Great Idea, Mediocre Execution

The Hyatt Regency New Orleans, destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, finally reopened October 18, 2011. I had the opportunity to visit in January during the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting. Other than odd elevators, I loved the hotel and the staff’s great attitude. I certainly recommend the hotel if you are going to be in the Big Easy.

I loved the fact they put an emergency flashlight in the room. Great idea! The only problem is that I almost didn’t see it.

See the orange thing in the back of the closet under the iron? That’s it. I saw it while hanging up my clothes but could have easily missed it. If the power failed, it would be very hard to get to, even if you had seen it and knew where it was.

I would suggest the bathroom, over a hair dryer, would be a better location,

That said, I give them kudos for doing this. Few hotels do.

Now that we are really getting into tornado season, do you have a working flashlight at your home, office, and in your car?

Destructive Tornado and Severe Weather Event Possible

This is the probabilistic tornado and severe thunderstorm (latter defined as hail ≥ 1″ in diameter and/or winds ≥ 58 mph) outlook valid from 6am Friday until 6am Saturday as forecast by the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center. 

Two things ratchet up my concern when tornadoes and severe storms are contemplated: 

  • Overnight
  • Out of Season

While very early March is technically “in season,” a number of these areas haven’t had any severe weather in 2012. Plus, the dynamics (jet stream strength, etc.) of this event may keep it going during the overnight hours with fast-moving (potentially less “lead time”) storms. 

Breaking it down: the hatched area (in this case) means tornadoes ≥F-2 intensity and/or thunderstorm-generated winds ≥ 75 mph. This far (more than 24 hours) out, those are very high probabilities (45%), as well.  

So, if you live in these areas, I urge you to make sure you to conduct the following reviews:

AccuWeather has more on this subject. 

Considering we just lost twelve precious lives in the severe weather event that ended last night, please prepare if you live in these regions.  

The Warning System Saves Lives — Again

The image above is a screen capture from a CNN video summarizing the tornadoes that occurred last night and this morning from Arkansas to Alabama. At the very beginning of the video, a man describes being in the basement followed by the tornado striking his home. There was a reason he was in the basement: The often-maligned storm warning system.

The map below was posted on this blog at 7:42am yesterday. It depicts the forecast location of tornadoes (colors are relative probabilities) and hatched = F-2 or greater tornado potential.

NWS Storm Prediction Center

Here is the preliminary map showing where the tornadoes (red) occurred. I believe when the damage surveys are complete there will be tornadoes added.

NWS Storm Prediction Center

Perfect? No, but for 12 hours before the tornadoes occurred and for well out-of-season, it did its job to alert people that major weather was on the way. The watches were out well in advance of the first tornadoes.

I’m worried that we are going to have another big tornado season in 2012. Now is the time to prepare.

Gearing Up for Tornado Season 2012, Part 4: Schools

Protective position in schools. Please note heads and bodies face the wall. 

We’ll start with the safety rules for schools and I’ll make some comments after.

Every School Should Have a Plan

  • Develop a severe weather safety plan that ensures everyone will take cover within 60 seconds. Conduct frequent tornado drills including drills and provisions for all after-hours school-related activities.
  • Every school should be inspected and tornado shelter areas designated by a registered engineer or architect. Rooms with exterior walls should never be used as tornado shelters.
  • Basements offer the best protection. Schools without basements should use interior rooms and hallways on the lowest floor, away from windows or doors that lead directly outdoors.
  • Delay lunches or assemblies in large rooms if severe weather is anticipated. Rooms with large roof spans (e.g., gyms, cafeterias, auditoriums, swimming pools, theaters) offer little or no protection from tornado-strength winds.
  • Everyone should know the protective position (above) with elbows to knees and hands over the back of the head.
  • Every school should have a primary and secondary method for receiving a tornado warning with battery backup. 
  • If the school’s alarm relies on electricity, have a backup. 
  • Make provisions for those with disabilities, those in portable classrooms, and those outdoors. If all cannot be notified at once, notify them first.
  • Keep children at school beyond regular hours if a tornado warning is in effect at the time of dismissal.
  • School bus drivers should identify protective areas along each part of their route where they and their passengers can take cover if overtaken by a tornado.
  • Include properly designed tornado shelters when planning additions or new school buildings.  

The above rules are extremely well done and thought out. Hat tip to the American Red Cross and National Weather Service for creating and publishing them. Please make sure the principal at your child’s school has a copy of these.

A concern I have pertaining to schools is the growing trend, especially in the South, to dismiss schools when a tornado watch is issued or a “high risk” severe weather outlook is issued on a school day. Given that the South has the highest concentration of mobile homes, are we sending children from relatively safe schools to relatively unsafe mobile homes?

I recommend that schools give parents the option of picking up children early but also to use the school as a public shelter for students and parents after school hours in during tornado watches.

Gearing Up for Tornado Season 2012, Part 3: New Safety Rules

While the weather maps fortunately indicate little or no tornado activity in the U.S. the next two weeks, tornado season 2012 will be here soon. Did you know the NWS has revised the tornado safety rules?

