AMS Annual Meeting, Part 2: School Safety

There have seen a number of presentations pertaining to school safety here at the AMS meeting. Yesterday afternoon, forensic meteorological engineer Tim Marshall presented a paper on his investigation of buildings destroyed in the Joplin tornado.

The schools did not fare well.

Recently, I posted the tornado safety rules for schools and these presentations drove home how important they are, especially never to shelter in a room with an outside wall (see above) or in structure with a wide free-span roof (i.e., a gym).

That said, some of the hallways (where the students should shelter) didn’t fare very well either.

I’ve previously stated that it is time to take a second look at public shelters. Perhaps this capability should be built into schools.

Very First Thunderstorms Starting to Form

AccuWeather regional radar at 1:39pm shows the first thunderstorms just starting to form in Alabama and Mississippi:

There is no urgency yet — these storms are not severe and I do not expect them to be for a while.

However, the ingredients for a tornado and damaging wind outbreak seem to be falling into place since I first posted on the subject this morning. So, now is a very good time to review the tornado safety rules. Just click on the link. A few of them have been modified so it is a good time review.

Of course, schools are not in session today but since we are on the subject, here are the school tornado safety rules.

After spending quite a bit of time reviewing things that didn’t go as well as we would have liked in the 2011 tornado season, there is no doubt that some failed to take shelter because they don’t believe tornado warnings are accurate. Well, 99% of the people killed in tornadoes in 2011 were in both a tornado watch and a tornado warning prior to the arrival of the tornado.  I would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone of my book Warnings that tells how effective storm warnings can be at saving lives if the warnings are heeded. If you know someone who does not react to warnings, consider recommending or getting a copy of the book for them.

Addition:  Based on some comments I am receiving, there are some not familiar with the new safety rules. Please forward this to anyone you might believe would benefit from seeing them.

Based on the latest data (2:40pm), this could be a nasty situation. Now is a good time to make sure your weather radio has a fresh battery, plan to crack a window so you hear the storm siren if you don’t have a weather radio, etc. 

Record Low Number of Lightning Deaths in 2011

Out of the all the bad weather news in 2011, one notable success story emerges: lightning deaths were lowest in the 71-years of record keeping. Just 26 people were killed by lightning in 2011, which is amazing considering the frequency of violent severe weather outbreaks across the U.S.

Data from NOAA and story from the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang. I do not have an explanation as to why — with so many violent thunderstorms this year — we had record low lightning deaths.

Let’s just be grateful and hope the progress continues.

Lightning Safety from Miss America Candidate

Thunderstorms are forecast along the Gulf Coast today and tomorrow, so this is timely. Please take this safety information to heart. It is presented by Miss Ohio, Ellen Bryan, who is participating in the Miss America Pageant this week.

My good friend Cat Taylor, the current Miss Prairie Rose, has a platform of getting weather radios into schools.

It is good to see these talented young women working to improve weather safety.

Good luck, Miss Ohio!

Have We Solved the Tornado Problem (For Residents of Conventional Housing)?

Today was the second day of the NOAA Weather Ready Nation Conference in Norman, OK.

Yesterday, I talked about the fact that 99% of 2011 tornado-related fatalities occurred in locations that were in both a tornado watch and a tornado warning at the time the tornado arrived. I called that a remarkable scientific accomplishment that virtually no one — inside or outside of meteorology — is aware of.

Want to know how big an accomplishment the 99% is? Consider: It was recently announced that Albert Pujols will receive $250 million dollars over the next ten years to strike out two-thirds of the time*! Pujols’ lifetime batting average is .328, meaning he gets a hit slightly less than one-third of his at bats.

As I have learned more today, I have convinced the “tornado problem” is not homogeneous. So, I want to propose an idea that will be controversial: Weather science has solved the tornado problem for those who live in conventional housing.

Take a look at this graph I presented yesterday. It is a logarithmic graph from NOAA’s Dr. Harold Brooks that depicts the death rate from tornadoes (deaths per million population):

click to enlarge

If you take out 2011, the death rate in conventional homes has been cut more than 99.3% as compared to what it was before the tornado warning system was created.

Unfortunately, the death rate in conventional homes will never be zero, especially in F-4 and F-5 tornadoes.

Since zero is impossible, is it worth spending finite dollars and research resources to try to “move the needle” from 99.3% closer to 100%? Before you answer yes, let me go on.

If you look at the same graph above, the black squares show the death rate in mobile homes. For mobile homes, which house more and more American families, the needle has hardly moved at all. The death rate in mobile homes now is about the same as in conventional housing before the tornado warning system was created.

So, here is what I conclude: While we should strive to improve the accuracy, timeliness, and geographic specificity of all tornado warnings we should stop putting effort into specifically improving the safety of people in conventional homes and apartments. Instead, put that money into mobile home safety.

When resources are finite, good management dictates putting those resources where they will do the most good. In the case of tornado safety, that appears to be mobile homes.

Comments are welcome!

* Thank you, Dave Freeman.

