The Time Is Now

| May 22, 2012

Since a tornado hit Flint, Michigan in 1953 leaving 116 dead, there had not been a U.S. tornado that caused one hundred fatalities. The fact that there had not been a one hundred fatality tornado in over a half century was pointed to with pride by many people. The U.S. has the best weather service in the world, and its severe weather forecasting and warning programs have literally saved thousands of lives each year since its inception in the early 1950s. The every day person and weather experts alike, knew that string of luck would come to an end at some point. The spring of 2011 had been a terrible one for tornadoes and tornado fatalities. April was the worst tornado month ever with an amazing 758 tornadoes, a full 200 more than the previous record for any month. The 360 deaths in April were the most in seventy five years. The outbreak of 200 tornadoes on April 27th set not only a record for one day, but the 316 people that were lost that day were the most for any day since modern tornado records have been kept. The morning of Sunday, May 22nd looked like many other severe weather days on the Plains. A slight risk of severe thunderstorms was forecast by the SPC in their first issanace of the day. It covered the area from Texas to Michigan. But there was a subtle difference. The SPC forecaster added a “hatched area”, which indicates a greater than 10% chances of EF2 or greater tornadoes from southwestern Missouri to Illinois. That stripe cut directly across the city of Joplin, Missouri. The slight risk was the first signal that May 22nd was an unusual day that needed extra vigilance from residents that were under it. Just an hour after that risk went into effect at 7 a.m. CDT, the SPC upgraded a swath from Missouri to Wisconsin to a moderate risk, indicating an enhanced potential for severe weather including significant tornadoes. People in the moderate risk area had an extra heads up that they needed to pay attention to the weather that day. If they had a way of receiving it, that is. It was a busy May Sunday in Joplin. The high school graduation exercises were scheduled for that afternoon. People were taking advantage of the warm, humid weather to get outdoors. Others were shopping, perhaps preparing for the upcoming Memorial Day holiday or June vacations. At 1:30 p.m., the Storm Prediction Center issued a tornado watch for parts of Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. The watch included Joplin. A tornado watch means that conditions are favorable for tornadoes to develop. As people went to the mall, or the park, or to graduation, they may have been unaware that a tornado watch had been issued. If they had been armed with that information, they might have paid more attention or planned for the potential for severe weather. In Joplin, Emergency Manager Keith Stammer started watching the weather keenly when the tornado watch came out. As storms started to form in southeastern Kansas, he left for his Emergency Operations Center, firing up computers, talking to dispatch, checking his spotter networks and communicating with the National Weather Service. Jasper County, where Joplin is located, was no stranger to tornadoes. They were even less of a stranger to tornado warnings. In the preceding four years, there had been thirty four tornado warnings in the county. That’s 34 times that the sirens sounded. That’s 34 times that the NOAA Weatheradio went off. Problem was, there were only two tornadoes in the county during that four year period. Mike Smith, author of the book “When the Sirens Were Silent”, thinks that these false alarms inadvertently trained the county’s residents not to listen when tornado warnings were issued. When storms started to intensify in Kansas and were moving across the border into Missouri, the first tornado warning was issued at 5:09 p.m. Keith Stammer sounded the sirens in the City of Joplin. But Mike Smith has a problem with the wording of the tornado warning. It led people to believe that the tornado was going north of them. So if residents of Joplin heard the sirens at 5:11 and turned on their radios or televisions, they were led to believe that the threat was going to pass north of Joplin. At 5:17, a second tornado warning was issued based on strong rotation west of Joplin. This warning did include the eventual path of the tornado. But many people didn’t get the warning and still believed the tornado was going to pass north of the city. Smith says

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the sirens weren’t sounded again until 5:38 when reports began to come in that the tornado was on the ground moving into the city. When all was said and done, less than 30 minutes later, much of the town lay in ruins and 161 people were dead. The death toll was shocking, but not unexpected to many experts. Questions swirled in the aftermath about false alarm rates, the wording of warnings, calls to action, sheltering, siren policies, pathcasts, confusion among television meteorologists, the need for confirmation, social media’s importance and personal responsibility. We already have the answers and the main part of the system worked very well that Sunday afternoon. A very specific tornado warning was issued a full 16 minutes before the tornado touched down just west of Joplin. The system failed in getting that warning into the hands of the people under the threat. When the National Weather Service went to the new, very specific storm based warning polygons in 2007, the individual warnings affected far fewer people. The polygons are tailored for each individual storm. The problem is, warning notification systems have not been developed that can deliver these warnings with precision. On the WeatherBrains show last night, Smith was pressed to answer the question of why we are worried about an outdated, outdoor warning technology like sirens today given the new specific polygon warnings. He replied that “Smartphones that use GPS technology to deliver warnings to people based on their location won’t be widely available for 4-5 years still.” Well not if you have an iPhone. MyWARN is the answer to receiving only the severe weather risks, watches and warnings that affect your location, no matter where you are in the 48 states, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. MyWARN doesn’t require adjustment of settings or special training. Just open the app and keep it in memory. It will constantly monitor the flow of National Weather Service alerts and compare them against your location, alerting you immediately when you find yourself in an alert. Get MyWARN now and protect you and your family. Follow us on Twitter. Like us on Facebook. Add us to your Google+ circles. Get MyWARN now from the iTunes Store and the Google Play Store

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