Campus & Community

National Weather Service calls Harvard ‘StormReady’

3 min read

Every year Harvard braces for a storm of applications. Now it’s ready — officially — for storms of the natural variety.

In a brief ceremony July 20, federal officials certified Harvard as the first university in New England, and the first Ivy League school, to receive a “StormReady” designation from the National Weather Service (NWS). The certification program, in place since 1999, indicates that a community, business, or school is prepared to respond quickly and appropriately to a severe weather event.

“It’s a first, and we are mighty proud of you,” said Kenneth Horak ’65, deputy administrator in Region 1 for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He joined about 30 others for the ceremony, held at 46 Blackstone South, the site of the University Operations Center at Harvard.

The StormReady designation primarily requires storm warning systems and methods for disseminating information to the public. Certification calls for a site to have a 24-hour “warning point,” or operations center, and multiple ways to alert the public. It also requires a weather monitoring system, record-keeping protocols, a program of public readiness education, and a formal severe-weather plan.

Nationwide, there are 1,219 StormReady sites, including 652 counties, 529 communities, 18 universities, and four Indian nations. There are also nine military or government sites, and five commercial sites — including Six Flags New England, a theme park in Springfield, Mass. The StormReady certification is in effect for three years, and can be renewed.

During a severe weather event, Harvard would have to get information out to 45,000 people. That’s the University’s estimated daytime population of students, faculty, staff, and visitors during the academic year. Such a high number puts Harvard in the same StormReady category as cities, said Colt Hagmaier, the University’s emergency management coordinator.

He called the operations center at Blackstone “the heart of our storm warning program,” and the “warning point” required for StormReady certification. Personnel are there 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

On the afternoon of July 20, the glassed-in University Operations Center was quiet and cool. There was faint chatter from weather radios and police scanners. On one wall, five large-screen monitors tracked local weather and the news. Staffers in cubicles worked keyboards and fielded calls.

Operations Center workers monitor local meteorological systems, along with local radio and television. They subscribe to the Emergency Email Network and have access to Harvard’s two on-site weather stations. They can also use Hurrevac software for emergency planning and monitoring.

And the center has a ThorGuard Lightning Prediction System, installed just before Commencement. A roof-mounted sensor at 46 Blackstone South measures atmospheric electrostatic energy from 2.5 miles and 12 miles away. Data are fed through software at the Operations Center. The new system can predict a lightning strike with 85 percent accuracy — and give eight to 20 minutes of warning.

“This is a perfect example of how proactive you are,” Glenn Field, NWS warning coordination meteorologist, told the Harvard officials on hand.

In the event of severe weather, University Operations has a number of ways of getting the word out, including a campus two-way radio system (500 radios), opt-in broadcast e-mail notifications, text paging (1,000-plus recipients), a pager data base, and emergency Web site capabilities.

On the phone, the automated Harvard University Emergency Notification System (HUENS) can call 100 people every five minutes, and has more than 800 administrators in its database.

Over 85 percent of U.S. infrastructure is under the control of the private sector making stepped-up coordination programs like StormReady an important part of readiness, said Kenneth McBride, acting director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. “Harvard,” he said at the ceremony, “has raised the level of performance for other institutions of higher learning.”