As severe storms moved into Arlington on May 24, 2011, Texas Rangers fans were told to take cover.Luckily, the storm system that unleashed eight tornadoes on North Texas dropped only heavy rain and hail on what is now Globe Life Park, where fans were evacuated from the upper bowl and into the tunnels beneath the main concourse.The next year, on April 3, a tornado packing 135 mph winds tore through southwest Arlington and Kennedale, one of 17 twisters to hit North Texas that afternoon. No one was killed, but more than 500 buildings, mostly homes, were damaged in Arlington and Kennedale.Both storms served as a harsh reminder that April ushers in severe weather season in North Texas, a fact that officials are well aware of as a huge sports and entertainment weekend ramps up.Crowds will turn out in Arlington, Fort Worth and Dallas the next few days to watch the NCAA Final Four at AT&T Stadium, NASCAR races at Texas Motor Speedway and free concerts.“I’m concerned that it’s April and it’s North Texas and we know what can happen this time of year,” said Mark Fox, warning and coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Fort Worth.The weather service will send meteorologists to emergency operations centers for all the major events this week. The first threat of storms should blow through Thursday.“We’re there to answer any and all questions the public safety organizers have,” Fox said. “We are there to give up-to-date information on where the rain is and where the thunderstorms are. We’re constantly looking at the short term.”At Sundance Square Plaza in downtown Fort Worth, ESPN will begin broadcasting its Final Four coverage Thursday, but fans won’t have a real chance to see shows until Friday, said Tracey Gilmour, a Sundance Square spokeswoman. If severe weather hits, ESPN can move indoors.“I expect we’ll be full, but I’m not expecting it to be over the top like during the Super Bowl,” Gilmour said, referring to the large crowds that showed up to watch ESPN’s broadcasts from downtown Fort Worth for Super Bowl XLV in 2011.Sirens at AT&T StadiumIn Arlington, the emergency operations center is open all week and will be staffed until two hours after the games end Saturday and Monday.“We are prepared if anything happens,” Assistant Fire Chief Bill McQuatters said.Arlington officials have two storm sirens outside the stadium that can warn fans to take cover in severe weather. Unlike normal sirens, they can issue messages.“If the need arises, we can turn them into public-address systems,” said Irish Hancock, Arlington’s emergency management administrator. “We can issue verbal messages telling people to seek shelter.”Inside the stadium, the public-address system will be used to notify fans when a storm approaches. If necessary, fans will be moved to a secure area.Arlington firefighters and police officers will use their Twitter and Facebook accounts to disseminate information. City officials will have 51 people specifically assigned to the stadium, in addition to normal staffing for big games.New radar should helpWhile the chance of storms is slight Thursday, it increases to 40 percent for Sunday, when the March Madness Music Festival is scheduled in downtown Dallas and the Duck Commander 500 will race at Texas Motor Speedway.Officials hope that a mobile unit of the new advanced radar system will be operating in northwest Fort Worth by this weekend, said Amanda Everly, who is coordinating the radar program for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.Known as CASA, for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere, the radar makes scans of storms every minute instead of every five minutes. It provides higher-resolution images and multiple overlapping views of storm cells. Two of the $500,000 units — one at the University of Texas at Arlington, the other in Midlothian — are already being used.“It will fill in a big gap we have right now in the network of radars we have up and running. We’re hoping it will be ready for the big events this weekend and also for the Fort Worth arts festival and Mayfest, which are coming up,” Everly said. “… This Fort Worth radar will give them an idea of what’s coming in from the west.” Plans in place at TMSThe speedway, which will begin drawing crowds Thursdayfor practice sessions for this weekend’s NASCAR series, has seen delays before because of thunderstorms.Officials with the speedway, NASCAR and Fort Worth have long had plans in place for severe weather, including the use of sirens and public-address systems.Fort Worth will have employees at the speedway and storm spotters on hand if severe weather develops. The city encourages those camping at the track to sign up for its Nixle text and email notification service in case storms arise.“My expectation is they would make an announcement like they have in the past,” said Juan Ortiz, Fort Worth’s emergency management coordinator.“I can tell you in years past, when storms have happened, they have moved very quickly to get the word out to folks and had them move them to a secure location, very similar to what TCU did during the UT football game last fall, where they were getting folks out of the seating bowl during the storm.” Staff writer Steve Campbell contributed to this report.
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna