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Tornado legislation to improve forecasting and warnings passes Senate panel

The measure asks the NOAA to closely evaluate its information technology infrastructure because of recent warning delays.

An aerial image shows damaged homes on Tuesday after a series of tornadoes passed through Round Rock, Tex. (Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Over the past two days, more than 50 tornadoes have ripped through Texas and the Deep South, destroying numerous structures, cutting power to thousands and causing multiple injuries and fatalities. Tornadoes in Jacksboro, Tex., and New Orleans — were rated EF3 on the 0 to 5 scale for tornado intensity. As these twisters were wreaking havoc, lawmakers met to help better prepare the public for intense tornadic events just like these.

On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee advanced legislation that aims to improve tornado forecasting, as well as how weather threats are communicated and transmitted to the public.

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Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Republican co-sponsors from Iowa, Mississippi and South Dakota introduced the bill on March 10 called the Tornado Observation Research Notification and Deployment to Operations Act — also known as the TORNADO Act. The bill has been in the works for nearly a year but some of the issues have found new urgency after tornadoes in December and early March caused dozens of fatalities.

“These deadly outbreaks have shown that, even when tornadoes are well-forecasted, lead times and warnings do not always ensure that the public can adequately respond or that appropriate shelter is available,” Wicker said at Tuesday’s session. “The TORNADO Act would require that NOAA work to improve hazardous weather communications and forecasting to help prevent the loss of life and property from future storms.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the chair of the panel, called it “very important legislation.”

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The bill asks NOAA to closely evaluate its information technology infrastructure due to recent warning delays, and it looks to prioritize research to increase tornado warning lead times.

But the legislation is not solely focused on forecasts and technology. How people learn about, understand and respond to weather threats is equally critical, particularly in disadvantaged communities. The bill shines a spotlight on the need to continue to build these elements into the warning process.

“If those conditions are not also met, then the forecast alone is not going to save lives or protect property,” said Joseph Ripberger, deputy director for research at the Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Oklahoma, who was not involved in shaping the legislation.

He said that this bill is unique in its emphasis on social and behavioral sciences, an area that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has already been investing in.

Stephen Strader, an assistant professor of geography at Villanova University, agreed. “It shows that government policy and priorities are catching up to what scientists have known for years — that physical and social sciences must work together,” he said. “This [bill] reaffirms that importance and actually it’s a good thing to see.”

Communicating weather warnings to save lives

A centerpiece of the bill is the establishment of an office dedicated to improving how severe weather and other hazards are communicated so that alert messages are clear about what threat exists and what actions people should take.

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NOAA already has an extensive program working to simplify weather messages to make them more understandable.

The Hazard Simplification project is assessing current watches, warnings and advisories, and improving them based on social science research. The agency has also supported a number of research projects related to key issues in weather communication, including quick-response research after impactful tornadoes. Such projects are crucial because data on how people respond to weather information has been lacking and is difficult to obtain.

A centralized hazard communication office could allow NOAA to expand these efforts further, although the bill does not specify its funding levels.

“This bill would build on HAZSIMP’s great work and open the aperture a bit beyond just the simplification of hazards,” Senate Commerce Committee spokesperson Jill Dickerson said. “NOAA has really only just begun to scratch the surface of how incorporating social science in this space could save lives.”

The dangers of southeastern tornadoes

Tornadoes in the southeastern United States cause more deaths than in any other region of the country for a variety of reasons, but high population density, high poverty rates and the high number of manufactured homes scattered across the landscape make this region more vulnerable.

“That’s why this bill is so important — we’re not getting better at saving people,” Strader said, because vulnerability and exposure to tornadoes have increased.

NOAA began an endeavor in 2015, called Vortex Southeast, to investigate the issue, studying both the weather and socioeconomic factors behind the high death rate. It has found, among other things, that improved warnings have been offset by the lack of safe shelter choices in southeastern states.

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“From my perspective, that was a really valuable set of projects,” Ripberger said. “There have been a number of innovative studies in the social and behavioral sciences, including important work on social vulnerability and how it intersects with the built environment.”

It is hoped that NOAA can build on the work of what has been renamed Vortex USA and apply this type of research to other parts of the country. The TORNADO Act provides $7.5 million per year to Vortex USA from 2022 through 2030. This is the only provision in the bill with a specific funding number attached to it.

Warning lead times of up to an hour

While tornado warnings typically give people about 10 to 15 minutes of advance notice before a tornado strikes, a goal has been to increase that lead time up to an hour.

The additional time could allow people to overcome delays in taking action or allow them to reach a safe shelter.

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This bill would require NOAA to submit a strategic plan for implementing a warn-on-forecast system, an emerging technology that aims to significantly increase warning lead times by using modeled storm forecasts rather than relying solely on detecting storms by radar. NOAA has an active research project in this area that has shown recent success.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for giving people more specific information between a watch and a warning phase,” Ripberger said. “I think that there is a lot of value there, and my only concern is that if we expand that warning lead time, we have to make sure to tell people what they can do with that lead time.”

For example, should people in manufactured homes use the time to drive to a safe shelter?

Strader pointed out that both NOAA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommend that those in manufactured homes move to a sturdier shelter. That, however, can be difficult during nighttime severe weather, and those who most need to flee are often unable to.

These are questions that social science research — if adequately funded — could help to enlighten.

“That’s why we need a comprehensive approach that looks at the totality of the problem,” Kelvin Droegemeier, a professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma who helped to write the bill. “It is such a complicated problem — it really is.”

Delays in disseminating warnings

During a March 5 tornado outbreak in Iowa, when weather offices issued tornado warnings urging people to shelter, there was up to a 7-minute delay in those messages being transmitted to the public on some dissemination platforms, potentially delaying lifesaving actions. The breakdown was caused by a damaged fiber optic cable at the Dallas-Fort Worth weather office, and the backup system in place didn’t have enough bandwidth to handle the increased load.

Weather Service’s tornado warnings were delayed during deadly Iowa outbreak

As a result, a final section was added to the bill that requires NOAA to look closely at its information technology infrastructure — both hardware and software — for distributing weather alerts and submit a report to the Government Accountability Office within 540 days after the date the bill is enacted.

“There are always vulnerabilities — the recent outage like the one that happened in March was obviously very significant,” Droegemeier said, explaining that the lack of adequate backup communication feeds and a failure of the system to prioritize urgent messages ultimately led to the breakdown.

“It’s a good thing for NOAA to redouble its efforts to look at possible modernization of the system, especially in light of possible increases in cyberthreats,” he said.

The bill now moves on to be considered by the full Senate and then the House, and possibly amended, a process that could take several months.