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Storm Warning vs. Watch

The labels of "storm watch" and "storm warning" are used year-round and in different situations across the country. Knowing the difference between a watch and warning — and what actions you should take when they're issued — can help you and your family take appropriate precautions and stay safe.

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National Weather Service alerts

The National Weather Service (NWS) keeps an eye on forecasts and climate data around the country. When it detects a potentially serious weather pattern, the NWS will notify local meteorologists in the area. Since you may not always be near a radio or television, you can stay up-to-date on weather changes by following your local news stations on social media, downloading the NWS app or signing up for text alerts from the NWS.

When you hear news that a storm watch or storm warning has been issued, keep in mind that the term being used describes both the immediacy and level of force of the storm.

What is a storm watch?

A storm watch means that severe weather hasn't occurred yet, but upcoming weather conditions are expected to produce potentially dangerous weather, such as heavy rain, hail or strong gusts of wind. Because conditions can change quickly, the NWS wants to give you as much time as possible to safeguard your personal property and take shelter.

What is a storm warning?

A storm warning indicates that meteorologists have already observed severe conditions. If you hear that a storm warning has been issued, it means potentially dangerous weather is imminent in or near your location. Depending on the type of weather warning, take appropriate action as quickly and safely as possible.

Which is Worse, a Warning or a Watch?

A storm warning is worse than a watch. When the NWS issues a warning, take cover immediately. Meanwhile, a watch indicates a storm is possible but not guaranteed.

Think of a warning as a prompt to prepare immediately for an impending weather event. Weather radars or storm spotters have seen the approaching storm. The storm is happening soon and poses a significant threat to your life, pets and property. Now is the time to take cover and protect yourself, your loved ones and your belongings.

A storm watch indicates that a significant weather event is possible but may or may not happen. While the NWS believes that conditions are favorable for a hazardous or severe storm to develop, the storm's timing, location and other details are uncertain and undetermined. A watch can be issued up to two days or a few hours in advance of the impending weather event.

Types of storm watches and warnings

Storm watches and storm warnings exist for your protection. Understand the types and significance of both weather alerts as you prepare for severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, flash floods, tropical storms, hurricanes, and winter storms.

  • Severe Thunderstorms. A thunderstorm watch, which can be in effect for several hours, means weather conditions exist where severe thunderstorms can easily develop. A thunderstorm warning means current storm conditions can turn worse, including heavy rain and strong winds. Whether a watch or a warning, it's best to stay inside and away from windows.
  • Tornadoes. April, May and June are the most active months of the year for tornadoes to occur. A tornado watch means severe weather, such as large hail or winds over 58 mph, has the potential to turn into tornadic activity. A tornado warning indicates that either a strong weather rotation could produce a tornado at any moment or that a funnel cloud has already been spotted. In either situation, you should seek shelter immediately and pay attention to local news updates.
  • Flash Floods. A flash flood watch signals that even if there isn't any standing water in your immediate area, you should be ready for those conditions to change at any moment. Flash flood watches can turn to warnings quickly, meaning that flooding of nearby bodies of water is imminent or already happening. In either case, move to higher ground as safely as possible, and stay out of the flood's path — for instance, don't try to drive your vehicle through large areas of pooling water.
  • Tropical Storms. The NWS tries to issue tropical storm watches as early as possible to allow enough time for emergency prep, including the possibility of evacuation. If you hear a warning, though, a tropical storm is expected within the next 36 hours, and you should take shelter immediately.
  • Hurricanes. Whether there is a tropical storm expected to strengthen into a hurricane, or one that's already formed, a watch means a hurricane has the potential to impact your area. You should gather emergency supplies and be prepared to act quickly. Warnings are typically issued up to three days in advance — if one is issued, take direction from local authorities on whether to take shelter or to leave the area immediately.
  • Winter Storm. A winter storm watch is usually issued at least 24 hours in advance of the storm. It lets you know that while hazardous weather conditions are likely, the exact areas and timing may not be known yet. If a watch is upgraded to a winter storm warning, try to avoid traveling, as visibility and road conditions can become unsafe.

No matter the type of watches or warnings that may come your way, it's important to properly prepare for storm conditions in advance. Also, be sure to review your policies with your insurance agent so you know what's covered in case of storm damage.


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