ONTD Political

UNSURVIVABLE!' New tornado warnings aim to scare

7:18 pm - 03/31/2012
Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Even expert storm chases would have struggled to decipher the difference between the tornado warnings sent last May before severe weather hit Joplin and, a few days later, headed again toward downtown Kansas City.

The first tornado was a massive EF-5 twister that killed 161 people as it wiped out a huge chunk of the southwest Missouri community. The second storm caused only minor damage when two weak tornadoes struck in the Kansas City suburbs.

In both cases, the warnings were harbingers of touchdowns. But three out of every four times the National Weather Service issues a formal tornado warning, there isn't one. The result is a "cry wolf" phenomenon that's dulled the effectiveness of tornado warnings, and one the weather service hopes to solve with what amounts to a scare tactic.

In a test that starts Monday, five weather service offices in Kansas and Missouri will use words such as "mass devastation," "unsurvivable" and "catastrophic" in a new kind of warning that's based on the severity of a storm's expected impact. The goal is to more effectively communicate the dangers of an approaching storm so people understand the risks they're about to face.

"We'd like to think that as soon as we say there is a tornado warning, everyone would run to the basement," said Ken Harding, a weather service official in Kansas City. "That's not how it is. They will channel flip, look out the window or call neighbors. A lot of times people don't react until they see it."

The system being tested will create two tiers of warnings for thunderstorms and three tiers for tornadoes, each based on severity. A research team in North Carolina will analyze the results of the experiment, which runs through late fall, and help the weather service decide whether to expand the new warnings to other parts of the country.

Laura Myer, a social science research professor at Mississippi State University, said people she has interviewed want more advance warning about a potential tornado strike and more information on the specific locations where the storms are expected to hit.

"We have found in Mississippi and Alabama and various other Southern states that people feel they would constantly be going to a shelter if they heeded every tornado warning," she said. "For people in mobile homes, that's the craziest thing.

"To get to a shelter, they have to leave home," she said. "They feel like if they left during every watch or warning, they would be on the road all the time."

The primary audiences for weather service's written bulletins are broadcasters who issue warnings on the air and emergency management agencies that activate sirens and respond to the storm's aftermath. In the event of a Joplin-like tornado, the new-look warning would have an urgency hard to ignore.

Andy Bailey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Pleasant Hill, Mo., said it might look something like this: "THIS IS AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS TORNADO WITH COMPLETE DEVASTATION LIKELY. ... SEEK SHELTER NOW! ... MOBILE HOMES AND OUTBUILDINGS WILL OFFER NO SHELTER FROM THIS TORNADO - ABANDON THEM IMMEDIATELY."

Had such a warning come across his television set on May 22, Joplin resident Jeff Lehr said he might have sought shelter. Instead, it wasn't until a siren distracted him from a sporting event he was watching on TV that he looked out a window and saw what appeared to be dark thunderstorm clouds.

Even then, he didn't take cover until the windows began imploding in his apartment.

"After hundreds of times of similar thunderstorms approaching Joplin, many of those with tornado warnings attached, and you see them pass ... after all those storms, you kind of get jaundiced about the warnings and tend not to give them the weight you probably should give them," said Lehr, a reporter at The Joplin Globe.

James Spann, chief meteorologist with WBMA-TV in Birmingham, Ala., said the impact-based warning experiment could provide broadcasters and emergency management agencies with a useful tool in an age when a majority of people still wait for an outdated technology - tornado sirens - to seek shelter.

He blames the siren mentality and high number of false alarms for the complacency of people living in tornado-prone areas such as Alabama, where 252 people were killed last April 27 in a tornado outbreak that struck communities across the South.

"A lot of politicians and people who don't understand tornadoes try to jump into this," Spann said. "Their first reaction is, 'We've got to get more sirens.' What are these people thinking? They clearly do not understand the issue."

mollywobbles867 2nd-Apr-2012 02:13 pm (UTC)
As someone who suffers from anxiety, this would ruin me for weeks.
redstar826 2nd-Apr-2012 02:34 pm (UTC)
I can see where this might be needed in areas where people are so used to tornado warnings. We only get 1 or 2 a year where I am, so my general reaction is run for the basement but I've talked to people who live in areas where they are weekly occurrence and they mostly ignore them...
bnmc2005 2nd-Apr-2012 02:35 pm (UTC)
The first tornado was a massive EF-5 twister that killed 161 people as it wiped out a huge chunk of the southwest Missouri community. The second storm caused only minor damage when two weak tornadoes struck in the Kansas City suburbs.</br>

In both cases, the warnings were harbingers of touchdowns. But three out of every four times the National Weather Service issues a formal tornado warning, there isn't one. The result is a "cry wolf" phenomenon that's dulled the effectiveness of tornado warnings, and one the weather service hopes to solve with what amounts to a scare tactic.

