"Error on the Side of ‘Safety’"

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,

This seems to confirm my suspicion that there is a key on journalists’ word processors that says “there was no warning” and they simply press that key every time they have to do a story about storms.

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:

Nick Crossley, director of emergency management and homeland security for Johnson County, said the warnings on Saturday night were necessary throughout the entire county.
“We erred on the side of caution,” Crossley said. “It’s much better to sound the sirens and warn people than not to sound the sirens.”

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?

May 25, 2012, St. Louis.

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:

The National Weather Service allows each county to decide which sirens to set off during a storm. 
14 News found some Tri-State counties are now choosing this option, while others say their policies won’t change.
40 sirens sounded Tuesday morning, getting attention all across Vanderburgh County for a warning that was only issued for the northern section.
Meteorologists clarified on Twitter that the warning did not include Evansville, even though the sirens were going off.
“Our policy is always to sound them off through the whole county,” said Vanderburgh County EMA director Sherman Greer.
Greer says it’s a policy that errs on the side of safety. [emphasis mine]
“Meteorology and the weather and everything is not an exact science,” Greer pointed out.
That is why he’s not comfortable with switching to that new option, from the National Weather Service, that would allow him to set off only those sirens located in the affected part of the county.
“If something strays a little bit further than that area, then we’ve got a problem.”
“I think it’s a good idea. I’m not convinced yet that they are quite as precise as we would like to see it,” said Henderson EMA Director Larry Koerber.
Across the river in Henderson, Koerber also fires all 32 of his sirens, no matter where the storm is in the county.
“We don’t want to miss something and say ‘Well,if the path is there in the southern part of the county’ and sure enough it makes a left turn and winds up in the middle of Henderson,” Koerber says.

We keep hearing from emergency managers; and there are many more examples I can cite:

Error on the side of safety.
Activating sirens over and over and over in areas where there is no threat (deliberately sounding them in Evansville even though the tornado warning did not include Evansville). Is that really erring on the side of safety?

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)?

There is also the complementary comment that meteorologists “don’t know” where the tornadoes are and/or don’t know where they are going to go. This was true 40 years ago during the early years of trying to warn people of tornadoes. We weren’t very good at it then. “Better safe than sorry” made sense in the 60′s and 70′s and, in some areas with poor radar coverage, even the 80′s.
Today: This deliberate and geographically exaggerated overwarning makes no sense in an era of Doppler and Dual-Polarization radars, debris balls, GPS storm reports, etc., etc. As I previously reported on the blog, 99+% of the tornado fatalities in 2011 occurred in areas that were under both a tornado watch and tornado warning before the fatality occurred. Meteorology does know where the storms are going to be.

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. 

I mentioned last week that I’m working on a project that pertains to last year’s tornadoes and I originally wanted to get into this subject when I was farther along. But, the news report from Evansville tweaked my conscience.
It is long past time to stop warning areas tens of miles away from the tornado threat. The polygon warnings, while not perfect, build in enough margin of safety to allow sirens to be sounded in and along the polygon. 
Heck, build in a 1-2 mile buffer (easy to do with today’s technology). But stop sounding sirens in areas tens of miles away from any threat!

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.

There is still time in many jurisdictions to implement a new policy in time for the 2012 tornado season. Great started, please. Otherwise, I fear we are going to more lose precious lives to complacency.

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. 

Uncomfortably Close to the 19th Century

My whole career is about managing and mitigating risks. To do that effectively, one must size up the worst risks and put the emphasis on major risks that might reasonably occur. 

Two postings down, in the comments, I talk about U.S. society and U.S. government failing to deal with enormous risks while we put far too much emphasis on smaller risks. Turns out I’m not the only one thinking about the close call with this week’s solar flare.

We need to stop spending tens of billions on the TSA’s nonsense and the EAS and start hardening our electrical infrastructure. Think about it: Another Carrington Event and we are back in the 19th Century without the 19th Century infrastructure (i.e., gristmills that run on the currents from streams to make bread).

From Wikipedia

What a Waste of Time!

On Wednesday, November 9, at 2pm Eastern, our government is going to interrupt all television, radio, satellite services, cable, etc., for three minutes for the first-ever test of the “improved” Emergency Alert System (EAS).

Of course, we have had the annoying “local” tests forever.

EAS has never been used, not even on September 11.  The theory seems to be that, if something bigger than September 11 occurred, the networks will not give the President access to the airwaves, so he needs to be able to access them himself.

I cannot imagine a situation where CNN, Fox, NBC, etc., would not give up air time if the President said there was an emergency. From where I sit, this is another government intrusion into our lives and another way for bureaucrats to spend money.