Tornado Safety from Herb Tarlek

Yesterday’s “WKRP” posting brought a comment about the “Tornado” episode. If you have never seen it, that is another WKRP classic. Just click below. It is far better than last night’s CSI: Miami.

As I watched while preparing this posting, I realized that sleazy salesman Herb Tarlek gives us an important demonstration of a tornado safety rule, namely Get under heavy furniture!

As Herb demonstrates — take action the second you get a tornado warning!

Tornadoes can occur any time of year in the U.S. San Antonio had a small, but damaging, tornado yesterday.

Signs of Tornado Danger

AccuWeather has a great video of the tornado that crossed the New York Thruway at Amsterdam, NY. Click here to view the video.

But, I want to direct your attention to the segment of the video (starting at :11) showing the “power flashes.” Power flashes are a sign of high danger from a tornado or very high winds capable of producing damage. In this case, and in many others, the flashes precede the tornado. If you see them, get to shelter immediately regardless of whether you can see a tornado or not. If you are in your car, at least stop the car and pull to the sign of the road.

Hat tip: Jesse Ferrell

How to Prepare for Aftershocks

Via Facebook, I was asked by reader Reynolds: Can you give us info regarding aftershocks (to the earthquake) and how to prepare?

Excellent question:

  • Other than collapse, the biggest danger in an earthquake is fire. Walk around your home or business now and sniff for gas. Exit immediately if you smell gas. 
  • If you do not smell gas, there is a chance of a gas leak or rupture if an aftershock occurs. Make sure you have fresh batteries in your smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, and your home fire extinguisher is charged and near your bed. 
  • Take fragile or precious objects off high shelves and put them in drawers or sturdy furniture or on the flood where nothing (including light fixtures) will fall on them. You don’t want anything “top heavy” as it will likely fall in a significant earthquake, original or aftershock. 
The good news is that aftershocks, while likely, are rarely as strong as the original quake.
Thanks for the question!

TV Tornado Warnings Really Make a Difference

From the American Meteorological Society’s conference on storm warnings in Oklahoma City we learn that TV tornado warnings — and, how well the TV stations in the market are equipped with the latest technology really does make a difference in the casualty rates of tornadoes.

A paper by Sutter and Simmons of the University of Texas examined numerous variables in an attempt to find out what was most important in cutting the number of deaths and injuries in tornadoes. Turns out the #1 indicator was the number of station-owned Doppler radars (as a proxy for how well TV stations in the markets were equipped overall to cover violent weather).

The second largest indicator was income, which is something demographers have known for a long time. The higher the average income, the more robust the housing stock and the better sheltered people are for tornadoes.  We learned that 7% of the housing in the U.S. is mobile homes but they account for 43% of tornado fatalities!

One somewhat amusing note from the conference was that a scientist due to deliver a paper on forecasting was not here this afternoon because he was hung up by an airline delay due to weather.

The airlines have gotten so bad (worst industry in terms of customer service per a new study of 47 industries) that I now plan to go in the day before. As a meteorologist, it really looks bad if I cannot make it due to weather, especially since I constantly preach the virtues of proactive weather risk mitigation.

Safety Rules in Light of the Joplin Tornado

There have been many comments about how the traditional tornado safety rules “didn’t work” in the Joplin tornado. This isn’t exactly true and, now that I have seen the damage for myself, I’d like to comment.

The paramount safety rule is to get underground. In the St. Louis Good Friday tornado there were no deaths and no serious injuries. Most homes in St. Louis have basements so getting underground was easy.

In Joplin, it has been reported that 87% of the affected homes did not have basements. The criticism has been that getting in a bathtub or a closet “didn’t work.” Those rules did work, at least to an extent, as the photos below demonstrate:

Intact bathtub in wrecked Joplin home.

Portable television inside closet. One could surmise the occupant(s) took shelter inside
the largely intact closet and used the TV to stay informed.

That said, the “get in a closet or bathtub in the interior part of the house” will often not provide adequate shelter in an F-5 tornado (the strongest 1%). We usually don’t know, in advance, the intensity of a tornado. So, to the extent possible, you have to plan for the worse. Get underground if at all possible.

There has been a lot of controversy about Red Cross recommendations to, if you are caught out in the open, to ride out a tornado in your car. As you know from my previous postings, I believe that getting in a ditch on the side of the road away from the tornado’s approach and away from the car(s) is generally a better approach.

The car has a 2 x 4 that protrudes into the passenger side of the front seat as well as a wooden “spear” (click to enlarge) that is driven into the dashboard. You wouldn’t have wanted to be in the front seat when the tornado occurred. Moreover, as far as I can tell, this car was not rolled. I saw cars that had been rolled that were clearly death traps as the roofs were collapsed into the front seats.

So, if there is a good low ditch, I’d suggest that is your first choice. If not, then the Red Cross’ suggestion to buckle up and crouch down in your seat is probably the right thing to do.

Finally, I want to comment that no photograph or series of photographs can do the staggering Joplin damage justice. More than 7,500 homes and businesses destroyed. The city has a long way to go and I’m sure our financial donations would be appreciated from this point forward.


