Weather Alerts Make for Rude Awakening

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It looks like any other text message, but the sound is unmistakable.

"It was extremely loud," said Dani Torcolacci, who was sleeping in Lansing early Monday morning. "And it was like this typical system alert that can come on a TV."

The alert, warning of potential flash flooding, woke her and thousands of people across Ingham, Eaton and Barry counties at about 5 a.m. Monday.

"I wasn't expecting it at five in the morning," said Torcolacci, admitting she was startled. "I could tell it was storming. I checked it really quickly, saw it was a flash flood and not a tornado or anything, so I went back to sleep."

The message came from the National Weather Service. It's called a Wireless Emergency Alert -- or WEA -- and comes to most newer models of cell phone. It's designed to reach as many people as possible in the event of an emergency, be it weather-related, an Amber Alert or HAZMAT leak, among other things.

People are automatically signed up, though there is an opportunity to opt out through a cell phone's notification settings.

The noise, not surprisingly, is designed to grab your attention.

"It is a minor inconvenience for what could in some instances very well be a life-saving service," said Evan Webb, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids. "In cases like last night, heavy rains caused road washouts, numerous road closures, and it's good for people to be aware if anybody is getting out to travel or drive around."

But the rain wasn't enough for a warning in Rob Dale's mind. The deputy emergency manager in Ingham County, Dale said the alert frustrated him.

"A lot of people got it at once at five in the morning when very few people are actually out driving, and that's what it was really intended to do," said Dale. "We want them to be for imminent, life-threatening information only. This really didn't fit that, at least in my mind."

In a blog post Monday, Dale said there are better uses of the WEA system than a storm that didn't even dump an inch of rain in some areas.

He doesn't have an issue with WEA itself, but the fact that the message was so widespread bothered him. Plus, when such a noticeable alert makes an appearance for such a minor event, he worries about the potential backlash.

"A lot of people were saying 'I'm turning this off, I don't want to hear a wake up call at 5 a.m., I live on the third floor of an apartment, for example, why do I need this?'" Dale said. "They didn't need this today, but they do need this if there is an actual tornado warning, they need to be down in shelter, or if there's other significant events and my fear is that they may turn it off."

It's also possible, Dale says, to get alerts not intended for you, based on the way cell towers can sometimes overlap.

But when News 10 asked people about the alerts, they seemed to be ok with sacrificing a little sleep.

"I feel like it's best to get the warning out there instead of like not knowing about it," said Amanda Chmielewski. "It could be something more serious."

The same goes for Mike Steinberger, even though he lives high above any possible flood areas.

"A flash flood wasn't really a problem for us but if a tornado was coming or anything like that, I would definitely want to know," he said. "I'd rather those alerts come and wake me up than not."

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