The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 20, 2012

Weather service implements storm warning changes after 2011 tornadoes

By Wally Kennedy
Globe Staff Writer

JOPLIN, Mo. — The May 22 tornado changed more than just Joplin.

It also changed the way people get information about severe weather and the way the National Weather Service informs people about the severity of storms.

But one thing has not changed.

Eric Wise, the meteorologist who gave Joplin 20 minutes to prepare for the seventh deadliest tornado in U.S. history, is still on the job at the weather service forecast office in Springfield.

The Springfield native can recall May 22 as if it were yesterday.

“I was watching three different radars — Tulsa, Springfield and Pleasant Hill — as the main storm moved out of Southeast Kansas,” he said. “At 5 p.m., it looked like it would be no more than a shower.

“Then, it merged with another storm on the west side of Joplin. It really formed as it moved over Joplin. The velocity data showed that the main storm was gaining strength.

“I put the warning out before it had developed. I had no clue that it would be a tornado that strong.”

Wise was awarded the Operational Achievement Individual Award by the National Weather Association for his expert analysis of what was happening in the sky above Joplin that day. Only one such award is given by the association annually.

Conditions seemed to conspire that day to make the Joplin tornado even deadlier.

“The merger brought in a big shot of rain,” Wise said. “The tornado was rain-wrapped. You had to be directly in front of it to see it. It just looked like rain coming.”

Ringing the bell

After tornadoes roared through Tuscaloosa, Ala., last April and Joplin weeks later, social scientists worked with weather service storm specialists to see how people responded to the warnings.

What they learned from interviews with residents is that a tornado warning is like ringing a bell. If a catastrophic tornado is happening, someone needs to ring the bell a little louder.

“One of the messages we heard from the assessments we did after both events is that people need to be able to discern the really strong tornadoes from those that happen once in a lifetime — like the Joplin tornado,” said Mike Hudson, chief operating officer for the National Weather Service central region headquarters in Kansas City. “We are trying to use words and phrases to paint the picture of the type of event we are expecting to occur so that people respond more proactively to the warning.”

One of the new descriptions, written in cooperation with social scientists, informs those in the storm path: “You could be killed if not underground or in a tornado shelter.” Another warns: “Complete destruction of entire neighborhoods is likely.”

The new phrases were first used in connection with a spate of life-threatening tornadoes on April 14 in central Kansas.

“We were ringing the bell a little louder,” Hudson said. “That’s one of the lessons learned from Joplin. We think we need these extraordinary or unusual signals to tell them that it is a particular day to pay close attention — that they could be in a tornado emergency, which is an extremely rare event. The ultimate goal of the warning is to save lives.”

The new warnings appear to have helped in Kansas. A nighttime tornado struck the Wichita area and tore through a mobile home park. No one was killed.

“Early indication says that our warnings did help people make decisions in order to deal with the storm, and it ultimately saved lives,” Hudson said.

Researchers plan to study how people reacted to the heightened warnings and whether the warnings were responsible for many of them taking shelter outside of the mobile home park.

But would have such apocalyptic warnings have helped Joplin?

Probably not, according to weather experts.

Said Wise: “It happened so fast when it formed over Joplin. There was no way to give that kind of warning. We didn’t know there was an EF-5 coming.”

Joplin was essentially blindsided by the tornado, he said.

Hudson said the tornadoes of last year also have spurred “a weather-ready national dialogue” that has brought together meteorologists, broadcast media experts, academics and the private sector in a series of meetings to find better ways of informing people.

“How best can we inform the population to help them make better decisions to protect themselves?” Hudson asked. “How do we improve the message and the communication models?”

Weather apps

After the May 22 tornado, the demand for iPhone and Android applications related to severe weather warnings skyrocketed, according to weather experts.

Popular apps are now available from The Weather Channel, StormTrak, Weather Alert USA and Storm Spotter. The apps combine National Weather Service data and radar images to give nearly real-time updates.

Justin Graham and his wife, Sarabeth, have produced the “TornadoSpyPlus” app and other storm-related apps for iPhones and iPads.

Sarabeth Graham said: “They can use the app to report exact GPS locations of tornadoes they observe that are then distributed to all of the app users. They know where the tornado is at the exact time. It’s delayed by a few seconds, but it’s a real-time report essentially.”

Users have a map in which they can preselect the area they are worried about, she said.

“It could be any alert in the U.S., or you can zoom in on the map and get alerts for a specific area,” she said. “An alert pops up as a little box on your screen. It directs you to open the app. You then see on the map what has been alerted.”

Added this year is a feature that uses National Weather Service information to verify the report. Information on severe weather now comes from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warnings and sightings, and user sightings.

Some storm apps are free; others can be purchased for a one-time fee ranging from $2.99 to $4.99 at justintimeapps.com.

“Whenever we have tornadoes, we experience a huge spike in sales. We had a huge spike after Joplin,” Sarabeth Graham said.

The Grahams developed the app because they live west of Fort Worth, Texas, where the weather can be “a bit scary. We needed as much notice as possible,” Sarabeth Graham said. They used income from their app to buy a steel storm shelter for their garage.

Hudson said using mobile phones to share information shows a lot of promise. A big change could come next year when the Federal Emergency Management Agency initiates the release of wireless emergency alerts.

“There will be a host of different alerts that will be geographically targeted to the phone,” Hudson said. “It has promise, too, but there is not any one solution that has all of the answers.

“You need to have multiple ways of receiving an alert in your home. Your phone could be nicely complemented with TV, a weather radio or a siren. While each could be a good alert, it helps to have more than one.”

Eye of the tornado

The May 22 tornado was so large that many people who were caught in the storm’s path reported that it had an eye — a period between the front wall of the tornado and the back wall when things calmed down for a moment.