Worst Science Story of the Week

Worst Headline: “Tornado Forecasting Eludes Weather Scientists” in my hometown paper, The Wichita Eagle. 

The headline was attached to the worst story science story of the week written by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press. The story was printed in many newspapers across the United States, including the Tulsa World, Miami Herald, and others. 

Let me state — again — on this blog how wrong this story is: Of the 551 people killed by tornadoes in 2011, more than 99% were located in both a tornado watch and a tornado warning at the time the storm arrived! 

Mr. Borenstein cites Joplin. Here is the forecast of the Joplin tornado in the form of the tornado watch:

The watch was issued at 1:30pm, 4 hours and 11 minutes before the tornado reached Joplin! The watch (a forecast) further says there is a “high” probability of tornadoes and a “moderate” probability of a tornado of F-2 intensity or greater.

Did things go wrong later that afternoon in Joplin? Yes. Are there still further improvements to be made to the warning system? Yes, to that, too. The warning system is hardly perfect. But, to trash the science that got the major tornadoes right 99% of the time is ridiculous. This type of ignorant reporting ( ”Tornado Forecasting Eludes Weather Scientists”) does nothing but discourage people from taking warnings seriously — and that is dangerous

Because of stories defending the protagonist in Fakegate, there were many worthy contenders. Still, I hereby nominate Mr. Borenstein for the Dianne Sawyer Award for inaccurate reporting about weather and storms. 

"Our Forecasts are So Much Better than They Were and We Never Get Any Credit…"

…said a NOAA meteorologist this afternoon at the Weather Ready Nation meeting.

I immediately replied that is because we never tell anyone about our successes!

Panel discussion at the Weather Ready Nation meeting this afternoon

There were 17 speakers in the morning session and only one — a social scientist — said “things went pretty well” with this year’s violent tornadoes. The rest were versions of “woe is us” — too many people in the U.S. died. “We failed,” the thinking went. I strongly disagree.

Now, so I am clear: Too many people did die in tornadoes this year! But, it is now confirmed, more than 99% of the people killed by tornadoes this year were in both a tornado watch and a tornado warning when the storm arrived. That is an absolutely amazing scientific accomplishment.

But, until I tweeted it from the meeting (@usweatherexpert), no one outside of the meteorological profession knew it.

So, given better than 99% warning accuracy, the cause of the unusually high death toll likely lies elsewhere.

Take a look at the graph below, it is the tornado death rate (logarithmic scale — this was a meeting of scientists after all) since the late 1800′s:

From Dr. Harold Brooks, NOAA; click to enlarge

Fifty years ago, most everyone lived in a permanent home or apartment building. In recent decades, mobile and manufactured home use has exploded. The different in death rates is illustrated on the graph. The open squares are the death rate in permanent buildings. In those building types, the tornado death rate has plummeted and continues to do so.

However, the black squares are the year death rates in mobile homes. Keeping mind that only a few states require shelters in mobile home parks and that death rates in mobile homes are 15-20 times that of permanent buildings, you get giant death tolls like the U.S. experienced this year when tornadoes hit areas highly populated with mobile homes. Combine strong tornadoes in densely populated cities (Joplin, Minneapolis, Birmingham, etc.) and you get high number of deaths regardless of warning accuracy, especially when most of the cities happen to be ones where basement construction is not the norm.

Meteorologists, in general, do a terrible job of promoting ourselves and our work. So, people too often think of meteorologists as “people who get to keep their job when they are wrong all the time” rather than scientists who provide a tremendously valuable service to America at a very low cost to our society.

Terrific Article from AccuWeather…

…about dealing with power failures.

As frequent readers of this blog know, I’m a big fan of inverters — the “poor man’s generator” for a tiny fraction of the cost and complexity of a generator.

Regardless of which you prefer, here is my guide to emergency power.

Keep in mind that now is the time to prepare for a future disaster. Ice storm season will be here soon.

Is the Weather Getting Worse? No!

