The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center (SPC) correctly identified 7 days ahead of time the part of the southern and central Plains with elevated risk of severe weather Saturday. That’s a remarkable achievement worth highlighting.
The forecasts were good in both the long range and in the short range. Mike Smith, an expert on storm warnings, lauded SPC for its high risk alert for severe weather more than 24 hours in advance. In particular, he praised its cautionary statement: Long-track, violent tornadoes are possible stretching into the overnight hours Saturday night. That’s exactly what happened.
Six people died in Saturday’s outbreak, a number which surely would have been much higher were it not for the advanced notice about the threat and precision short-term warnings. 124 tornado warnings and 213 severe thunderstorm warnings were issued across the Plains and Midwest Saturday.
(While there were 135 tornado reports, some of these are duplicates, and the actual number of tornadoes that touched down is still being determined.)
In the one tornado that killed 6 people in Woodward, Oklahoma, it turns out a warning was issued, but sirens failed to sound due to an “unknown technical problem” Smith said.
The success of this outbreak’s forecasts caught the attention of the NY Times, which wrote about them in today’s paper. Here’s an excerpt:
Days ahead of the deadly winds there was an unusual warning that alerted residents across at least five states to the threat of “extremely dangerous” and “catastrophic” weather.
The predictions held, it seems. But the people listened.
“I really think people took the warnings and they took them very seriously,” Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas said Sunday. “We had more notice on this system than you normally do. You normally are looking at a couple of hours’ notice. Well, this one had almost two days’ notice.”
In southwest Iowa, a tornado battered the small town of Thurman, damaging or destroying 75 to 90 percent of its homes, the authorities said. And yet, somehow in the town of about 200, there were no serious injuries or deaths reported. “Mostly everybody was able to get to cover before it hit,” said Mike Crecelius, the emergency management director for the county.
The effectiveness of the warnings for this event may also be traced to enhanced language in the warning statements (being piloted in Kansas and Missouri), used for the first time in Kansas. When a tornado was known to be on the ground as it approached the south side of Wichita, the National Weather Service called a “tornado emergency” that included dire statements such as:
* THIS IS A PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS SITUATION.
* 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 HIGHLY LIKELY MAKING THE AREA UNRECOGNIZABLE TO SURVIVORS.
* THIS IS AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS TORNADO WITH COMPLETE DEVASTATION LIKELY.
No deaths occurred from tornadoes in Kansas Saturday. One can’t say for sure if this alarming language saved lives, but it certainly conveyed urgency. Lest they be accused of fear-mongering, the NWS needs to be judicious in issuing statements with this language. But when there is visual confirmation of a large tornado, like there was in Kansas Saturday, it makes sense.
Dramatic video of EF-4 tornado that affected largely rural areas southwest of Salina, Kansas Saturday. Posted to YouTube by TeamTWISTEX
While the forecasts were stellar and the messaging seemingly effective, meteorologist Joe Lauria in Kansas City mentions there was some luck involved in the relative lack of death and destruction:
Most of the storms occurred in the rural areas, which is common when you think about all the real estate in the middle part of the country . . . Unfortunately, you take that tornado that was approaching Salina and stick it in a populated area and there would’ve been many more deaths, regardless of the awareness or the timely warning.
Of course, whatever advances we make in both forecasting and messaging are a good thing - so more people are protected the next time a large tornado threatens a largely populated area...