Thursday, March 9, 2017

Maybe We Need To Change How Severe Weather Warnings Are Issued

A map showing a tornado watch (yellow) tornado warning
(in red) and severe thunderstorm warning (in orange)
The map shows county borders statewide.
If you didn't know the name of your county and surrounding
counties if you were in Oklahoma, you wouldn't know
if the tornado was threatening you. 
You've heard people say this before:

Victims of tornadoes or other severe weather would say, "It hit without warning." or "We had no warning, it just blew in."

Almost always, there had indeed been timely warnings before the storm arrived. Did the storm victims not hear the warnings? Or disregard them?

As we head into the spring and early summer tornado season, this is an important, immediate worry. recently had an interesting take on this, which perhaps highlights a need to change how weather warnings go out.

Typically, the National Weather Service will issue a tornado or severe thunderstorm warning for a particular county during a particular time period. The warning might mention a few of the communities that are threatened, but they obviously can't list them all.

The warning might start out reading like this:  "The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning for Smith County until 7 p.m......."

Here's the problem, put succinctly by the headline: "Many Alabamians Can't Find Themselves On A Map, And That's Dangerous"

This isn't a slam against Alabama residents. It looks like not a lot of people anywhere in the United States know which county they live in. That's a problem, since, as noted, warnings tell you which county the warning is affected by a warning.

The entire article, though focused on Alabama, is a must-read for anyone who will someday, sooner or later, will have to heed a weather warning to save their lives and property.

That means pretty much everybody.

This whole question started in Alabama because of social scientist April Taylor.

On April 27, 2011, Alabama was at the epicenter of the most extensive, and one of the most deadly and destructive tornado outbreaks in American history.

One of the tornadoes, an EF5 - the strongest and most dangerous possible - tore through DeKalb County, Alabama, killing 25 people.

Taylor knew that before the tornado in DeKalb County, the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for the county immediately to the west, the direction from which the tornado was coming.

Then, a warning was issued for DeKalb County itself. Why were people saying they had no warning?

According to, this prompted Taylor to create an experiment:
A deadly tornado pummels Tuscaloosa, Alabama on
April 27, 2011 during a super outbreak of tornadoes.
Researchers learned some people couldn't understand
weather warnings duirng this storm and many others because
they can't locate the county they live in on a map.

"I pulled together a map and a group of people with college degrees....It was seven people. And I passed out a map of the northern half of Alabama with the major highways listed. 

And I asked them: Label your home county, label the surrounding counties. Put a dot where your hometown is and if you can find where your school and your church and all that is.

"Seven people. All with college degrees. Only three people could label their home county. Only three. Only one was able to label surrounding counties"

In other words, when the National Weather Service issues a tornado or any other warning for X County, few people know what that means or whether it will affect them.

Taylor conducted a similar experiment with many more people. Most people couldn't identify their counties.

She took her study results to Kevin Laws at the National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Alabama, to ask whether there was a way to improve warnings.

Broadcast meteorologists are happy with that move. They are welcoming this look at how warnings are disseminated.

Veteran Alabama television meteorologist James Spann in Alabama says during severe weather he routinely puts maps live on the air showing sections and counties in Alabama that are under tornado warnings.  These maps also go immediately on social media.

"You work really hard on these maps and graphics, really hard. The minute you post it, the first 10 comments are 'What about Cullman?' 'What about Jasper?' 'What about Dora?' 'What about Eastaboga?' 'What about Hanceville?' 'What about Clanton?'

And I'm thinking, I don't understand this. What it is, is that people can't find themselves on a map. They honestly can't help it. They can't find themselves."

Part of the problem might be the maps. Sometimes, they're not labeled. It's hard to formulate a map that tells you both what's going on, and where you're referencing. You have to do both, apparently, but if the map gets too cluttered with information, you lose everything.

On top of that, notes, we don't use maps nowadays the same way we used to.

"'You look at college kids today, and I study them, because I've got to reach them,' Spann said. 'They pull out their maps app all the time, but they use the directions coming off that maps app that tells you what to do. It tells you to turn here and turn here, and they really don't even look at the map, they just follow directions.'"

Researchers are taking the experiences in Alabama with warnings and maps and doing even more research. They want to design warning maps that people can easily understand and interpret.

At the risk of sounding like Jason Chaffetz, I'm going to advocate for personal responsibility. I get it we don't know where we are on maps, so plan ahead. This won't really even cost you any morey.

Get a copy of a map of your area, preferably one that sbows counties, roads and landmarks surrounding your area.  Find it online and print if you want. Make it big enough so that you can mark each county with its name, and leave it where you can find it when there's weather warnings.

Like right next to your weather radio. You do have a weather radio, right?

This way, when the National Weather Service or a broadcaster squawks a warning, you can readily see where they're talking about. Pay attention to directions, too. If they say the storms are moving east, you can look at the map and see if the storms are west of you. If they are, be on the lookout.

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