National Weather Service Tests New “Impact” Warning

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Storm damage from a catastrophic tornado that struck Tuscaloosa, Ala. April 27, 2011.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)
Storm damage from a catastrophic tornado that struck Tuscaloosa, Ala. April 27, 2011.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)

Wednesday, Franklin County will conduct its weekly Tornado warning test. We’re getting more of these warnings, causing some to worry the sirens’ effectiveness is wearing off. That’s why the National Weather Service is testing a series of new, attention-grabbing warnings.

If it’s Wednesday at noon, you can expect to hear the tornado sirens. The sirens are tested each week to make sure they’ll work in the event of a real threat. They’ve sounded three times this year in Franklin County for real warnings and 42 times across the state.

Since 2007, the number of tornado warnings issued for Ohio has tripled. The reasons why are pretty simple: more severe weather and better technology.

But because we’re hearing the warnings more often experts admit they’re becoming less effective.

“The county is very large so I tend to go to a weather station first to find out where it is. So, seriously enough to check, but not seriously enough to dash to the basement,” Johanna McKenzie, of Columbus, said.

Rachel White, also of Columbus, said does not take tornado warnings very seriously, “Because most of the time it never amounts to anything…it seems like so many instances of like them going off and nothing happens. Like, there it goes again, another day.”

That ambivalence is even worse in Plains states which can experience hundreds of tornadoes a year. Meteorologists call it “car alarm” syndrome, where something is heard so often it becomes background noise.

A storm last spring provided a tragic illustration. Last May, a tornado warning was issued for Joplin, Missouri. As the tornado moved toward the city, it intensified to an EF 5, the most violent kind. Not everyone heeded the warning, and 160 people died.

To try to overcome complacency in Tornado Alley, the National Weather Service is trying out a new warning system in Kansas and Missouri.

“The intent is not to scare, but it is to inform,” Meteorologist Mike Hudson said.

Hudson is chief operations officer at the Kansas City National Weather Service. He read the most severe warning.

“This is a life threatening situation. You could be killed if not underground or in a tornado shelter. Complete destruction of entire neighborhoods is likely. Many well built homes and businesses will be completely swept from their foundations. Debris will block most roadways. Mass devastation is likely making the area unrecognizable to survivors.”

Hudson hopes the impact based warnings will help people relate to a storm’s potential.

Not all warnings will sound as intense as the one in this report. A catastrophic tornado warning will be reserved for Joplin-like tornadoes that have been confirmed on the ground. The other impact based warnings describe situations of significant building damage, uprooted trees or roads blocked by debris.
Columbus is not Tornado Alley. And the old warning system remains in place here.

About 70 percent of the time tornado warnings are false alarms. That’s because the current radars allow the National Weather Service to issue a tornado warning about 13 minutes before a tornado actually forms, if it ever does. Channel 4 Meteorologist Ben Gelber admits there’s a delicate balance between safety and crying wolf.

“There’s no guarantee a tornado will drop from the clouds, so you issue a warning to cover a wide area just because there’s that small chance, but a very real risk once rotation is established. Trouble is, the public has heard so many warnings that there’s a tendency to wait until something is dangerously close. And if you have a storm that’s moving at 40 or 50 mph that can be too late,” he said.

Gelber said the only answer to what he calls “crying wolf” warnings is a radar set to be at the weather service’s finger tips later this year. Gelber said the new technology will give meteorologists a 3-D look inside a thunderstorm where tornadoes form.

“The hope is that technology will reduce the number of warnings when nothing touches down. In other words, a forecaster will have a better since of a real risk of a rotation leading to a tornado,” Gelber said.

The National Weather Service could decide this fall if the new impact based warnings will be used everywhere.

Rachel White, who earlier said she does not heed tornado warnings, said an impact based warning might change her mind.

“Yeah, that would definitely make me take it more seriously.”

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