One of the worst tornadoes of the modern era devastated the city of Joplin a year ago, killing 161 people and leaving vast destruction that produced $3 billion in damages.
Little could’ve been done to avoid the catastrophic economic losses, given the intensity of the tornado, at the very top of the scale (EF-5). But Mike Smith, in his new book, “When the sirens were silent,” makes a compelling argument that the people of Joplin were let down.
Smith, senior vice president at AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, acknowledges the historic intensity of the tornado meant some loss of life was inevitable, but contends two interrelated factors worsened the human toll:
* The tornado siren system was flawed and, on that day, was exposed
* The National Weather Service didn’t have its finest day
The book, a quick read, is a stirring call to action to improve tornado warning communication in this country.
Smith provides a gripping countdown of the events leading up to the tornado, critiquing the series of decisions and actions from forecasters and emergency management and describing their consequences. His commentary is insightful and written plainly enough for the layperson to understand.
His comments on the inconsistencies and flaws in sounding tornado sirens are most alarming. The problems he says, are systemic, and not limited to Joplin.
The basic problem, Smith says, it that sirens are sounded too often in most places. Sometimes they sound in an entire county for a warning that covers just a sliver of it; sometimes for other thunderstorm phenomena like large hail and/or strong straight-line winds; and sometimes for false alarm warnings – warnings for tornadoes that were incorrectly detected.
The residents of Joplin, Smith contends, were numbed by the too frequent blaring of sirens. As a result of too many past false alarms, he writes: “The citizens of Joplin were unwittingly being trained to NOT act when the sirens sounded.”
The irony, of course, is that the book is titled “When the sirens were silent.” It turns out sirens did go off in Joplin that day – but from 5:11 to 5:14 p.m. for a false alarm tornado. The book explains what happened when the monster tornado approached the city about 30 minutes later.
The book’s other main thread, crucially linked to the commentary on sirens, is the effectiveness of the National Weather Service warnings that day. Smith describes numerous examples of confusing, wrong, and/or misleading information in National Weather Service (NWS) warning statements. This affected if and when emergency management activated sirens.
While picking apart the substance of warnings from the NWS, he contrasts them with warnings issued by an employee of his own company which he implies were superior. That may well have been true. But he would’ve served his readers well to interview employees/leadership from NWS and present their perspective on the warning statements issued.
The book’s conclusion provides a cogent discussion of the importance of advancing technology, training, and messaging to improve the warning process.
Over the last few decades, we have learned a lot about tornadoes and successfully introduced measures to prepare for and respond to them. Tornado-related deaths have trended down as a result. Smith’s first book, “Warnings” details this success story.
But the surge in tornado fatalities in 2011 shows we remain vulnerable. Smith’s latest contribution is an important one for motivating renewed conversation and actions for improving the delivery of tornado warnings and what’s in them.