The Jennings Creek area near Bowling Green, Kentucky, was devastated by the December 2021 tornadoes. Image: World Central Kitchen

In modern life, there are several ways to get special or urgent news about severe weather: online, through broadcasters such as radio and TV stations, through apps, tablets and computers, and through TXT notifications on mobile phones. But as communication technology becomes more sophisticated, people who don’t get used to the latest technology are also left behind. For financial reasons, for reasons of faith, or simply for personal reasons, there are those who are disconnected from our wired and wireless world and cannot know what’s going on with approaching severe weather. With this challenge, meteorologists and emergency management officials get very creative when it comes to connecting urgent messages to people they wouldn’t otherwise get.

Meteorologist Derick Snyder of the Paducah, Kentucky National Weather Service is one such team of communications experts getting creative when it comes to connecting with the disconnected. As a member of a Weather Awareness for a Rural Nation (WARN) committee, Snyder is part of a five-person task force exploring ways to increase weather understanding and awareness among communities that may not have access to scientific data and communication technologies, which often to be taken for granted in the 21st century.

Late in the evening of Friday, December 10, 2021, a powerful, long-track tornado swept across western Kentucky, causing severe to catastrophic damage in numerous cities including Mayfield, Princeton, Dawson Springs and Bremen. At the time, it was the deadliest tornado in U.S. history for the month of December and the ninth longest-ever tornado, traveling 165.7 miles with peak winds estimated at 190 mph.

In analysis after the storm, Snyder learned that among the dead was an Amish family living in a converted prefab home without electricity. Without electricity, they never knew what dangers would befall their community. Despite the accurate predictions, observations, and warnings issued before Mother Nature’s deadly onslaught, people like this Amish family remain unaware of the dangers around them. And that’s a problem WARN is trying to solve.

While not limited to serving the Amish and similar societies, the WARN Task Force considers the cultural aspects of those groups who eschew the use of modern technology but can still benefit from advances in meteorological forecasting and warnings to prepare for severe weather better protect weather. In addition to Snyder, this task force includes four other members: Jane Marie Wix of the Jackson, Kentucky National Weather Service Office; Tony Edwards of the Charleston, West Virginia National Weather Service Office; and Jason York and Joe Sullivan of the Kentucky Emergency Management Office. Snyder says the task force has also worked with other organizations, such as the University of Kentucky’s Agricultural Extension Service and Midland Radio.

"Digital nomads" Beth and Court are sponsoring a fundraiser that will better connect National Weather Service forecasts and alerts to people who would not otherwise receive those alerts.  Image: YouTube / Life with Beth and Court
“Digital nomads” Beth and Court are promoting a fundraiser that will better connect the National Weather Service’s forecasts and alerts to people who wouldn’t otherwise receive those alerts. Image: YouTube / Life with Beth and Court

And while the Amish are a big focus of their outreach, this WARN task force aims to connect all “off the grid” communities with state-of-the-art weather warnings and awareness to ensure the protection of their lives and property.

“We have worked with other NWS (National Weather Service) offices in states with large Amish populations, including NWS State College in Pennsylvania, to learn how they are approaching weather safety with the Amish communities living in their areas ‘ said Snyder. “In addition, several members of our task force attended a conference this summer on weather safety and the Amish that was held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. From these interactions we learned a lot about the Amish way of life and how best to include it. It’s about building personal relationships and creating trust. No two Amish communities are the same, each with their own set of rules and restrictions. What is well received in one community may not be so in the next. From our efforts, we have developed a toolkit for anyone interested in working with the Amish and off-grid communities. Our vision is that this toolkit will provide a collection of information that any office can use to support its efforts to work with the Amish. But more than that, we hope this will start the dialogue and ignite efforts to work with this historically underserved population.”

The Amish don’t have electricity in their homes, and they don’t allow the rest of the population to use modern technology, even something as simple as an AM/FM radio. To circumvent this challenge, WARN worked with weather radio manufacturer Midland, who agreed to make a special weather radio that would be compatible with the Amish way of life: It doesn’t receive AM/FM radio signals, it’s solar-powered with a hand-crank , and only weather broadcasts are received. The Amish-friendly weather radio costs about $30 apiece.

Self-proclaimed “digital nomads” Beth and Court, who create content for their YouTube channel, caught wind of WARN’s efforts. Days ago, they took to social media to try and raise $750 to buy special weather radios for families like the Amish who wouldn’t normally have them. To date, their fundraising efforts have raised more than $1,650, and they’re raising even more money today.

Midland is one of the largest weather radio manufacturers in the United States, relaying weather forecasts and urgent life saving weather clocks and alerts to those who have them.  Image: Mittelland
Midland is one of the largest weather radio manufacturers in the United States, relaying weather forecasts and urgent life saving weather clocks and alerts to those who have them. Image: Mittelland

“We know there are thousands of Amish communities across the country, as well as a significant number of similar communities, such as Old Order Mennonites, Brethren, etc… in addition to people who prefer to live off the grid,” Snyder said. He adds, “While we are enormously grateful for the donation support we have received so far, we know that simply buying weather radios for every household in these communities that needs one will not be enough. Our goal is to use these funds to purchase and distribute the weather radios to a few families in every Amish or off-grid community in Kentucky. Once word gets out about how useful they are, we hope people will start ordering the radios from Midland. To promote radios and weather safety in general, we’ve partnered with The Budget, a national weekly that serves these communities with a distribution of 50,000. The publisher of The Budget has agreed to let us promote these weather radios for free once they become available for purchase. We also publish a monthly weather safety column in The Budget and in a monthly newsletter from the University of Kentucky Agricultural Advisory Service, which many Amish families receive in the mail.”

Midland is also offering a discount on the radios for bulk orders from the WARN task force and other emergency response organizations such as emergency managers across the country.

Snyder says they’ve also applied for a grant to help purchase additional weather radios for distribution. “Beyond the radios, we hope to foster a culture of weather safety and preparedness for all types of hazardous weather.”