From the ABC 7 Weather team

New tornado warning wording: 'Mass devastation likely'

April 30, 2012 - 05:00 AM
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The National Weather Service is testing new language for tornado warnings in an effort to save more lives. What do you think? 

Even though the average lead (advance) time for tornado warnings has increased in recent years there are still instances, such as the Joplin, Missouri, tornado that occurred last May when 161 people were killed.

The average lead-time for the Joplin tornado was 20 minutes, but unfortunately because residents there experience tornado warnings so frequently they had become desensitized to them and didn’t take the appropriate action to be safe. This is common problem across the plains and the southeast (and concern for forecasters) where tornados happen frequently and residents almost tune out the warnings and sirens.

To combat this problem the National Weather Service (NWS) offices in Kansas and Missouri have begun an experiment testing new tornado warnings that are more specific and more descriptive, and the language more dramatic, as to the potential effects of the storms.

This experiment, called “Impact Based Warning,” is meant to grab the attention people who live in Tornado Alley and to “better convey the threat and elevate the warning over a more typical warning,” according to Dan Hawblitzel of the Pleasant Hill, Missouri NWS office.

The new warnings will include language like “mass devastation is highly likely, making the area unrecognizable to survivors” and “unsurvivable if shelter not sought below ground.”

The new warnings will be tested through November 30 and were first applied last weekend during a tornado outbreak that spanned  Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Iowa.

The Kansas National Weather Service warnings that day included wording like “You could be killed if not underground or in a tornado shelter. Many well-built homes and businesses will be completely swept from their foundations.”

The initial results are encouraging, as a tornado did touch down and tore through a mobile-home park during the nighttime hours, but there were no fatalities.

After the experiment concludes in November it will be evaluated and possibly considered for more widespread use nationwide.

Chris Strong, the warning coordination meteorologist at our local National Weather Service office in Silver Spring, Md., said “Anything that adds detail or clarity to a warning is good. The more we can quickly relay specifics, and the level of danger, the more any given person will react with the proper response to any given threat.”

“We do in our area have the flexibility to change our warnings too when something hi-end occurs here. In fact, we can use things like 'tornado emergency,' 'large and devastating tornado has been confirmed,' several other ready to go phrases, or even freehand additional known details for more impactful warnings.”

“In the future, the NWS will be trying more and more of this (trying to delineate the level of danger in a dangerous situation). During the spring severe weather workshop, which other broadcast meteorologists and I attended in late March, we learned of other wording changes that are being made to our local severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings. These wording changes will be more subtle and will focus on removing unnecessary wording, clarity, and detail. Both of these changes are being made with the same goal to clearly communicate threat so that residents can take the appropriate action to be safe," he said.

Here’s an example of a standard Tornado Warning…
BULLETIN - EAS ACTIVATION REQUESTED
TORNADO WARNING
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE BIRMINGHAM AL
1023 PM CST SUN NOV 10 2002

THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN BIRMINGHAM HAS ISSUED A

* TORNADO WARNING FOR...
JEFFERSON COUNTY IN ALABAMA

* UNTIL 1115 PM CST

* AT 1022 PM CST...NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DOPPLER RADAR INDICATED A
TORNADO 11 MILES SOUTHWEST OF NORTH JOHNS...MOVING EAST AT 45 MPH.

* LOCATIONS NEAR THE PATH OF THIS TORNADO INCLUDE...BESSEMER...HOOVER
AND NORTH JOHNS.

THIS IS AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS AND LIFE THREATENING SITUATION.
EVACUATE MOBILE HOMES...GO TO A STURDY BUILDING. MOVE TO AN INTERIOR
ROOM ON THE LOWEST FLOOR OR A BASEMENT. STAY AWAY FROM WINDOWS.

Now here is an example of the experimental impact-based warning issued by the NWS in Wichita, Kan., a few weeks ago:

BULLETIN - EAS ACTIVATION REQUESTED
TORNADO WARNING
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE WICHITA KS
1041 PM CDT SAT APR 14 2012

THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN WICHITA HAS ISSUED A

* TORNADO WARNING FOR...
BUTLER COUNTY IN SOUTH CENTRAL KANSAS...

* UNTIL 1130 PM CDT

* AT 1036 PM CDT...A CONFIRMED LARGE AND EXTREMELY DANGEROUS TORNADO
WAS LOCATED NEAR ANDOVER...AND MOVING EAST TO NORTHEAST AT 35 MPH.

THIS IS A PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS SITUATION.

HAZARD...DAMAGING TORNADO.

SOURCE...SPOTTER CONFIRMED TORNADO.

IMPACT...MAJOR HOUSE AND BUILDING DAMAGE LIKELY AND COMPLETE
DESTRUCTION POSSIBLE. NUMEROUS TREES SNAPPED. MAJOR POWER
OUTAGES IN PATH OF TORNADO HIGHLY LIKELY. SOME ROADS
POSSIBLY BLOCKED BY TORNADO DEBRIS. COMPLETE DESTRUCTION
OF VEHICLES LIKELY.

* LOCATIONS IMPACTED INCLUDE...
EL DORADO...AUGUSTA...TOWANDA...POTWIN...LEON...CASSODAY...
BENTON...EL DORADO LAKE AND ROSALIA.

THIS INCLUDES THE KANSAS TURNPIKE BETWEEN MILE MARKERS 55 AND 96.

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS...

TO REPEAT...A LARGE...EXTREMELY DANGEROUS AND POTENTIALLY DEADLY
TORNADO IS ON THE GROUND! TO PROTECT YOUR LIFE...TAKE COVER NOW.
MOVE TO AN INTERIOR ROOM ON THE LOWEST FLOOR OF A STURDY BUILDING!
AVOID WINDOWS. IF IN A MOBILE HOME...A VEHICLE OR OUTDOORS...MOVE TO
THE CLOSEST SUBSTANTIAL SHELTER AND PROTECT YOURSELF FROM FLYING
DEBRIS.

TORNADOES ARE DIFFICULT TO SEE AND CONFIRM AT NIGHT. TAKE COVER NOW!

I am interested to see what you guys think. Is this a good idea? Would these changes and the new wording get your attention? Would you be more likely to seek shelter or take the necessary actions if you saw the new wording? Let me know your thoughts.

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