Stormtrack.org is discussion group of meteorologists, storm chasers, and weather aficionados. Four days after the Greensburg tornado of Friday, May 4, 2007, the group was talking about a then-rarely used National Weather Service message called a “tornado emergency” (TE) that was issued by Mike Umscheid of the NWS office in Dodge City as the tornado approached the town.
Most of the commenters were complimentary of the TE. I was one of the few that was critical. I’d like to reproduce those comments from nearly 5 years ago because I believe they are highly pertinent to the discussions about the new tornado warnings on steroids that begin April 1 in from western Illinois to central Kansas. DDC = Dodge City NWS. ICT = Wichita. PDS = then-rare “particularly dangerous situation” tornado watch.
Here is the crux of the matter as far as I am concerned: We all agree that Friday’s TE was fine. It was issued on a classic hook with gate-to-gate shear off the chart. DDC got praise for issuing it.
The next evening a far weaker signature approached Great Bend. ICT NWS (for which I have great respect) appeared to feel compelled to issue a “tornado emergency.” It “busted.”
The first ever PDS tornado watch of which I am aware was April 26, 1991, which produced Andover, Red Rock and Cowley Co., all of which were F4 or F5. At first, PDS’s were rare.
Now, PDS tornado watches are issued much more frequently than they were at first. On Saturday, SPC issued five (more than used to be issued in an entire year), none of which verified from the point of view of long-track F4, F5′s (which was the original intent of the PDS watch). The tornado watch for Greensburg Friday was an “ordinary” tornado watch — but an extraordinary tornado occurred. Because it was an “ordinary” tornado watch did we want the public to be less aware? Do we really have that much meteorological reliability (which I define as consistent skill)?
Melbourne NWS in August, 2005, received praise for issuing a tornado warning for the 100 mph winds associated with the decaying eye of Hurricane Charley. It spread across the NWS and morphed into something unfortunate: Telling people in the path of Katrina to go to the lowest floor as a 30 ft. storm surge came in.
These things seem to have a “creep” to them. The first few are great. Then, they start being used more and more often until they become less meaningful. Then, they can continue to morph into something undesirable if a great deal of thought is not given to whether it is a good idea in the first place and, if so, what are the circumstances under which it is appropriate use the new special product. Otherwise, in a few years, TE’s might become routine until some NWS office issues a Super Duper Tornado Emergency message.
When you combine the TE concerns above with the additional complexity (are people going to hear about these new products and reprogram their WR-SAME, NWWR heading decoders, etc., in time for a future rare event?) especially in areas where tornadoes are infrequent, to catch the “tornado emergency message”? If they do, will they get disenchanted when their NWR’s are waking them up for Statements?
If you restrict TE’s to dense population areas, are we saying that a life in a big city is worth more than in a small town?
That is why I believe the polygon tornado warnings, which become official October 1, should be given a chance to work before we make another major change to the tornado warning system.
I do believe many influential and smart people read this board which is why I have posted my comments and spent so much time on this.
Thanks for reading, everyone,
The NWS did in fact tell people to go to the lowest floor of their homes as the 30′ storm surge of Hurricane Katrina moved in (I cover that entire issue in the Katrina chapters of Warnings).
And, the number of “tornado emergency” messages after Greensburg skyrocketed as predicted and the vast majority of them have been incorrect.
Now, as I feared 5 years ago, we will soon have two types of ”super duper” tornado warning. And, the affected NWS offices have the ability to add “A tornado is possible” to severe thunderstorm warnings. As this “creeps” (which it inevitably will), the “lines” (to the extent that people will be able to tell the difference between a “tornado emergency warning” and a “particularly dangerous situation tornado warning”) will blur and mass confusion will result.
Anyone want to bet against this?