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 03:06 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I can see the merit for the people who just don't care or feel invincible (like my roommate). I always panic a bit whenever there's a tornado warning, so it's hard for me to imagine people who don't.
emofordino 2nd-Apr-2012 03:08 pm (UTC)
i live in ohio, so i obviously have never experienced a tsunami alarm here before, but our tornado sirens are LOUD. i know in my town alone, we have 3-4 in different parts of the city to make sure that everyone will be able to hear it, regardless of where they live in town. i have been woken up on more than one occasion by tornado sirens, which always end up creeping me out and making me go downstairs to see what's up. obviously we still get alerts and things on our tvs/radios/etc, but people who don't have them or aren't using them at that moment would still be alerted to possible dangers from tornadoes. thankfully, i don't think any tornadoes higher than an E1 have ever touched down in my town in my lifetime, but we've had some close calls in surrounding cities.
destructo_ray 2nd-Apr-2012 03:41 pm (UTC)
I don't think I've ever heard the legit tornado siren, but in the event of severe weather in downtown Lexington, KY (this only happened once to my recollection, from 2005-2009), they play an electronic Westminster Chime over speakers and then there's a Weather Service announcement that follows. It's like... the daintiest warning I've ever heard.

My sister didn't even wake up from it-- and I doubt most people actually heard it (it was played around 2:45 AM). It made me wonder how many times I might have slept through a warning.
ebay313 2nd-Apr-2012 05:06 pm (UTC)
I've heard the actual sirens only a few times when I've been outside other places, and I've never found them particularly loud. I never hear them at my house, inside or outside. I'm glad I have an android phone, now I get warnings on my phone through the weather widget I have (I watch lots of tv, but usually dvr recordings, so I'm going to be hours if not days late getting a tornado warning from my tv!)
alryssa Here's what one sounds like, for the uninitiated. 2nd-Apr-2012 07:43 pm (UTC)

(fucking terrifying, is what it is)
mirhanda 2nd-Apr-2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
The sirens are supposed to be for people working outside only. Sadly, many of the people around here just don't understand that and rely on them even inside, and honestly, a LOT of times you can't hear them when you're inside, that's why I have one of those warning radios. If you live in a tornado prone area, getting one of those radios is absolutely imperative. It'll be the best $50 you ever spent, honestly. Set it up and forget about it until it wakes you up and might save your life.

Edited at 2012-04-02 07:54 pm (UTC)
mirhanda 2nd-Apr-2012 08:14 pm (UTC)
These ones have an "alert mode" in which they are on, but silent. It's set the NOAA weather station in your area and when there is a warning for your area, it sounds an alarm then tells you what the warning is. It works for tornadoes, severe storms, blizzards and any other weather related thing that can kill. They are pretty wonderful, and I love mine. It's woken us up many times!
mirhanda 2nd-Apr-2012 08:22 pm (UTC)
It's good to be awakened. More people are killed by nighttime tornadoes because they are asleep and have no way to hear the warnings. I'd rather lose a bit of sleep than be killed by a tornado.

mirhanda 2nd-Apr-2012 11:02 pm (UTC)
Yep, I had to have a talk with myself, haha! I can't make people be more aware of tornadoes and I just have to let go of that anxiety. I'm sure it shows in all of my posts here that I worry too much! I think being able to even admit that, albeit late, is a bit of progress though. Maybe?
txvoodoo 3rd-Apr-2012 01:32 am (UTC)
Um, I don't think that's true. Ours is in an area where there's pretty much no one working outside, and my house is a mile from it, and I can hear it from inside my house even when there are tvs and radios on.

That said, I have a smartphone alert app as well, as this area is tornado-prone.
mirhanda 3rd-Apr-2012 01:36 am (UTC)

"...to warn those who are outdoors. Although you may be able to hear them inside your home, they are not meant nor designed to be heard inside your home or workplace."
txvoodoo 3rd-Apr-2012 01:41 am (UTC)
Apparently that's correct, but, if so? Our area is like...wrong for that. We're a flock of homes. (Suburban Dallas, so you know it's just like..yeah. homes homes homes).

At least we can hear them, even a mile away. So the 'grabbing of dogs' commences.
jwaneeta 3rd-Apr-2012 01:38 am (UTC)
I can hear sirens inside my Omaha house from all points of the compass. I actually find the sound quite thrilling, but that's me, heh.

*edited for bad spelling that aggravated me.

Edited at 2012-04-03 01:51 am (UTC)
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