Severe weather alert system causes confusion

Annie Blanks | 315-4450 | @DestinLogAnnie | ablanks@thedestinlog.com
Firefighters walk by a damaged home and trees after a waterspout came ashore on Kohler Drive in Mary Esther. NICK TOMECEK/DAILY NEWS

Mid-day Wednesday, a powerful waterspout was whipped up during a storm on the Gulf of Mexico and then made landfall as a tornado in Destin before traveling to the Choctawhatchee Bay.

Thankfully, no damages or injuries were reported. But the quickness with which the storm popped up, and the subsequent lack of warning from weather officials, confused some residents and exposed potential weaknesses in the way severe weather alerts are disseminated in Destin.

Jamie Haig, a Destin resident who works on Commons Drive, which was within a mile of where the tornado made landfall, said she was surprised there were no sirens to alert her of the tornado. Additionally, she did not receive an alert on her cell phone, though her boss did. 

“I've lived in Destin for seven years now and there have never been any sirens, ever,” Haig said in an email to the Log. “Especially (Wednesday).  My concern is more for folks at the (Destin) Commons or other outdoor areas where the siren should run just as a precaution.”

Destin City Manager Carisse LeJeune said the city’s emergency alerts fall under the jurisdiction of Okaloosa County Emergency Management, which does not employ sirens as a means of emergency notification. The county does, however, send out “code red” alerts through its Ready Okaloosa app in the event of severe weather.

“Neither Okaloosa County nor the city of Destin use sirens anymore as early warning systems,” LeJeune said. “In this digital age, most people have or have access to smartphones.”

Okaloosa County Director of Public Safety Alvin Henderson confirmed that the county does not use a siren system and instead relies on smartphone apps.

“We do not have a siren activation throughout the county, and the past theory has been to utilize smartphone technology,” Henderson said. “That’s due to the fact, if you’re indoors, you may not hear that siren going off. It was determined the smartphone devices were the best means of getting those alerts out to citizens.”

With Wednesday’s storm, however, Henderson said the county did not receive any kind of warning from the National Weather Service, and so they did not send out any alert through the Ready Okaloosa app. Okaloosa County was, however, under a tornado warning issued by the National Weather Service, but only cell phone users whose phones were pinging off of Walton County towers got the notification.

According to Ryan Rogers, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mobile, the Wireless Emergency Alerts system bases alerts on geographic proximity to severe weather, but that system is often unreliable, particularly in Destin.

“Alerts are based on the cell tower that’s within the area of the warning,” Rogers said. “So if a carrier happens to have their tower covering Destin but it’s based in, say, Walton County, then people in Destin might not get those alerts.

“People not getting warnings in Destin is actually very common,” he added.

The WEA system is also how Amber Alerts are disseminated, and it is possible on some phones to turn those types of alerts off, Rogers said. So, if someone had turned off their alerts, they wouldn’t get the severe weather alerts either.

“As we get information we will push information out on (the Ready Okaloosa) application,” Henderson said. “We are currently looking at other options of enhancing our weather alerting capabilities.”