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Severe Weather and Flood Safety Week: Watches and Warnings

Monday is the second day of South Carolina’s Severe Weather and Flood Safety Week. Stay up to date on weather conditions by following the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, the National Weather Service, SCETV and South Carolina Public Radio.

When severe weather is approaching, it’s critical to be able to take action in time to keep you and your family safe. Some weather events, like hurricanes, may have several days of lead time. While others, like tornadoes, may only have minutes.

The fast-paced nature of severe weather is what makes it so important to understand the tools used by the National Weather Service to communicate weather risks. These include outlooks, advisories, watches and warnings.

The National Weather Service issues watches and warnings for a variety of severe weather and hydrological events, such as tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, flash floods, and winter storms.

A watch is issued when the risk of a hazardous weather event has increased significantly, but when and where it will happen is still uncertain. This is done to give people enough time to put their safety plans in motion.

A warning is issued when a hazardous weather event is occurring or is imminent. A warning is issued to communicate an immediate threat to life and property.

Many emergency managers and meteorologists across the country have found a witty analogy using tacos to explain watches and warnings, such as this example from the City of Hattiesburg, Miss.

A “taco watch” means the ingredients, or favorable conditions, exist to make tacos. But it’s still unknown exactly when or where dinner will be served.

A “taco warning” means the tacos are ready. Or in weather terms, severe conditions have formed and are already occurring.

Some watches and warnings have more specific meanings, such as a Hurricane Watch and a Hurricane Warning. If you are under a Hurricane Watch, it means hurricane-force winds are expected in your area within 48 hours. A Hurricane Warning is issued when hurricane-force winds are expected within 36 hours. The same applies for tropical storm watches and warnings.

Two other terms often used by the National Weather Service are “advisory” and “outlook.” These terms indicate weather threats less immediate than a watch or a warning. For example, an outlook is issued to indicate that a hazardous weather event may develop. It is intended to give information to those who need considerable lead time to prepare for an event.

An advisory highlights weather conditions that do not rise to the need of a watch or warning but may cause significant inconvenience or even a threat to life or property if caution is not exercised. For example, a Heat Advisory is issued when the heat index reaches 105 degrees. People who stay in a climate-controlled, indoor space should be safe, while those who are outside for long stretches of time may be at risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Tomorrow, we will cover how to make sure you stay connected to official sources of weather information so you can respond to hazardous weather quickly.