Tornadoland

Despite the six inches of snow we got earlier this week (which leaves us with a six-foot-high pile of snow outside the house), this is National Severe Weather Preparedness Week.

This is a clip from a Wichita Falls, Texas TV station when a tornado hit April 3, 1964. (That was one week after the infamous Good Friday earthquake that hit Alaska, by the way.)

Readers of this blog know that there is only one month in which a tornado hasn’t visited Wisconsin — last month.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

More fun with graphics courtesy of the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center:

Notice the most red Wisconsin county in the first map and the most blue Wisconsin county in the second? That’s where we now live, which is why I now get to have a professional, not just personal, interest in severe weather. If this is an average severe weather year, the weather radio will be going off every two weeks or so.

Readers of this blog recall that the blog’s previous location was between the National Weather Service’s Milwaukee (actually Sullivan, which has a Dousman address but is in Jefferson County) and Green Bay (actually Ashwaubenon) offices, which led to some skepticism whether the warnings for Fond du Lac County would be issued before the storm showed up in (western) Fond du Lac County. Down here in the great Southwest, we are in between three NWS offices. Grant County forecasts come from La Crosse. Forecasts for counties in Iowa come from the Quad Cities. Counties to the east get their forecasts from Sullivan/Dousman/the middle of the I–94 Corridor. I hope they all get along with each other.

Perhaps I’m spoiled because I grew up in Madison, which had its own NWS office — first in downtown Madison, then on the UW campus, then at Truax Field from 1939 — until it closed in 1996, seven years after the NWS Sullivan office opened. (The NWS Milwaukee office, which opened in 1870 and moved to Mitchell Field in 1939, closed in 1995.) The last time we lived in Grant County, the NWS had an office in Dubuque, sort of. The office wasn’t open nights or weekends, which was inconvenient during a 1993 overnight windstorm. (The office closed in 1995.)

We had a hot and dry summer last year. The next three months are predicted thusly by the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center:

april-may-june2013temp

april-may-june2013precip

june-july-aug2013temp

june-july-aug2013precip

The temperature (burnt orange, warmer than normal, to blue, colder than normal) and precipitation (green, wetter than normal, to brown, drier than normal) outlooks for, respectively, the spring and summer predicts a warmer-than-normal spring and summer for us Sconnies. (Which will be required for the aforementioned snowpile to melt by Independence Day.) Of course, the further into the future you go, the less the forecasts are.

An alternative, and quite different forecast, comes from something called WeatherTrends360:

This refers to the whole country, not specifically the Midwest. We’ll see who’s right. (The first day thunderstorms are in WeatherTrends360‘s Platteville forecast is April 22, which is Earth Day.)

Severe weather has gotten the attention of entertainment, according to Associated Press:

Event organizers have learned the hard way that the usual half-hour warning of severe weather might be enough for people in their homes, but it’s not enough to clear people from big venues where concerts and football games are held.

Seven people died and more than 40 were injured at the Indiana State Fair in 2011 when a sudden 60 mph gust knocked a stage onto a crowd waiting to see the band Sugarland perform. In 2009, high wind toppled a canopy at a Dallas Cowboys practice facility, leaving one person paralyzed and 11 others less seriously hurt.

“Like 9-11, it takes a really bad thing to get our attention,” said Harold Hansen, the life, safety and security director for the International Association of Venue Managers. “The rules changed.”

The incidents prompted venue managers to move their annual weather-preparedness meeting to the National Weather Center in Norman, Okla. — the heart of tornado alley and the forecast centers that watch it. …

The conference had about a dozen participants when it started five years ago. This year, more than 40 emergency managers and event operators came, including the NFL and the Country Music Association.

Through lectures about weather watches, lightning, crowd dynamics and shelter readiness, the experts repeatedly stressed the need to have a plan before the weather turns bad.

“They’re waiting for a warning to be issued,” said Kevin Kloesel, associate dean of the University of Oklahoma’s College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences. “The message over the two days here is: if you wait until that point, you are not going to have the time. If you wait for the warning, it’s too late.”

The list of close calls is chilling. A 2010 tornado shredded the roof of a Montana sports arena packed with thousands of people the day before. A lightning bolt struck 500 feet from the Texas Rangers pitcher’s mound during a game in July 2012. Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway was struck by lightning the next month, three minutes after a race was canceled. …

As tornado expert Chuck Doswell told the conference, severe weather is relatively rare but inevitable.

“Imagine the Indianapolis 500 … with those hundreds and hundreds of RVs with nowhere to go,” Doswell said. If a tornado struck without a plan in place, “it would make Joplin look like a Saturday afternoon picnic.”

Here’s about the best that could happen, in the soon-to-be-demolished Georgia Dome during the 2008 Southeastern Conference men’s basketball tournament:

Meanwhile, one of my favorite meteorologists has this to say to broadcast meteorologists (from Broadcast Engineering):

The devastating EF5 tornado that struck Joplin, MO, in May 2011, killing 161 people and doing property damage valued in the billions, underscores the urgent need for broadcast meteorologists to be a “back stop” for the National Weather Service, according to Mike Smith, Senior VP/Chief Innovation Executive at AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions.

Smith, who authored “When the Sirens Were Silent,” a book that explores why so many people were killed by the Joplin tornado, last week called on the American Meteorological Society to beef up its Certified Broadcast Meteorology Program by adding a greater emphasis on training broadcast meteorologists to handle extreme weather during a presentation at the society’s annual meeting in Austin, TX.

Back stopping the National Weather Service with accurate reporting on the track of the deadly twister may have reduced the loss of life in Joplin, he said. Inaccurate and misleading warnings from the National Weather Service about where the tornado was headed led Joplin broadcasters to miss the imminent danger confronting the southwestern-Missouri town till it was too late to warn viewers.

“We need to be emphasizing handling severe weather for broadcast meteorologist,” Smith said in a telephone interview with Broadcast Engineering. “Neither the American Meteorological Society nor the National Weather Association have a great deal of emphasis on tornado interpretation.”

Smith, who sold his Wichita, KS, based Weather Data Inc. to AccuWeather in 2006 and was a TV meteorologist for 22 years, said that with greater skills in interpreting tornados television meteorologists will be better equipped to recognize when the National Weather Service makes a mistake and base reports on their own interpretations of weather data, not simply weather bulletins.

To illustrate the importance of having these skills, Smith compared the Joplin tornado to an EF4 twister that struck Hoisington, KS, in April 2001. That tornado, which destroyed the tiny central Kansas town, killed one person and injured 26.

“With the Hoisington tornado, the National Weather Service had a computer failure and didn’t realize that the computer wasn’t updating properly and didn’t issue a tornado warning till it was too late,” said Smith. However, unlike Joplin, the television stations in Wichita have full meteorology staffs of four per station, he explained. “All of the Wichita stations went on air with their own tornado warnings for Hoisington, and many people said they got the warning and took shelter because of the broadcasters,” said Smith.

According to Smith, who has investigated all aspects of the Joplin tornado, KOAM-TV, the CBS affiliate, figured out the inaccuracies of the National Weather Service data shortly before the tornado struck Joplin and began warning viewers of the immediate danger they faced.  KSNF-TV, the NBC affiliate in Joplin, began warning viewers of the danger when on-air talent saw the tornado bearing down on the station in video shot from the station’s tower-cam.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s