, news producer and reporter/anchor for RADIO IQ.