Hennepin County and Clear Channel Outdoor have tested the warnings in downtown Minneapolis
by Katy Zillmer
Sun POST Newspapers
Hennepin County and Clear Channel Outdoor are partnering to use commercial digital billboards to alert commuters about severe weather warnings from the National Weather Service.
Clear Channel Outdoor owns 22 digital billboards in Hennepin County and 9 in Ramsey County that will be available to display weather warnings.
Hennepin County Emergency Management Director Eric Waage said the billboards will primarily be used to alert drivers of tornado warnings nearby because they might not be listening to the radio or be able to hear weather sirens from their vehicle.
Three billboards were tested April 16 at Eighth Street and Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis as part of National Severe Weather Preparedness Week.
The partnership between the county and Clear Channel Outdoor developed in the end of summer 2012 with plans to begin using the signs this spring, Waage said.
Billboards available for the warnings owned by Clear Channel Outdoor are also located on interstates throughout Minneapolis and on Interstates 394 and 494.
Waage said Hennepin County also owns electronic signs located where county roads connect to the Interstate 494 corridor in Maple Grove and Plymouth that could be used for the weather warnings.
Partners in the project chose to only display National Weather Service tornado warnings on the signs because of the risk they pose to people who are driving toward severe weather and may not know it, he said.
Warnings will be displayed on signs in proximity to areas where weather sirens are used during a storm.
Hennepin County now has 20 smaller zones with sirens, instead of four used in the past, to be able to provide warnings to people closer proximity to the severe weather, Waage said.
The warnings will be displayed in 15-minute increments, or longer, on the billboards.
The messages on the billboards can be changed in additional zones of Hennepin or Ramsey County to alert drivers if a storm is traveling in that direction, said Susan Adams Loyd, the president of Clear Channel Outdoor.
On average, a warning displayed on any one of the digital billboards could reach tens of thousands of motorists, Adams Loyd said.
Overall the average number of motorists that drive by any one of the digital billboards in one week is about 277,000, she said.
“Hopefully it is yet another way to get that information out quickly,” she said.
The tornado warnings on the digital billboards will alert drivers to turn on their radio for more specific weather information or to take shelter from the storm.
“All of us agree the most important decisions are made before you even get on the road,” Waage said.
But if someone is already driving, the weather warnings will be an alert to stop and not continue traveling in the direction of a storm, Waage said.
In urban areas, he said, trees and buildings can block the visibility of a tornado.
Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Eric Roeske spoke after the billboard test last week, advising drivers what to do if they are stuck in an open area during severe weather.
“They should drive away from a tornado, at a right angle into the storm’s path, or move a safe distance from the car and into a low-lying area, where they should lie face down, protecting their heads and necks,” Roeske said.
But Roeske also stressed people should be aware of weather conditions before they drive.
“Awareness is the most important tool drivers have. Don’t put yourself in a vulnerable position,” Roeske said.
According to the National Weather Service, 9 percent of people who have died during a tornado in the United States between 1985 and 2008 were in their vehicles. Waage said one person died when a tornado hit north Minneapolis in 2011 and a tree fell on their vehicle.
“It’s hard to measure success other than lower casualty rates, but we feel (drivers are) a segment that is not given adequate warning,” Waage said.
“We know drivers respond to signs … so we know this is a big improvement,” Waage said.
Digital signs at Light Rail stations are also available for the written warnings as well as audio.
Info: crh.noaa.gov/mpx/ (Twin Cities National Weather Service website)
Contact Katy Zillmer at [email protected]