Jennifer Rukavina is the Chief Meteorologist for WPSD Local 6 in Paducah, KY where climate and weather are always making an impact.

The Future of Flash Flood Warnings

  • Sep 22, 2015

Heavy downpours and flash flooding events continue to increase in different areas of the United States. These specific type of events have increased between 10 to 40 percent in the Mid-South since 1958. (Kentucky, 16 percent; Tennessee, 14 percent; Missouri, 38 percent and Illinois, 12 percent.)

We don't have to look back too far in the records for our last event. Local businesses and homes were damaged from rushing flood waters in July when over 6 inches of rain fell in 2-3 hours over parts of Paducah, Ky.

The heavy rain and storms began around 3 a.m. and came to an end just before sunrise. Streams and creeks were overwhelmed along with an inundated urban development area. Flood zones were filled several inches, even feet deep, and while they only took a few short hours to dry out, the damage was already done to hundreds of homes and businesses.

Many factors came together for this event to become a disaster for many. Most people were asleep when the event began to unfold. There were very few eyes to report the magnitude of the flooding to the correct agencies so they may respond. The rapid nature and timing of the event made it more difficult for community agencies and the general public to react. We've seen similar scenarios across the U.S., especially with overnight events.

Back to the reason for this post. As flash flooding and heavy precipitation events rise in frequency, and technology improves to allow for faster response, I feel it is only logical to look at evolving the way we warn the general public. Obviously it's not my job to make these changes, but my purpose here is to get a conversation started. If it helps with improving community preparedness and response, I think it's worth it. The National Weather Service has successfully made this change with tornado warnings now issued with emphasis on impact. To see an example, see the graphic below:

Impact warnings
Impact warnings

Click to enlarge.

An Urban/Small Stream Flood Advisory was issued for McCracken County (Paducah area) during the July case. Unfortunately, these advisories are not as widely distributed as Flash Flood Warnings. In some cases, you may not even have the option to get alerts for them.

A Flash Flood Warning was issued after reports of major flooding were received and after 3-4 inches, locally more, of rain had fallen (per radar).  Multiple evacuations/water rescues were conducted and many vehicles had to be abandoned. It is solely my opinion that the Urban & Small Stream Flood Advisory was not enough and the Flash Flood Warning was needed a little sooner. As a broadcast meteorologist, it makes it difficult to put weight behind a specific threat without the National Weather Service. I tossed the idea out there and discussed with the National Weather Service the following:

Impact Based Flash Flood Warnings (3 Types):

  • Flash Flood Warning: Radar Estimated or Observed

  • Flash Flood Warning: Imminent or Ongoing Threat

  • Flash Flood Warning: High Risk to Life/Property; State of Emergency

The National Weather Service provides services and products that broadcast meteorologists cannot perform their jobs without. Collaborating and depending on one another is the only way to prepare and protect the communities that we serve. In the spirit of community preparedness, it's worth it to look at evolving and improving Flash Flood Warnings, and possibly eliminating Urban/Small Stream Flood Advisories. Flash Flood Warnings don't always lead to life threatening situations, but become necessary when Urban and Small Stream Flood Advisories are not as efficient in informing the public.

Send me your thoughts and opinions...I'd to love to hear them! .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).