On Wednesday evening, AccuWeather issued a timely warning for the tornado that struck Moore, Okla. The National Weather Service (NWS) did not.
AccuWeather is promoting its superior forecast to demonstrate the edge its services provide over freely available government information, but some in the weather community feel it is unfairly and unjustifiably throwing the NWS under the bus.
On Thursday, AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions released a brochure highlighting the fact NWS office in Norman repeatedly said the tornado potential around Oklahoma City Wednesday was low or non-existent whereas AccuWeather had identified an environment ripe for tornadoes.
AccuWeather said it issued a tornado warning for its commercial clients in the vicinity of Moore at 6:20 p.m., whereas as of 6:35 p.m. NWS office in Norman was calling attention to the fact “no NWS tornado warnings [are] in effect.”
Not only was AccuWeather ahead of the NWS in issuing a warning about the Moore tornado, but also some television meteorologists, who reported visual confirmation of a tornado on the ground before any NWS warning had been disseminated.
For its part, the NWS in Norman released a statement stressing how complex the forecast was. “[T]he storms that produced the damage are difficult to anticipate and extremely difficult to warn for,” the NWS said.
The NWS also noted it had issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Moore as of 6:32 p.m. and that a lot of the damage in Moore was due to straight-line thunderstorm winds rather than the tornado.
Mike Smith, senior vice president at AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions and author of the brochure critical of the NWS, disputes the notion it was a challenging tornado to identify and warn for. “We didn’t think it was a particularly difficult situation,” Smith said.
Smith and the brochure note the storm displayed a tell-tale tornado signature on a special high resolution radar of the Federal Aviation Administration, which the NWS has access to. “The [radar] identified it beautifully,” Smith said.
The NWS finally issued a tornado warning for Moore at 6:43 p.m., but some of the damage was already done.
“The siren didn’t go off until the vent was falling on my head,” Greg Best, a tornado victim, told KFOR.com, a television affiliate in Oklahoma City.
In its promotional brochure, AccuWeather placed great emphasis on the added lead time its warning provided, compared to others:
The most precious gift you can have when a tornado is bearing down on you is time. Time to plan. Time to gather up your family, employees or customers and get to shelter before the storm arrives. When the tornado – that was a surprise to some – moved across Moore, Oklahoma, on March 25, 2015, it was not a surprise to the clients of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions. Our clients had more than 15 minutes of advance notice the tornado was on the way.
Some voices in the weather community feel the criticism of the NWS from AccuWeather and others is unwarranted, in light of its track record of providing reliable tornado warnings.
“We believe that the public-private partnership we share with the NWS is critical to ensuring a weather ready nation and this is just one cherry-picked instance in a long history of outstanding weather alerts from NWS,” said Shirley Powell, a spokesperson for The Weather Channel.
(Powell also pointed out AccuWeather did not disseminate the Moore tornado warning on its television network. The Weather Channel is currently asking customers to pressure Verizon to bring its channel back to the Verizon FiOS cable TV lineup, after being dropped and replaced by AccuWeather.)
AccuWeather’s Smith points out he wrote a whole book praising the NWS (Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather), but that it is not above criticism. “I am the biggest fan of NWS around when they do their job well, but they should be expected to be held accountable when there are issues,” he said.
But placing too much emphasis on the performance of a single forecast can be misleading, according to David Titley, director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University.
“As someone who has done nearly 40 years of operational forecasting, it’s a little like the NFL: on any given day, there’s always one forecast that is best,” Titley said. “A much better way to assess forecast skill is to have impartial, 3rd party verification and transparency over time. The facts will then speak for themselves.”
Smith counters that, as a business, AccuWeather must point to examples in which its services provide added value.
“We have people all the time question why should we buy these services from you when we can get them for free,” he said. “The purpose of this document [brochure] is to answer that question. We went back and forth to make sure every fact is correct and that it was scrupulously fair.”
Chris Vaccaro, a spokesperson for the NWS, did not comment on the specifics of the AccuWeather brochure but stressed the importance of the public and private interests in the weather community working together constructively. His statement:
Each and every NWS forecast and warning is provided publicly with the solemn purpose to protect lives and property. As such, each event is open to selective interpretation and criticism. We also rely on private sector companies, local and national media, and emergency management, as a collective Weather Enterprise, to help the National Weather Service effectively communicate life-saving information to the public. We deeply appreciate this partnership, although we do not always agree with every partner interpretation of events.