How the NWS issues a Flash Flood Emergency alert

Texas Parks and Wildlife aerials of flooding on Oct. 30, 2015. (Courtesy: TPWD)
Texas Parks and Wildlife aerials of flooding on Oct. 30, 2015. (Courtesy: TPWD)

CEDAR CREEK, Texas (KXAN) — Meteorologists from three National Weather Service offices, Fort Worth/Dallas, Houston/Galveston and Austin/San Antonio brought together media and emergency managers Tuesday for education and discussion on weather threats.

The main topic up for discussion: notifying people appropriately, especially when dealing with a heightened severe weather situation.

Emergencies can be issued by local National Weather Service offices on top of all advisories, watches and warning–but they’re newer and rarer. The NWS office in Austin/San Antonio has issued at least five Flash Flood Emergencies so far this year, not counting recent October events. The Houston/Galveston office has only issued one, ever: it was on Memorial Day of this year. Eight people died in Houston during that storm.

The definition of a Flash Flood Emergency—for another example, Tornado Emergency—is confusing, especially because there is no different warning sent out for it. A person must actually read the body of the warning text to understand the critical situation.

This is the definition for a severe weather emergency from the NWS: “AN EMERGENCY means that significant, widespread damage with a high likelihood of numerous fatalities is expected to continue. An emergency is not a new warning product, but a new, visible and high impact call-to-action.

  • Intended Purpose: To motivate and provide a sense of urgency to persons in the path of this storm. To communicate to state, local, and county officials and emergency responders that they should prepare for immediate search and rescue operations. To communicate the need to prepare for immediate medical emergencies, evacuation measures, and emergency sheltering.
  • Format: A statement in the third bullet of the warning. A headline at the top of the Severe Weather Statement that states, “…[TYPE OF] EMERGENCY FOR [GEOGRAPHIC AREA]…” The “emergency” would be issued predominately in Severe Weather Statements since it is highly likely that a warning would already be in effect.
  • Criteria: A large and catastrophic storm has been confirmed and will continue. It is going to have a high impact and/or affect a highly vulnerable population. Numerous fatalities expected.”

According to this definition, the tornado that killed 27 people in Jarrell in 1997 would NOT have received a Tornado Emergency, since the population affected was so small. The NWS offices at the IWT workshop stress they have enough autonomy to issue Tornado Emergencies regardless of the definition, should they believe it is warranted.

The responsibility of issuing emergencies became the center of attention during the meeting. Severe weather warnings are already defined as life-threatening situations; if severe weather emergencies become the new standard, the worry is that people will disregard regular warnings.

Your smartphone will tell you about a severe weather emergency, should your local NWS issue one. It will read in the body of the warning, which for most smartphone users goes into notifications, not messages or emails. That notification comes from the local NWS office.

When a warning, or heightened emergency, is issued, NWS sends the information to FEMA. FEMA then relays it to service carriers like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. Those carriers then “ping” all towers in the warned area, so you don’t have to sign up to any specific service to receive them.

Future talks between the National Weather Service, service carriers and FEMA includes increasing the character limit you see. Currently only 110 characters can be used on smartphones, which is actually a slightly outdated limit geared for flip phones. Pew Research reports that last year, 64 percent of American adults used smartphones and 68 percent of those adults use their smartphones to follow along with breaking news events.

NWS Austin/San Antonio Warning Coordination Meteorologist Paul Yura wants the ability for users to have more interaction with the information being sent over smartphones. He sees it as a “call to action,” where the best case scenario is that users click a link or turn on radios and TVs to get more information. Right now, severe weather warnings – and severe weather emergencies – end messages with “check local media.” provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Users who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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