This article seems to imply that the KCMO storm wasn't so serious? The problem is that the difference between a Catastrophe and just a couple hits can't be predicted, can it?

When that huge wall cloud rolled into KCMO last year- the locals were alerted not only by the HUGE news alerts and live updates—there were police cars going up and down out streets outside my office telling people how bad it was and to get their ass inside. My GF was south of town watching the news tell her there was a wall cloud passing over our house. Her sister was on the highway right under that front and she pulled off the road at a nearby school- but she didn't take cover until someone walking by told her to get her ass inside.</i> Meanwhile I was standing at the window of my office in midtown watching all of it roll in because - I'm stupid that way. It all seemed pretty damned serious. Most of the people I knew were getting into basements, or hiding in the bath tub with their dog and some pillows. That said, I'd say the reaction was more about the recent tornado in Joplin than the severity of the news alerts.

I grew up in Oklahoma and I know all about the "cry wolf" thing because they're right. Every time there's a hint of a possibility of a tornado the news and weather stations are ALL OVER IT. They break into your shows to tell you there's a thunderstorm outside. No kidding. It's gets a little dull. But you can't tell me that the local news doesn't lean on this a little bit because any times there is bad weather, people are more likely to tune it and watch their stations. I wouldn't be surprised to learn they have a huge spike in ratings during bad weather. Tell me they don't exploit that a little.

It will be interesting to see if the news producers reign in their own descriptions or will they soon be calling everything "Catastrophic".

crossfire 2nd-Apr-2012 03:58 pm (UTC)
I'd've watched it too. There's storm chaser blood in my family.

And you bring up a good point: the stations absolutely exploit it.
clevermanka Tornado-prone area residents, weigh in!2nd-Apr-2012 02:40 pm (UTC)
NGL, when the tornado sirens go off, I grab a bottle of wine and go out to the front porch. That is, when I can actually hear them. Sometimes the wind is so crazy strong, the sound just gets blown away.

those storms, you kind of get jaundiced about the warnings

miischelle Re: Tornado-prone area residents, weigh in!2nd-Apr-2012 02:44 pm (UTC)

except I more often don't hear them because our downstairs is so freaking sound proof.
mirhanda 2nd-Apr-2012 08:17 pm (UTC)
Around here, the test goes off at the same time every week. (Wednesdays, 11 a.m.) UNLESS there is bad weather that day, then it's scheduled for the very next good weather day. But the sirens are just to get your attention, you should tuned to your local station to find out what it's about.
angelmaye 2nd-Apr-2012 02:42 pm (UTC)
From a logical point, we all understand that every tornado watch/warning is a possible threat, but this article is pretty much spot on. At certain times of the year, these warning are a daily occurence.

I probably don't take them as serious as I should. I've lived outside of Kansas City for all of my life (39 years). I have never actually seen a tornado. Yes, I realize it only takes one to kill me. I am respectful of the weather, as I think most people are in this part of the country. I do like to watch the weather, but I am not stupid about it.

I find that public places take it much more seriously. I have been in more take shelter situations while at work and school than at home.
kyra_neko_rei 2nd-Apr-2012 02:58 pm (UTC)
At home it's easy to say "I just want to stay up here where it's comfortable and where my computer is," which is a stupid reason to die. Though I am very cautious due to the necessity of a few minutes' head start to get my cats downstairs.

Honestly I think we might see some kind of improvement as tablets catch on---I suspect that people might be more willing to seek shelter if it doesn't mean sitting someplace boring for awhile.
kyra_neko_rei 2nd-Apr-2012 02:50 pm (UTC)

Right, has there ever been a tornado that's killed everyone?

Plus you know that somewhere in the projected cone of destruction, there's going to be at least someone that hears that and goes "Aha! A challenge!"

Not to mention all the people who figure they're just overcompensating.

That said, definitely a sort of "Big Kahuna warning," possibly with detailed short-term location projections ("tornado within five miles of [town]" or "tornado-producing storm center currently over [town] with high likelihood to produce tornadoes; seek cover immediately.")

I just took a Skywarn class up here in Minnesota, and they focused quite a bit on the area of the storm that produces the tornadoes and also on where to position yourself relative to them for the safest spot to observe them from (there's a reason why in practically every storm photo you see, the storm's path is moving from left to right). The danger zones to watch out for are often quite small, and very mobile, so it would be reasonably do-able to pull up a map with towns labeled, stick the radar over it, and have someone watch the hot spots and provide detailed warnings for when one of the major danger zones crosses a population center. Not to mention make use of their storm chasers and have some detailed "tornado on the ground, up-storm-path of [town]."