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. 

Outstanding Article About Disaster Response

Photo of the Three Mile Island cooling towers taken
by me about a half hour ago.

If you read just one article about disaster response (and, as individuals and citizens, we should all know something about the subject) read this one.

Two quick excerpts:

A society’s resilience increases with its wealth. When an earthquake shook Haiti last year, an estimated 316,000 people were killed and 1.5 million left homeless. The Japanese quake was far more powerful; it was followed by a tremendous tsunami; and the affected area had a bigger population. But the death toll is expected to be closer to 10,000, and the number of people left without homes is estimated at 500,000. We don’t know what the long-term effects will be of the radiation leaks from Japan’s power plants. But no matter how bad those might get, I would be deeply surprised if they’re as damaging as the long-term effects when the Haitian quake contaminated the country’s already-fragile water supply. Last October, for example, the country saw its first cholera outbreak in decades.
Obviously, there are many differences between Japan and Haiti. One of the most important is that Japan is much richer.

and, why you cannot depend on FEMA,

Traditionally, emergency management in America was relatively decentralized. That didn’t change much after FEMA was founded in 1979, and it’s a good thing it didn’t; the agency had a well-deserved reputation for cronyism and incompetence, though its performance improved somewhat in the ’90s. After 9/11, though, it was absorbed by the gigantic new Department of Homeland Security, and the country’s emergency response system grew more centralized, militarized, and dysfunctional. The disaster researcher Kathleen Tierney—one of the scholars whose report from the Kobe quake is quoted above—wrote a withering account of the results in 2006. Traditional emergency management, she noted, takes an “all hazards” approach, in which institutions “assess their vulnerabilities, focus generically on tasks that must be performed regardless of event type, and then plan for specific contingencies, guided by risk-based assessments of what could happen.” But DHS was oriented toward more specific threats, and it had the authority to impose its obsessions. Under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8, communities that once had assessed their own risks and vulnerabilities were “required to develop plans and programs for dealing with fifteen different scenarios, thirteen of which involve terrorism, WMD, and epidemics.” 
In other words, DHS ignored approaches that had evolved over time in state and local governments, volunteer groups, and the private sector. When it cooked up its new ideas, such as the much-mocked color-coded threat levels, “almost no one representing either academic social science or professional emergency management was at the table.” Worse still, “as we saw so vividly in Hurricane Katrina, the government’s stance is that the public in disaster-ravaged communities mainly represents a problem to be managed—by force, if necessary—and a danger to uniformed responders…
I took the photo of Three Mile Island a little while ago. I’m at the Harrisburg Airport awaiting my flight back to Wichita and the airport is nearly in the shadow of TMI. I bring this up because I have been accused of “drinking the Kool-Aid of the nuclear industry.” Not at all, but let me clarify in case my position is not clear.
I believe TMI and other U.S. nuclear plants are safe. That said, there is a bit of a Rube Goldberg aspect to them that makes them complex and expensive. I do not support building any more of those. I do — strongly — support the new generation thorium reactors. I have read quite a bit about them and I believe they offer numerous advantages.  From Wikipedia,

Thorium as a nuclear fuel

Thorium, as well as uranium and plutonium, can be used as fuel in a nuclear reactor. A thorium fuel cycle offers several potential advantages over a uranium fuel cycle including much greater abundance on Earth, superior physical and nuclear properties of the fuel, enhanced proliferationresistance, and reduced nuclear waste production. Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), has worked on developing the use of thorium as a cheap, clean and safe alternative to uranium in reactors. Rubbia states that a tonne of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium, or 3,500,000 tonnes of coal.[14] One of the early pioneers of the technology was U.S. physicist Alvin Weinberg at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, who helped develop a working nuclear plant using liquid fuel in the 1960s…

[edit]Key benefits

According to Australian science writer Tim Dean, “thorium promises what uranium never delivered: abundant, safe and clean energy – and a way to burn up old radioactive waste.”[16] With a thorium nuclear reactor, Dean stresses a number of added benefits: there is no possibility of a meltdown, it generates power inexpensively, it does not produce weapons-grade by-products, and will burn up existing high-level waste as well as nuclear weapon stockpiles.[16] Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, of the British Telegraph daily, suggests that “Obama could kill fossil fuels overnight with a nuclear dash for thorium,” and could put “an end to our dependence on fossil fuels within three to five years.”[14]

Let me emphasize: They burn up existing nuclear waste as well as offering relatively inexpensive, abundant fuel. There are no ‘greenhouse gasses.’ 

As I indicate in the “Amen” posting below, I do not understand why the environment movement doesn’t get strongly behind this.