Readers have been surprised to read my assertions that the weather is not getting worse due to ‘global warming.’ Here is the hurricane index from Dr. Ryan Maue:

Index based on number and strength of hurricanes worldwide. 

Now, a new study shows that death rates worldwide due to storms are plummeting. In the U.S. and a few developed nations, this is due to storm warnings. But most nations do not have storm warnings for their citizens so there is a correlation between extreme weather and deaths worldwide. The study says,

To put the public health impact of extreme weather events into context, cumulatively they now contribute only 0.07% to global mortality. Mortality from extreme weather events has declined even as all-cause mortality has increased, indicating that humanity is coping better with extreme weather events than it is with far more important health and safety problems. 

The entire study is here. Here is the trend in worldwide weather mortality.

Hat tip: WattsUpWithThat.

ADDITION: 9:15pm. More evidence there is no increase in hurricanes landfalls from an actual meteorologist and climate scientist.

Update on Lee’s Flooding Threat

Here is the current AccuWeather composite radar at 7:45am CDT. I have added arrows to show the direction of movement of the rainfall. In this case, heavy rain keeps falling over the same areas, adding up to some tremendous amounts.

The flooding threat seems to be increasing from Tropical Storm Lee. Here is an AccuWeather display of estimated rainfall from the NWS radar in New Orleans:

click to enlarge any graphic

Already rainfall amounts of 4″ or more (red) are common in southeast Louisiana. And, the 4″ amounts (note slightly different color scale) are being experienced near the AL-FL border.

While Lee is expected to have sustained winds of 65 mph (with gusts to 75 mph) at landfall which will cause trees to be uprooted with power failures; extensive, widespread flooding will be the worse problem. Why? Because even though 2-6″ have already fallen, storm total rainfall forecasts have been revised upward. 

An additional 19″ of rain is forecast for New Orleans with ≥15″ for Mobile, Gulfport and Hattiesburg! People living in these areas should be prepared for major flooding and evacuations.

And, the threat doesn’t stop in the South.

The bright yellow is 7″ which includes Birmingham and Asheville. That’s plenty of rain to cause at least some flooding. But, as Lee merges with a cold front, the heavy rains continue into the Northeast with about 7″ forecast around Harrisburg.

Here is a map of rainfalls for the last two weeks that includes the rains from Irene:

Where the heavy rains from Lee overlap the areas with saturated soils from Irene, major flooding may redevelop. 

Tales of Heroism in Hurricane Irene

A number of people gave their lives to rescue others during Hurricane Irene. The Wall Street Journal is publishing three stories on that topic in the Saturday-Sunday print edition. Below are links to two of the articles from their online edition. They, and their families, deserve our prayers and support.

Some government workers lost their lives while trying to prevent flooding or help others. Michael Garofano, 55, a veteran at the Rutland, Vt., public works department, went to the town’s water reservoir on Sunday afternoon, apparently to make certain a valve built to keep Mendon Brook from flooding into the local water supply was properly closed. He took his son Mike, 24, along for the ride. It isn’t clear what happened, but the brook rose suddenly and both men were swept away. Mr. Garofano’s body was found downstream on Monday. His son is presumed dead; his body hadn’t been recovered as of Friday.

First of two articles from The Wall Street Journal

That Michael Kenwood was willing to wade through dangerous floodwaters in a rescue attempt was no surprise to those who knew him. They say the 39-year-old lawyer and computer consultant was passionate about his volunteer work as an emergency medical technician for the Princeton, N.J., First Aid & Rescue Squad, and trained for water rescues.
His devotion cost him his life on Sunday, in a rescue attempt on an overflowing creek during Hurricane Irene. He left behind his wife and toddler daughter.

And, the second article is here.

Update on Katia and Lee

I’ve looked over some late data as well as the 10pm National Hurricane Center discussions and no change is necessary to my discussion about Lee below in terms of strength or movement.

However, the bullseye of heaviest rainfall has been moved slightly farther east by one of the new computer models. The bright yellow area is a forecast of  20 to 24″ of rain.

