From the ABC 7 Weather team

Results from the town hall meeting on the Alabama tornado outbreak

November 11, 2011 - 06:00 AM
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A town hall meeting was conducted in October regarding the April 27, 2011, tornado outbreak in Alabama. Here are some of the findings.

Birmingham area tornado damage from aerialsouth.com

The picture above is from AerialSouth.com and was taken at 9:30 a.m., April 28, 2011, at 3,000 feet. Many thanks to Greg McNair for allowing use of this photograph as many people involved in the town hall meeting lived in the area shown.

We all remember what happened on April 27 through Alabama and much of the Deep South, but we still want to know how so many people lost their lives. An event was planned to look into this, with professional social scientists leading a town hall meeting during the National Weather Association conference in Birmingham, Ala. This was to gauge people’s reactions to what occurred that day and see what actions they took and didn’t take leading up to the devastating tornadoes. I have summarized the majority of the meeting and its results in this post.

Below is the official excerpt which was associated with the town hall meeting. You can also see the video in its entirety here:

NWA 2011 Town Hall from John Brown on Vimeo.

The National Weather Association hosted a town hall meeting on Tuesday, October 18, 2011 from 7-9 p.m. at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover. This event brought together professionals involved in the severe weather enterprise to listen to the thoughts and opinions of a scientifically chosen sample of everyday people who experienced that fateful day here in Central Alabama.

The National Weather Association chose two hundred people from a wide pool of applicants to participate in the audience and give input for scientific research into the severe weather warning process. Social scientists and a professional moderator lead a focus group of ten audience members on the stage while the remainder of the group answers multiple choice questions utilizing handheld audience response devices.

Phil Campbell, EF-5 Tornado Damage in Alabama

Now on to the results:

 

Q: When did you become aware that severe weather was in the forecast? 

80% said they knew something was possible 3 or more days ahead of time
55% said they knew something was possible more than 5 days out

 

Q: Did you know it was forecast to be a major severe weather event?

99% answered yes

I find this fantastic that nearly the entire group knew this was forecast to be a major event.

 

Q: How much time did you have between the warning and arrival of the tornado or worst of the storm?

22% answered between 16 and 30 minutes 

The actual lead time for this event was on the average of 24 minutes between the issuance of a warning and the tornado. This far outdoes the current lead time of 13 minutes for tornado warnings.

 

Q: How much time after a warning do you need?

80% said less than 10 minutes

This really surprised me. 10 minutes between being warned and a tornado or its effects hitting your location? 20% of the people said 10 to 20 minutes, which would be more where I stand.

 

Q: Do you like the new polygon warning system better than the county-based warning system?

93% said they like the polygon warnings better because they are more specific to your area

A number of other questions and problems arose from this, such as the fact that the NOAA Weather Radios still run on county based warnings. Around half of the people there thought the weather service issued at least 10 tornado warnings a year for their location which was also very interesting and very high.

 

Q: Did you rely on NOAA Weather Radio that day?

41% said they DID rely on weather radio to hear their warnings
27% said they did not even own a weather radio that day

Others noted certain problems with the NOAA radio, stating that once it started going off, it didn’t end for multiple hours as there were back-to-back warnings. Another problem was that some of the tornadoes knocked out the transmission towers. Others even stated that they forgot to put batteries in their radios so could not turn it on once the power was out.

 

Q: How did you hear about the warnings?

67% said they found out by watching T.V.
54% said they found out on the Internet or through Social Media
51% said they found out through NOAA Weather Radio or weather sirens

People were allowed to answer to all that applied on this question. With each number being rather large, it was interesting to me and other meteorologists that people seemed to have the need to confirm there was a warning for their area.

 

Q: Did you rely on local TV stations?

31% said they relied on multiple stations
24% said they relied on one station

I also found this interesting that people changed the channel to see if one station was showing something else, though I found out that some stations were broadcasting for different tornadoes so many of the residents just wanted to see what was going on closest to their home.