It won't, of course, catch every tornado---but it will, hopefully, keep the ones it does catch from having a bigger pool of careless victims.
jwaneeta 3rd-Apr-2012 01:46 am (UTC)
By "unsurvivable," I believe they mean "for people who are not in a safe shelter."
maisontv 2nd-Apr-2012 03:06 pm (UTC)
I live just on the edge of tornado alley (Ohio) so maybe we don't get as many warnings as these states do, but every time I hear the siren I automatically grab my cats and head down to the basement. And I've been living here for 17 years. I have wifi, so I bring my laptop and monitor the weather radar online.

I never disregard the siren because even though a tornado hasn't hit my area in the past, that doesn't mean that this time isn't the time it does.
emofordino 2nd-Apr-2012 03:17 pm (UTC)
ohioans who are anxious about tornadoes unite! ;) tornado sirens creep me out, so i do the same as you--grab my laptop and my cats and go downstairs. i rarely ever go down to the basement when we have tornado watches/warnings, just because it's unfinished and mildewy/dark/damp/gross, but i do go downstairs and sit with my dad and make a plan about what we should do. you really never know when it's going to be devastating or not, and it's definitely better to be safe than sorry. i can kind of understand the tedium of living in a tornado-prone area, though, much like how californians don't bat an eye when earthquakes happen. idk though, i just feel better taking it seriously.
sestree 2nd-Apr-2012 03:18 pm (UTC)
Anyone in Kansas should know better than to ignore the warnings. Yes there are false alarms but please. They.Know.Better. In Kansas (where I'm from - the icon is a photo taken a mere 4 months before a [then]F-5 relocated my house) you can rarely find someone who doesn't know someone who has been through one.

I wish we would have had a siren. Instead we got to watch footage from Andover of the police begging people to take shelter while they walked their dogs.
carmy_w 2nd-Apr-2012 05:57 pm (UTC)
Glad you (and hopefully all of your family) made it through OK!

I have to agree with you (and hello, fellow Kansan!), but I really wish they wouldn't throw out an alert every time the slightest hook echo pops up on the Doppler radar....

*edited out comment on new level when I re-read the article talking about new levels-duh!

Edited at 2012-04-02 06:02 pm (UTC)
windsong_moon 2nd-Apr-2012 03:58 pm (UTC)
My city uses the sirens for everything it seems like, so the article is spot on in regards to how commonplace it becomes. Usually I take it to mean a "cool" storm is rolling in.
mamamilkshake 2nd-Apr-2012 04:48 pm (UTC)
I have mixed feelings about this but do find it to be a good idea for the most part.

I'm incredibly anxious about tornadoes having had one pass down my street as a small child. My anxiety heightened to an all time high last spring my city (not too far from the Lowes store destroyed in NC) had a tornado rip through and a majority of the people I know in town did not take the warning seriously. Some were even on the road in their cars when the twister came through in the immediate area they had been driving in. My family had been scheduled to go to an Easter egg hunt that got cancelled on account of the storm and we made sure we had prepared our shelter area with necessary supplies and distractions for our young daughter by the time the storm arrived. If this big Easter egg had been cancelled, it was obvious something nasty might be heading our way. We have no storm sirens here, something I really hate, so better safe than sorry I figured. A tornado wound up passing less than 1/4 mile from our house. We were okay, as was our house, but there was a fair deal of damage in our neighborhood. No major injuries or deaths in our city thankfully.

