Note: In view of the National Weather Service’s decision to experiment with tiered tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings in Missouri and Kansas beginning April 1, the concerns raised in this posting become more relevant than when it was first published on February 4. I’ve added additional information in maroon type and elevated it to the top of the blog for today. If you are not aware of the NWS’s plan (they still have not made a public announcement) see the two postings bellow.
Last week, I criticized journalism is general, and ABC News in particular, about lazy journalism when it comes to tornadoes. I wrote, pertaining to their inaccurate reporting there was “no warning” of the Alabama pre-dawn tornadoes,
There seems to be another group that suffers from either lack of knowledge about the rapid progress we have made in the field of storm warnings, inertia, or timidity: Emergency managers.
As I have been gathering data from around the nation for the purpose of reviewing last year’s tornado season, it seems emergency managers have a mantra:
Crossley was responding to criticism about sounding the sirens — twice in one evening — in areas that were never under a warning.
Or, take a look at this video from KMOV-TV, St. Louis, after I criticized St. Louis County for sounding sirens in areas more than 25 miles (with the tornado moving away) from the tornado. They have the capability to sound sirens selectively (i.e., NWS polygons) if they wish to do so.
He said, “I’d rather be safe than sorry” and that we “never know” which way a storm is moving.
So, how bad was the overwarning he was defending?
Above are two images I took during the storm. At left is the funnel cloud for which the warning was issued. At the bottom of the photo is the Mississippi River separating Missouri from Illinois and, at lower left, the south leg of the Gateway Arch.
At right is a photo of the local television storm coverage. “STL” is downtown St. Louis where my hotel room was located. The orange arrow denotes the “hook” echo which shows the tornado’s location and what prompted me to leave my room and go to a location in the hotel to take a photo of the funnel (note: it was past me, I was safe) as it moved northeast. There are no other storms to the west yet the sirens are going off as far away as Pacific, MO (purple arrow).
Below is a Google Map image showing the location of the funnel (F) moving northeast (thick red arrow). The orange arrow from the above image is carried over. Pacific, MO is located with the purple arrow as above. Pacific is 35 miles behind the tornado threat which is moving northeast, away from Pacific!
I’m not talking about a mile or two safety buffer, I’m talking about tens of miles! St. Louis County has the technological capability to sound the sirens only in areas actually threatened but they choose not to use it.
Now, take a look at this story from WFIE-TV in Indiana from January 18th (updated Jan. 25th) that came to my attention
yesterday February 3:
We keep hearing from emergency managers; and there are many more examples I can cite:
Or, is it really erring on the side of protecting the emergency manager from second guessing (i.e., fear of criticism if a tornado occurs without the sirens going off)?
So, here is the problem: The evidence is rapidly accumulating that “erring on the side of safety” is doing nothing but training people to ignore warning sirens.
Between the media inaccurately yet constantly telling people how bad the warnings are and emergency managers sounding the sirens 20 miles behind the tornado it is almost a wonder that anyone pays attention. But, with good television and radio reporting, many are able to intelligently respond and save their lives in spite of these handicaps. But, there is no reason for an environment where making the correct decision has to be so hard.
Based on the preliminary research I have done pertaining to 2011, there is no question that complacency cost lives. I’ll have more when I am finished with the work.
ADDITION Saturday 11am: I’ve received some surprising (at least to me) feedback about this post. Apparently, a number of readers do not know that I have written a book documenting how accurate storm warnings have become. For those interested, it is Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather. Warnings is a non-technical read that explains how courageous scientists built the system that managed the amazing feat of getting both a watch and warning in place in advance of 99% of the fatalities in 2011′s record tornado season.
While there is still work to be done, there is no question that meteorology has advanced storm warnings to where they should be accorded the level of respect that medical diagnosis receive.
If you doubt that is the case, please read the book (OK with me if you go to the library or buy the less expensive ebook version!) before 2012′s tornado and hurricane seasons. Doing so might save your life!
Addition (Feb. 18): I learned last week that Johnson County, Iowa became the fourth jurisdiction since Joplin to announce that it will start sounding sirens for severe thunderstorm warnings, including 1″ hail, which is why this posting is so important. The key to saving lives is getting people to take action and they will only do so if they feel comfortable with their decision.
Combined with the National Weather Service’s plan to complicate the tornado warnings and give their local offices the option of adding the sentence, “A tornado is possible.” to severe thunderstorm warnings, we are setting ourselves for confusion, delays seeking shelter, and — potentially — the loss of additional lives.