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Crying Wolf on a Massive Scale

The National Weather Service has announced that it will be issuing Tornado Warnings with stronger wording – “catastrophic”, “dangerous”, “large and destructive”, “COMPLETE DESTRUCTION OF ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOODS IS LIKELY.”  There’s more.


Problem is, you see, people were staying in their homes and offices during approaching storms and not fleeing to shelter.  Stronger, more animated language, they think, might prevent this in the future.

If this new policy seems reasonable to you, I will suggest that you have not spent a lot of time in The Midwest, that part of the country that runs between our two main mountain ranges, comprising in full or in part about half the states in The Union.  It is mostly corn fields, soybean fields, wheat fields, and, well, fields, much of it flood zone and pretty much all of it tornado country.

When a Tornado Watch – the first stage in the process – is issued, it is normally done at the county level, usually many counties at once.  And counties are pretty damn big out there – we are not talking Queens.  With the Watch being a precautionary announcement, it is usually issued whenever predicted conditions MIGHT create a tornado.  During the six years I lived in The Midwest, during the four or five months that covered tornado season, there was a white “W” in the top right corner of my television screen, denoting a watch, nearly every night.  It was pretty much safely ignored by all concerned.  It made absolutely no difference to anybody’s life except the weather people and the broadcasters.

When a particularly strong storm was moving through an area, the storm-chasers – volunteers, sheriff”s deputies, whoever – went driving around and through the storms, looking for signs of a tornado.  If one was spotted, a Tornado Warning was issued, usually at the county level, but sometimes more defined.  In later years, when weather radar improved, warnings were often issued, quite properly, on that basis alone.

When hearing a Tornado Warning, either on radio or television or upon hearing sirens, people might wander to the window to see if the storm was anywhere near them.  Only if things looked bad out there might anyone even think of taking shelter.

They were not being unreasonable.  They had experienced countless watches and warnings, year after year, and the storms were never near them.  As I said, counties are damn big out there.  Only rarely was the Weather Service able to specify where the storm was and where it was going.

To start with, there is the size of the tornado to consider.  Most of them are F1 tornadoes, the smallest, and they are usually back up in the sky before a warning could possibly be issued.  Yes, an F1 is just as deadly as any other storm – if it hits you – but there is an awful lot of room out there and the population centers are few and far between.  Larger storms, F4 and F5, are normally on the ground for an hour or more and are more predictable, but they are very rare.  But for other than these large, rare storms, the warning network was and remains pretty much useless.

People ignore the warnings not because they are lazy, need coddling, or have a death wish.  They ignore the warnings because they nearly always turn out to be false.  Sure, there was a tornado out there somewhere, but not even within eyesight of most people.  For decades, the National Weather Service has been crying wolf on a massive scale.  Hey, it is their job, it is what they are paid to do, but it has all bred an indifferent population who have been down that road way too many times.  Most people who have weather radios turn them off or turn off the automatic feature, because they are going off all the time.

As to the new alert language they are trying out in a test market and paying some contractor to complete a study of results, I can save them all a lot of time and money.  At first, there will be some response to the new language and people may head to shelter more readily, but as soon as they realize that nothing happened, they will ignore the new warnings as easily as they ignored the old ones.  Life will return to normal.

To be effective, a new alert system needs to be developed that alerts only those likely to be in the storm’s path, an automated system that reacts to local data in an expeditious manner.  People need to stop hearing cries of wolf.

But don’t look for any help from the National Weather Service.  They are not concerned with accuracy, but with career longevity.  They want to ensure that anyone that gets hurt by weather got some sort of warning before it happened.  If hundreds of thousands of people who did not get hurt also got a warning, that is not their problem.  Crying wolf protects the bureaucrats, even as it endangers everyone else from extreme overuse.

Remember the first few years after September 11th?  The media was all aglow with the terrorist threat level as it endlessly shifted from three to four and back to three and talking heads expounded endlessly on the suspected reasons for the change.  It was all, of course, very meaningless and they finally sort of did away with it, rather than drop the threat level to one.  Think about it: if people did die as a result of terrorist action while the threat level had been at one, the people in charge of the threat level would have lost their careers.  Naturally, the threat level never went down.

Anyway, whenever you are traveling across the nation’s breadbasket and you find you are under a Tornado Warning, do what the locals do: relax.  Hail stones.  Hail stones are a good warning of a tornado.  Of course, by then, it is probably too late.


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