Here are the new safety rules, from the American Red Cross and the National Weather Service:

The National Weather Service and the American Red Cross share a common goal of protecting lives through public education. Regarding tornado safety, we both agree that the best options are to go to an underground shelter, basement, or safe room. We have been giving this advice for decades, and it is recognized as the most effective way to stay safe in a tornado. 

The National Weather Service and Red Cross also agree on the critical importance of preparedness and quick action when conditions are right for tornadoes to develop like during a severe thunderstorm warning or tornado watch. When a tornado warning is issued, immediate action is required. Preparedness begins by identifying a safe location well in advance of any severe weather and having a way to get weather alerts wherever you are, such as from a NOAA weather radio. When a watch or warning is broadcast, people should already have a plan on what to do and where to go. They should take action immediately and never wait until they actually see a tornado. 

The National Weather Service and the Red Cross continue to agree that if no underground shelter or safe room is available, the safest alternative is a small windowless interior room or hallway on the lowest level of a sturdy building, such as an interior bathroom. We also recommend that residents of mobile homes go to the nearest sturdy building or shelter if a tornado threatens. 

The Red Cross and Weather Service believe that if you are caught outdoors, you should seek shelter in a basement, shelter or sturdy building. If you cannot quickly walk to a shelter: 
  • Immediately get into a vehicle, buckle your seat belt and try to drive to the closest sturdy shelter. 
  • If flying debris occurs while you are driving, pull over and park. Now you have the following options as a last resort: 

Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows, covering with your hands and a blanket if possible. 
If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, exit your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands. 

• Your choice should be driven by your specific circumstances. 

The important thing to understand is that if you find yourself outside or in a car with a tornado approaching and you are unable to get to a safe shelter, you are at risk from a number of things outside your control, such as the strength and path of the tornado and debris from your surroundings. This is the case whether you stay in your car or seek shelter in a depression or ditch, both of which are considered last resort options that provide little protection. The safest place to be is in an underground shelter, basement or safe room. 

The American Red Cross and the National Weather Service are working to ensure that our publications are updated to reflect this new tornado safety messaging. These changes were formulated using evidence-based research. The American Red Cross and the National Weather Service will continue to work together to assess new research findings and future improvements to our Nation’s tornado safety messaging. 

There is one item that I believe may need more research and that is whether it is better to have the ignition on or off. Based on some internet research I have some, in some cases some or all of the airbags will not deploy if the ignition is off. If I were in a car being moved by a tornado, I would want the airbags available. That said, does having the ignition on increase the chance of fire? 

Of course, it would be better not to be at that point of desperation at all. By correctly monitoring the weather during threatening conditions you should be able to get to a nearby shelter in time.

Which beings me to mobile homes. Tornado season 2011 conclusively demonstrated that mobile homes are no place to be during a tornado. The new “short form” tornado safety rules say,

Mobile homes are not safe during tornadoes. Abandon mobile homes and go to the nearest sturdy building or shelter immediately. 

I agree 100%. I suggest that readers who live in mobile homes figure out now — during this period of quiet weather — where they would go during a tornado warning in 2012 and beyond. Storm season is not that far away.

Hat tip: Chris Maier, National Weather Service


Day two of Weather Ready Nation is underway.

I’ve been assigned to the group to look at warning communications. Stay tuned, I’ll let you know what comes out of that.

"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.

"Weather Ready Nation" Conference Underway

The important conference to build a more Weather Ready Nation is underway in Norman, Oklahoma.

Dr. Jane Lubchenko, head of NOAA

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallon

Because of the importance of this topic, given the extreme weather events of 2011, we had the head of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration via videoconference and the Governor of Oklahoma address us.

There are a couple of topics that have already been surprising, at least to me. Take a look at the trend of tornado fatalities. The

The deaths in permanent homes are a very, very low number. Whereas mobile homes, which have a 15 to 20 times higher rate of tornado deaths (per Dr. Harold Brooks’ presentation), we see little progress in cutting tornado deaths.

So, we have clearly “tamed the weather” for people in permanent homes but — as previously stated on this blog — we must find effective ways of sheltering people in non-traditional housing.

Building a "Weather Ready" Nation

I am one of the invitees and presenters at a conference being held in Norman, OK starting tomorrow. Titled Building a Weather Ready Nation it is a reaction to the unprecedented tornado year of 2011 to explore ways meteorologists, working with social scientists and emergency managers, can save even more lives starting as early as next year

I’m going write reports on the blog about what I learn.

If you want to learn more about the conference, please click here.

6 Natural Disasters that Ruined Nuptuals

The Huffington Post recently ran a piece about six weddings disrupted by natural disasters.

Disaster #1 is Tornado Destroys Wedding Reception. While it was more likely a severe thunderstorm’s gust front, the reception was ruined as the storm hit just after the couple said their vows and completed their wedding ceremony.

As you listen to the audio, you can clearly hear the words, “nobody forecast this!”

So, I decided to see if that was true. Turns out it was well forecast. The location of the reception was at the tip of the red arrow. The blue outlined counties, including the location of the reception, were under a severe thunderstorm watch (≥60 mph winds). The thunderstorms that intensified and ruined the reception are west of Chicago (orange arrow).  