From the web site of the Kansas City Star:   That was one wicked storm that wasn’t supposed to happen

Here we go again: Blaming meteorologists for being unprepared for a storm that was very well forecast. The severe thunderstorm watch — for 80 mph winds and 3″ hail — was posted on this web site yesterday evening and widely broadcast throughout the media and social media (I saw dozens of postings about it). 

Posted on this blog at 8:30 yesterday evening. 

The storm caused extensive damage. Stories here and here. Well over 50,000 people lost power.

Now, compare the reports of high winds (60 mph or higher) and large hail (1″ in diameter or larger).

White symbol = large hail; amber symbols = destructive winds.
If you compare, you’ll see that almost every report was within the severe thunderstorm watch issued 8:20pm and valid until 3am. At the Smith House, we bring in lawn furniture, put the car in the garage, etc., when one of these watches indicates Wichita is threatened. 
Meteorology is far from perfect. That said, we get most all of the major storms right these days. Please respond accordingly. 

This Was Just Installed

I occasionally drive past a quarry in rural Butler County, Kansas. Yesterday, I noticed something different: A storm shelter.

I salute this company for their concern for the safety of their employees far from corporate headquarters.

Why Was This Allowed to Occur?

(CNN) – A lightning strike Wednesday afternoon sent 77 Air Force ROTC cadets to hospitals in the Hattiesburg, Mississippi, area, where they were all responsive and in stable condition, according to spokeswoman Maj. Deidre Musgrave of Camp Shelby.

The full story is here.

They may be responsive and stabilized but lightning strikes can cause lifelong disabilities. I’m horrified the military put cadets in that position.  The science of meteorology has progressed to the point where we can prevent this type of injury.

In case you are not aware, AccuWeather offers lightning warning services to business, government, and education markets. Please contact  for more information.

In Joplin, 87% of the Homes Did Not Have Basements

Associated Press photo via MSNBC

So says MSNBC. The photo of the woman survivor above in her damaged bathroom attests to the value of that advice in most tornadoes but not in the core of F-4 or F-5 tornadoes. The lack of basements there is a surprise to me and helps explain the huge death toll in that F-5 tornado.

The MSNBC article also states,

Unfavorable soil contributes to a lack of basements in much of the South, where just over 11 percent of new homes include full or partial basements, according to a 2009 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.
By contrast, more than 77 percent of new houses in the Midwest and Northeast had basements, the survey found. In the West, 21 percent of new homes had basements.

Given the huge death toll this year in cities where basements are rare, it is, perhaps, time to rethink public sheltering.

Home completely swept away in 1957 Ruskin Heights F-5 Tornado, only commode (left) remains
of the bathroom. Photo from Time-Life.

The City of Andover, which suffered a horrible tornado twenty years ago, leads the way in tornado safety:

  • They sound their tornado sirens only in the areas threatened
  • They have two public shelters (see photo below)
I took the photo Saturday. The public shelter is attached to the west side of the Public Library which is available during library hours. There are two public shelters at the police department and city hall which are available 24/7.  
According to Bill Duggan of the City of Andover, personnel are sent to open the 24/7 shelters whenever there is a threatening storm within two counties of Andover. They were opened, for example, Tuesday, May 24, when a “particularly dangerous situation” tornado watch was in effect.

The science of meteorology has provided excellent warnings of the 2011 tornado onslaught. But, we have to get the communications clear (i.e., sirens only going off where there is a genuine threat) and people need a place to go. In areas where soil conditions to not allow basements, public shelters and “safe rooms” need to get a serious look before the 2012 tornado season rolls around. 

Hat tip:  Dave Freeman

Why Shelter in the Lowest Floor?

Just last week, while visiting St. Louis, I was asked if it was really important to go to the lowest floor of a home or building if a basement is not available. Answer: Absolutely! Take a look at this photo from Joplin:

Springfield “News-Leader” photo. Click to enlarge.

I’ve placed arrows on the lowest floors of the apartments. You can see the lowest floors are generally in better shape than the upper floors that are, in some cases, utterly destroyed. The reason is that the winds in a tornado — and have more destructive power — a few hundred feet above the ground. A basement is best, but if you don’t have one get as low as possible.

Doing What I Can to Keep Our Readers Happy

UPDATE Sunday, from The Wichita Eagle

I received an email from a seemingly irate reader challenging my statement that many of the larger mobile home parks in Kansas have storm shelters. He said, “I’ve never seen one.”  Since the person was from, apparently, out of state, I’m not sure if he meant in Kansas or anywhere.
Regardless, I looked through my photo files and here is photo of a mobile home park shelter in Augusta, Kansas. I have seen others, but it never particularly occurs to me to document them photographically. You’ll just have to trust me on this issue. 
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged

Andy Revkin Gets It Right

Andy Revkin writing at DotEarth, the New York Times’ environmental blog, gets it just right when it states that the controversy over whether ‘global warming’ caused last week’s tornadoes is beside the point.

The far more important issue is to make sure people have some place safe to go when a tornado warning is issued.