Shawna and I drove through downtown Joplin minutes before the tornado hit. Sirens were going, but we could not see the tornado, and many people were out and about seemingly unaware or unconcerned. We had been following this storm complex for a couple hours without observing any tornadoes, and though we were a little nervous, we weren’t anticipating anything of the magnitude that buried Joplin around 5:45 pm CDT.
Storm chaser and meteorologist Jon Davies, from his blog here
Guest, an eye-witness I spoke to said people at a driving range kept right on hitting golf balls even as the tornado sirens were blaring.
Stan Finger, Wichita Eagle web chat, Monday.
a CNN Wire report quoted Alexa Wattelet, in Joplin at the time the storm hit, as saying that “the sirens always go off, so no one thought anything of it.”
Joplin resident Rick Morgan thought about it before taking cover.
“They go off, and it’s like, you know, tornado never comes, it seems like,” he told CNN on Monday.
Kansas City Star
What might cause this seemingly irrational behavior? I have a theory: We have sounded the sirens so often that people have come to ignore them. I’ve written two posts in the last six days on this topic. Go here and here to read them.
From 1957 to 2005, the National Weather Service issued tornado warnings by whole counties. This was appropriate because our skill at locating and tracking tornadoes was not very good. So, alerting relatively large areas made sense.
With the advent of Doppler radar in the 1990′s and more accurate short term prediction tools, the National Weather Service switched to storm-based warnings, i.e., warning only the area(s) in the path of the storm. An illustration of the advantages is below:
|Click to enlarge.
While visiting St. Louis earlier this week, I learned that they have a policy of sounding tornado sirens not only in all of St. Louis County when a warning is issued for any part of the county, but sounding the tornado sirens in all of St. Louis County when a tornado warning issued for an adjacent county!
|In this hypothetical example, sirens would be sounding in Mehlville and Oakville
nearly 50 miles away from the tornado!
On Wednesday, a tornado warning was issued by the National Weather Service for a funnel cloud that followed the path indicated by the arrow. Photo is the actual funnel (located at the arrowhead) as viewed from our hotel (purple pin). The NWS issued an accurate warning for the path of the storm.
|Path of the funnel cloud Wednesday with actual
photo of the funnel cloud we tracks from South St. Louis County
Yet, tornado sirens went off over all of St. Louis County. I’ve circled some of the cities in which the sirens were sounded (there were many more) that were not threatened at any time.
One would think this would prompt an examination of procedures since a false alarm occurred that affected more than 500,000 people. Unfortunately, it did not. KMOX radio interviewed me and interviewed St. Louis County officials. The story is here
. Here is what the emergency managers had to say,
Defending the policy, the Acting Director of St. Louis County Emergency Management, Bill Roach, says the sirens mean one thing.
“Those sirens are an early warning device,” Roach said, “They don’t mean people should immediately run down in their basement and seek shelter. What they mean is you should seek additional information.”
Roach says the current policy saves lives, because tornados can change directions, and trying to guess where to selectively warn people could lead to deaths.
Trying to guess? This isn’t 1964. Meteorologists know the direction of movement of these storms. Plus, the National Weather Service adds a margin of safety. There is absolutely no scenario where (to pick one example) Ballwin was at risk from that storm.
Saves lives? I believe this gross overwarning risks doing the opposite. When you sound the sirens time and time again in areas where there is no threat, people stop paying attention. I saw it in Lawrence and Overland Park Saturday and again in St. Louis on Wednesday.
It is long past time to rethink countywide and multi-county tornado siren activations. Sirens should only be activated in areas where there is a genuine threat.