The radar echo of the storm, four hours and five minutes after the watch was issued, at about the time the storm struck the reception.

Another of the “ruined” events was a wedding in Vermont washed out by the floods associated with the remains of Hurricane Irene. We have talked previously on this blog about how well forecast that was. Nevertheless, members of the wedding party had to be helicoptered out.

So, I wish to use these unfortunate outcomes to highlight two points:

  • When planning an outdoor event, take a look at the climatological records for the area in question (i.e., your home or the “destination” for a destination wedding). We can research it for you (for a reasonable fee) at AccuWeather or you can do the research yourself at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center. Example: An evening outdoor wedding in early June in Wichita has a six times higher chance of being washed out than one in early October. Temperatures are more likely to be favorable in early October (less humid).  Early June weddings here are high risk. Even when playing the odds, make sure there is a “Plan B” to move the event indoors and there is adequate shelter if something serious develops. 
  • Take a look at the forecasts as the event approaches. This is a good source from AccuWeather. 
  • Designate someone to watch the weather if it appears the slightest bit threatening before and during the event. Make sure there is shelter adequate for all of the guests. 

Bottom line:  individuals have to take responsibility for monitoring their own weather in critical situations.  

Two Sides to the Story

I have great sympathy for the people of Connecticut who have suffered so many power troubles in the last six months.

This report from USA Today sheds some light on the issue.

Having worked with a number of utilities during my career, I can report that when utilities trim trees, the trees’ owners are indignant, report the utility to the state’s utility commissions, file complaints with city councils, etc., etc. It seems as if the utilities can’t win on this one.

So, if states wish to hold utilities accountable for electric service reliability, then they must stop all the nonsense related to tree-timming. The politicians cannot have it both ways.

More on the topic of the federal government’s role in electrical reliability here.

EAS Test Verdict: A Bust

Based on the comments of emergency managers and broadcast professionals, today’s national EAS test was a bust,

  • Radio magazine:  ”The other TV station aired the EAS header tones and the attention signal. The screen crawl showed the EAN text. There was no test audio and there were no EOM tones, so I assume the station aborted their EAS unit and returned to programming. Just before this station aired the test, I heard some very low-level EAS header and attention tones, which sounded like bleed from the receiver.”
  • The comments to the Radio article indicated many busts
  • Articles posted by emergency managers in Missouri indicated the test failed in their region
  • Gizmodo. ”Pretty much a failure.”
The spin being put on this failure is, “well we had to test to learn were the weak spots in the system were.” Perhaps.
But, think of it this way: In a genuine emergency isn’t better that all of our notification eggs are not in one basket?!
Let’s retire the Emergency Alert System along with the TSA and put the money toward something useful like hardening our electrical system infrastructure. 

UPDATE 8:17PM:  From CBS NewsRoughly two hours after the test occurred, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman released this statement to
“The weaknesses exposed by today’s test of the emergency alert system are unacceptable. Government and media carriers must work together to make sure the system does what it is intended to do, which is to transmit a nationwide message from the President in a crisis. I commend FEMA for carrying out this long-overdue, first-ever, nationwide test of the system. Without it, we would never have known the extent of the system’s vulnerabilities.”

Of course, this being government, scrapping this deeply flawed and unnecessary system never occurs to them. 

More on the EAS Test Today

I have previously posted about the test scheduled for later today for the nonsensical Emergency Alert System.

There have been several articles about the test and I would like to respond to one in particular:

The national EAS circuit, operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, allows the president to communicate with the public in an instant. On the president’s signal, FEMA can seize control of the airwaves temporarily and override the signal with the president’s message…

[FEMA Director] Fugate said that several scenarios short of nuclear war could persuade a president to activate the EAS circuit. They include a space-weather event; if a solar flare were detected that could significantly disrupt wireless communications across the country, the president might want to give people notice.

Lets analyze that justification for EAS: Disasters other than nuclear war.

Does anyone think President Bush did a good job in the aftermath of Katrina? President Obama, while campaigning for President, said “10,000 people died in Greensburg.” The actual death toll was 9 and the total population of the town was 1,500.

My point is that Presidents are not experts in disasters. We would have — at best — hours of notice that a major solar flare was threatening earth. By the time it was detected and the threat analyzed, it would take additional hours for the notice to move up the chain of command, the decision be made to have the President announce it, the President to be briefed, and the announcement to be rehearsed — by which time much of the preparation time for the flare would be diminished. Having the President do these things is counterproductive!

NOAA, the same agency that warns of tornadoes, blizzards, and hurricanes, is in charge of monitoring space weather, including solar flares. If a big one is detected, NOAA should simply, and immediately, activate its existing warning system and get the word out as quickly as possible.

What about nuclear attack? Doesn’t that justify EAS? Published reports say the President will not be sticking around the White House to use the EAS if an attack is detected. They say he or she will be moved to the underground shelter at the (appropriately named) Mount Weather.

So, as I told the Kansas City Star (first link above), EAS is a “solution in search of a problem.” We’d be better off abolishing it and saving the taxpayer dollars.

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.

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