Since that day we've taken shelter for every warning and stayed close to home & shelter during watches. I've packed 72 hour packs for my family--people and pets-- and have set up a closet for easy access to our supplies in the event of a storm. We were fortunate last time but the next time a tornado (or whatever) strikes we may not be so lucky. Having a child who depends on me for her safety and well-being makes it all the more important to err on the side of caution I think, as a basic responsibility of parenthood. All the more important in area without sirens and where we must rely on the storm radio, weather report, and our own instincts for making the right call.
ebay313 2nd-Apr-2012 05:11 pm (UTC)
I feel like I should be outraged at these scare tactics, but the reasoning behind them is true. When I was a kid, we used to go to the basement and wait out every warning. We even got my dog and cat into the basement usually. I remember being at my grandparents once when there was a tornado warning and me, my mom and siblings went in the basement but my grandfather and uncles insisted on staying upstairs, and said they would come down if they saw a tornado. I was terrified they were going to be killed. Of course no tornado did hit us, and never has. As I've gotten older, I've stopped bothering with the basement too. It's really easy to forget how serious they can be after so many warnings that never result in touchdowns near you.
mirhanda 2nd-Apr-2012 08:28 pm (UTC)
I remember those basement days! Back then, a tornado warning was only issued if someone saw a tornado with their eyes. But we are so lucky that these days they can see it with radar in the clouds before it touches down and they are better at pinpointing the track of the storm. It's good to keep an eye on your local weatherman to see where the track of the storm is!
ascendings 2nd-Apr-2012 06:00 pm (UTC)
I've never actually lived in a tornado prone area which I'm very glad for because they scare me so bad. Even thunderstorms make me nervous. I'm convinced that lightning is going to strike me or my house.
lovedforaday 2nd-Apr-2012 06:40 pm (UTC)
I see where they're coming from. It will probably make me nervous as hell if we ever get an "unsurvivable" warning, but I'll be glad for it. If I make it out alive, that is.
mirhanda 2nd-Apr-2012 06:58 pm (UTC)
I live in a mini-tornado alley and so we have warnings every year. I always take them very seriously and get to my safe place with pillows on my head. Still this could be a good idea if it will get people who blow off warnings to safer spots.
maenads_dance 2nd-Apr-2012 08:47 pm (UTC)
Lol, I remember when I was seven years old we'd moved to Ohio from Colorado. It was the first time that my brother, my mother, and I had lived in the midwest, but my father grew up in Nebraska and Michigan. On my father's birthday, the tornado sirens started going off - the first time we'd ever heard them - and we hustled down to the basement in a panic. After a few minutes of cold, cobwebby silence, my father got up, stretched, and walked upstairs to finish his birthday dinner. My mother was freaking out at him, but his attitude was, "If I don't eat it, the cats will."

And, of course, the tornado touched down for five seconds on somebody's farm and dug up a big hole in their field... and that was it.

I think it would be a good idea for the NWS to standardize what receives what level of warning. Except, maybe, given how unpredictable weather is, that could lead to false complacency? IDK.
tsaraven 2nd-Apr-2012 09:00 pm (UTC)
A big reason people don't heed the warnings in many Southern tornado-prone areas is because we don't have basements. We have no where to go, so if I'm going to drag my family out to lay in a ditch somewhere outside in a thunderstorm I'd better believe that all hell is about to break loose. If we had a basement we could just walk down to, then I probably would make everyone go there every time.

tabaqui 2nd-Apr-2012 11:58 pm (UTC)
OMG, this. When we lived in a double-wide, in a little neighborhood with *no frigging ditches* and tons of trees, going outside to simply 'not be in the trailer' was just a stupid idea.
tabaqui 3rd-Apr-2012 12:01 am (UTC)
Growing up in Missouri, we lived out in the country and couldn't hear the sirens. We saw bad weather but i don't remember ever going to our basement. My dad would usually just shrug it off/say we'd have a lot of downed limbs to pick up in the morning. Which we did, yay. Never saw a tornado.

Then lived in other places, then Kansas and Missouri again and in all that time (up until today) only went 'to the basement' once. Because the storm cell with swirling fingers and whatnot was *right above our third floor apartment*, so we figured going to the subterranean laundry area might be a good idea.

Now, in our stone house with basement, we mostly only worry about the cars being pelted with hail and stay up top. The SO tracks all the weather from his Lair. Complacent, perhaps, but it's just...how you get.
little_rachael 3rd-Apr-2012 06:47 am (UTC)
I can't imagine I'd listen to every single warning released. I've a question, though--what are people in apartment buildings supposed to do?

In Alaska, we get a lot of earthquakes. I admit I've grown complacent and sort of just sit there when I feel an earthquake. Sometimes I do get under my desk at work and then feel stupid because nobody else does.

But you don't get any warnings for earthquakes.
saoru 3rd-Apr-2012 11:27 pm (UTC)
Yeah, this is pretty spot on. I went to college in Joplin (a few years before the recent tornado) and in the spring we'd sometimes have sirens going off literally every morning. They were so regular I could have used them for an alarm clock; more often I just rolled over and went back to sleep... which sounds like a stupid thing to do, but that's just the attitude you get after living with cry-wolf alarms your whole life. Everybody always assumes 'it won't happen to me, it's never happened before'.

To be honest I'm not sure how changing the text of warnings is going to do any good, though -- it might provide a level of novelty after a while, but eventually people will just get used to/complacent about them too.
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