Regardless of the exact position of the heaviest rain, people along the I-10 corridor from New Orleans to the Florida border should be prepared for excessive rainfall and major flooding. This may include washing out major highways and rail traffic.

With regard to Katia, enjoy the weekend. I still believe it is unlikely she will strike the U.S., but even if she does, there will be sufficient time to take precautions after the holiday weekend is over.

Tropical Storm Lee and the Threat of Major Flooding

Lee continues to move very slowly north then turn north northeast.

Winds are expected to be around 65 mph with a few higher gusts when the storm makes landfall.

However, the more serious threat is not the wind, it is the rain.  A few spots in far southeast Louisiana have already recorded more than 4″ of rain.

Radar estimate of rainfall amounts. Darker yellow ≥4″, note small
spot over the Mississippi Delta

On top of what has already fallen, more than 20″ additional is forecast to fall.

NWS rainfall forecast

Major flooding will likely occur and it is quite possible numerous roadways will be washed out in southeast Louisiana and southern Mississippi. There is also a threat of major flooding in west central and northern Alabama where above normal rain has fallen the last 30 days.

If you look at the above map, the melding of Lee along with a cold front could bring heavy rain into New England the first of next work week. The NWS rainfall forecast shows moderate amounts. However, the ECMWF model, from AccuWeather, shows some locations getting more than five inches (dark maroon color) in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic States. Given that some of these areas received heavy rain from Irene, it may cause rivers to rise again.

ECMWF model via AccuWeather’s PRO web site.

It is too soon to pin down how much threat there is to the Middle Atlantic and New England regions but I would advise residents of these areas to continue to monitor the weather forecasts.

I believe this is another major disaster in the making — one of the seemingly endless weather disasters of 2011.

Neither Rain, Nor Sleet, Nor Irene…

Walking 8 miles a day to get the mail out! Way to go, Ms. Roberts.

From WCAX TV, Burlington:
Mother Nature may have knocked out phone service and power to these communities, but she can’t stop the postal service.”There is no incoming mail at all because no truck can get to that post office,” Gaysville postmaster Kelly Roberts said.So Roberts hikes 8 miles a day through these hills collecting outgoing mail. Her dedication opens communication with the outside world.”Well hey, mail must go through. Absolutely,” she said.

Irene Might Be a Major Hurricane

What if Irene is a major hurricane?
Based on some late data, there is the potential for Irene to be a major hurricane that makes landfall somewhere on the east coast of Florida (late week) or in Georgia or the Carolinas the end of the week or over the weekend.
If it is a major hurricane, it is likely to carry hurricane-force winds inland beyond the immediate coastal areas with the potential for a geographically large area to be without power. 
So, I’m going to reiterate some preliminary things to think about in these areas:
·      Keep your car’s gas tank full. Spend $25 or so to buy an electrical inverter
·      If you have dispersed family (i.e., kids in college, elderly relatives you might need to help evacuate, etc.), talk with them now about contingencies if your area is put under a warning later this week
·      Make sure you have a battery-powered TV or radio with fresh batteries 
·      Get any medical prescriptions refilled now, even if you haven’t completely run out.
·      Do you want to invest in a generator? If so, now is the time to make the investment and get it installed. People in that business may be swamped later in the week. 
·      Do you have hurricane shutters or plywood to board up windows? If not, now is the time. Even if Irene does not materialize (see below), you’ll still have them for future storms.
·      If you are responsible for a number of people (i.e., nursing home), do you have a plan you can execute even if all your employees are not available? Again, if not, do it now!
·      Do you know how to disconnect an electric garage door opener? If you don’t know and do not have power, how are you going to get your car out? Practice doing this in daylight. 

While there is still quite a bit of uncertainty since the storm is more than three days from Florida, it is likely to come close to the coast and thus prompt hurricane warnings for a large population (think Hurricane Floyd). Since what I’m suggesting costs little or are things you should already have if you live on or near the coast (i.e., plywood to board windows) it can’t hurt for readers of this blog to consider some of these measures. 