 

Q: What aspect of severe weather coverage on TV was most helpful? (All that apply)

81% said the projected path of the tornado and times cities were impacted
65% said the storm motion on radar
40% said urgency in the broadcasters voice
40% said live video of the tornado

I was really surprised that the live video of the tornado wasn’t way up there but can understand that it would take it out of perspective of where the tornado is really located. This is something to think about in the future. I was just watching coverage from Oklahoma this week watching the Tipton tornado from the helicopter but thought to myself, “How in the heck do people know where this is going if they never show a map?” I really think James Spann did a great job bringing in the double-box showing the video and the radar.

 

Q: What were your reactions to the tornado warning? (All that apply)

50% took immediate action
49% went for confirmation, whether it were checking the radar, or other sources like TV or social media
40% went outside to check the sky
35% called to alert someone like a friend or neighbor
20% wanted even more information before taking action

Wow, 49% went for confirmation, particularly after hearing about or even seeing TV images of the morning devastation. I thought this was way too high. Another 40% went outside to check the sky? Come on people! The focus group brought up the point of the false alarm rate being so high on tornado warnings that they still didn’t completely trust that there was really a tornado on the ground. This I’m sure was the case with a lot of people that had lost power and were hearing the warning through NOAA Weather Radio and other sources than T.V.

 

Q: Did you hear the tornado sirens?

77% said they did hear the sirens

Here in the D.C. area, there aren’t any weather sirens to speak of besides on Maryland-College Park campus where they got hit by a F3 and in La Plata, Md, where they were hit by a strong F4. Some people just didn’t hear the sirens while others stated they go off too often. Overall though, many thought they gave ample warning for the storms. This later seemed to be an issue in the Joplin, Mo., tornado though as it went off early once, then again later.

 

Q: When did you take safety measures to protect yourself and family?

25% said when the T.V. meteorologist spoke of their community
25% said when the radar showed the storm within a certain distance
21% said when the tornado warning was issued
21% said when they saw environmental clues such as falling debris, strong winds, etc.

 

Q: Did you have a safety plan on the 27th?

67% did and followed it
16% said they did but did not follow it

 

Q: What kind of structure were you located in?

56% said a wood framed structure
6% said a storm shelter

Only 6% in a storm shelter? Wow. I thought that would have been higher, though I do not know Alabama all that well and I do know that storm shelters are pricey. Some people mentioned that there should be more community storm shelters, particularly near manufactured home parks. Also, 68% of the people stated that they didn’t even have access to going below ground such as a basement or storm shelter. Many talked about the face that there are a lot of homes built on slabs in Alabama, something I saw a lot of in Pleasant Grove where there was EF-4 damage.

 

Q: Where are the safest locations to be in a tornado?

80% said a basement or storm shelter
2% said an overpass

Glad the myths are beginning to shrink, though a meteorologist stated that he interviewed a man that was confused why his house collapsed even after going around opening all of his windows.

 

Q: Were you confident in taking your safety precautions?

30% said they weren’t confident at all

They mentioned the fact that these were supposed to be strong tornadoes and were worried about their homes withstanding them. Many were worried they didn’t have a tornado shelter to go to. Also, some people weren't from the area such as college students and didn’t know how to act or where to head.

 

SUV that hit a water tower and went around 3/4 mile in Smithville, Miss., EF-5 Tornado

These were some interesting results indeed. I think there is a lot to take away from this and I know scientists will be researching this case study for years to come. As operational meteorologists, broadcast meteorologists and even people that focus on policy, we really need to try to move the ball down the field and run with this information. Even though this sample size was only 200 people, we could still take away that many improvements are needed. 

Updating the warnings on the NOAA Weather Radios so they match up with the polygons, continuing to teach the public about severe weather and tornadoes and researching other ways to warn the public in case of such events as a morning power outage are just a few things that can be improved and looked at throughout the country. I hope everyone took away something from this town hall as there is much to be learned from an event we can hope will never happen again in our lifetimes.

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