Satellite images go a long way in helping weather forecasters and emergency management officials provide the public with the latest information during hazardous weather conditions.
But officials say the public also provides them with key information during these events through social media.
Jennifer Saari, meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Huntsville, said their office frequently receives photos and videos from residents who are witnessing the approach of hazardous weather, flash floods and the aftermath of storms.
Saari said the agency often shares those photos and videos on social media and with emergency management responders. She said they encourage the public to send that information because it gives them unique perspectives of what is going on that radar cannot provide.
“It helps us,” Saari said. “Let us know what’s happening at your house. It’s not right down my street. It’s down your street.”
George Grabryan, director of the Lauderdale County Emergency Management Agency, said images that give a perspective, such as water coming up on a mailbox, allow meteorologist to have a better feel of what is happening in real time and how deeply an area is flooding.
“They certainly use it when they’re interpreting things,” Grabryan said. “Those photos are really critical.
“Cloud formations also are really handy when storms are predicted, because they can interpret those really handily. Sometimes, if there’s a lowering of clouds, they can tell quickly if it’s something to be concerned with. It brings a lot of ground-troop information in. When you actually see it, a picture is worth a thousand words.”
He stressed, however, not to take chances that could threaten your safety just to get a photo.
The weather service received and shared various images and comments from the public when flooding occurred Sunday due to a system that dropped over 9 inches of rainfall in some Shoals locations.
Saari said forecasters and emergency workers were particularly interested in images of areas that are not typical flood spots.
“When you have someone say, ‘I’ve never seen it happen here before,’ that tells us a lot,” she said.
Social media also provides specifics on what is occurring.
“To know that a mall parking lot is flooded is one thing, but is it in the building?” she said. “If it’s in a church, how many inches? Is it encroaching into homes? We couldn’t know if people didn’t send anything.”
That type of information helped the weather service decide to issue a rare flash flood emergency on Sunday.
“That’s where we used a more serious tone to really drive home the seriousness of it,” Saari said of the flooding.
The weather service typically has 2 to 3 meteorologists at the Huntsville office at any one time, but about 5 or 6 when severe weather threatens or strikes, and even more depending on the seriousness of the event.
They keep tabs on social media during such events, and having additional workers helps in that task.
Grabryan said the weather service also uses social media posts during classes that train storm spotters for the EMA.
“When we do spotter training, you’d be surprised how many local photos they use in that,” he said. “It makes a difference, whether it is from a concerned citizen or an expert storm spotter.”