A Few More Preliminary Thoughts on Irene

Three new and reliable computer models have come in since my last posting (which will be my last of the day on this topic) and all indicate that the Florida Atlantic coast will be brushed by Irene with the main threat shifting to Georgia and South Carolina. And, that Irene will be a major hurricane by that time.

Here is my concern: It has been more than twenty years (Hugo, 1989) since the area was struck by a major hurricane. There has been a great deal of coastal development since that time along with numerous people who have never been through a hurricane before, let alone a major hurricane.

So, what would I recommend to people who might be faced with the first major hurricane of their lives?

  • Do you want to invest in a generator? If so, now is the time to make the investment and get it installed. People in that business may be swamped later in the week. 
  • Do you have hurricane shutters or plywood to board up windows? If not, now is the time. Even if Irene does not materialize (see below), you’ll still have them for future storms.
  • If you are responsible for a number of people (i.e., nursing home), do you have a plan you can execute even if all your employees are not available? Again, if not, do it now!
  • Do you know how to disconnect an electric garage door opener? If you don’t know and do not have power, how are you going to get your car out?
These are the types of things to be thinking about now.
Here are the forecasts to which I refer, click to enlarge:
ECMWF model

GFS Model

GFDL model, via Ryan Maue
Now, do I think Florida (or even the Gulf) is out of the woods? Nope. It is still too soon to say! 
But, because it appears Georgia – South Carolina area might be threatened, and because it has been nearly a quarter century since a major hurricane has occurred in the region — I want people to think about their response.  After all, when Hugo occurred, people as far inland as Charlotte were without power for weeks. 

Some Final Thoughts on Indianapolis

Barring some new revelations, I’d like answer some questions that have come via comments on the blog and Facebook, as a way to wrap-up this blog’s coverage of Saturday’s disaster. 
You wrote about the Hyatt Regency collapse, are there any similarities between it and Indianapolis?
As a non-engineer, one thing comes to mind: The Hyatt walkways that collapsed and killed 114 were one-of-a-kind structures and each of these outdoor stages is, apparently, one of a kind.  It does seem logical that there needs to be extra attention paid to non-standard designs.

There is more on the engineering aspects of the stage collapse from an expert, here

One commenter said we need something like the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate incidents like this.
I have concerns, as do others, about the Indiana government investigating the Indiana government. That, at minimum, appears to be a conflict of interest.
As I said in my response to the commenter, I have worked with the NTSB in both aviation and surface transportation investigations and am generally a fan. But, structural collapses are rare. I’m not sure we need another layer of government to investigate these rare events (what will they do the rest of the time?). There is an engineering firm out of Dallas that has been brought in that has a good reputation. Let’s see what that report has to say.
Another commenter talked about the “lawsuit happy environment.”  
Not being an attorney, I don’t know about the legal environment. However, my friend David Rapoport, an attorney in Chicago, has commented on his blog and that comment is here.

Finally, another commenter talked about the apparent overruling of the on-site meteorologist by non-meteorologist fair officials being analogous to management (“we have the ‘big picture’”) overruling engineers.
Yes, I see how that may have played a role. “Dilbert” has had a twenty-year run on that topic. 
But, I continue to believe that a significant amount of the problem is that the vast majority of people are unaware of the huge progress in storm warning accuracy the last decade. I offer as evidence one of several similar comments at “WattsUpWithThat” on a topic completely different from the stage collapse:
I believe, based on their own comments quoted in the media, that Fair officials simply didn’t grasp the level of urgency conveyed by the warnings and/or didn’t understand the warnings they were receiving (i.e., what is the definition of a ‘severe’ thunderstorm?).  
Again, I strongly urge people to consider reading Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather. It is non-technical (written in the style of a novel even though it is a true story) and a fast read. I mention this because, until the storm warning system achieves the credibility it deserves, these needless disasters will continue to occur. Storm warnings need — and deserve — to be headed!

To the thousands of new readers of this blog, thank you for visiting. Please come back under happier circumstances.