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Sudden Metro Phoenix Storms Test Wireless Emergency Alert System

tree damaged
(Photo by Matthew Casey - KJZZ)
A tree split in half outside a home near 19th Avenue and Thomas Road in Phoenix.

The Valley of the Sun is still cleaning up after Monday night's monsoon poured down torrential rains, brought gale force winds and left a path of tangled trees and tens of thousands without power in the region.

In the storm’s aftermath, there's still some confusion over the system used to alert residents of bad weather ahead.

Many of us have the experienced the buzzing cacophony of the Wireless Emergency Alert going off on our cellphones, warning us of an impending dust storm or monsoon.

But this time, not everyone got one.

Ken Waters is warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Phoenix office. He said the alerts are based on warnings issued for a specific polygon-shaped area.

“If you happen to be carrying a phone that’s inside of that polygon, then you’re going to get the alert. However, if you’re just a little bit outside of it, you won’t get the alert. And so, that really explains why some people got the cell phone alerts, and some didn’t,” said Waters.

Some also didn’t get the alert because they’ve disabled them on their mobile devices. Waters said he hopes this sudden weather event should teach all of us to keep them enabled.

“We hope that people won’t go to that extreme, because you never know. That one alert that you miss could be the one that could save your life,” Waters said.

Fortunately, there were no reports of deaths or serious injuries as a result of the storms.

Meanwhile, why did the damaging storms seem to catch the Valley  — and especially the city of Phoenix — by surprise?

Waters said the system, which dumped up to 1.5 inches of rain in some spots and produced winds exceeding 60 miles per hour, developed quickly over the most populated part of the state, giving little time to issue warnings.

“We knew there were going to be storms, we were expecting that, we were ready for them. This is a case where it just happened that the storms formed up right over downtown Phoenix. It could have easily anyplace in the Valley,: Waters said.

Thousands of Phoenix residents were left without power as a result of the weather. City fire officials report receiving more than 400 calls for help in a two-hour period, as much as they would get in an entire day.

Phil Latzman is an award-winning digital journalist and broadcast professional with over 25 years of experience covering news and sports on a multitude of platforms.