It's still hard to watch the video of the cataclysmic damage in Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama realizing that lives were lost. A total of 71 tornadoes touched town according to Dr. Greg Forbes of the Weather Channel. As i write this, a confirmed 45 tornadoes from the National Weather Service which will probably rise as damage assessments continue. Here is a nice blog post from "everythingwx" that summerizes the confirmed tornadoes by state
The horror families go through after losing a loved one prematurely to a twister like what happened Friday HAS to be one of the most emotionally draining experience for a human being to endur. I can't imagine finding the body of an 15 month old as the sun is shining the following day. My jaw is still on the floor.
After tragic weather, I often look back at the days and hours leading up to event(s) to see if people were warned in a timely manner with appropriate information necessary to make the right decisions to stay out of harm’s way. I don't know the circumstances of these deaths. I’m not here to judge the specifics. Not enough information is known as I write this. Yet I can't help but think that some of these deaths could have been prevented if 1), the public knew the proper terminology that describes severe weather alerts, 2) the public took the severe weather risks more seriously.
Let's first address storm alert terminology:
SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WATCH means that conditions are FAVORABLE for severe weather. This does not mean that there is a severe storm currently.
SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING means that a severe thunderstorm is occurring or is imminent based on doppler radar information. A severe thunderstorm becomes "severe" after it meets one of two criteria. Hail that is dime size, 0.75 inches in diameter or larger, and/or wind gusts to 58 mph or more.
TORNADO WATCH means that the potential exists for some of the severe thunderstorms to produce a tornado
TORNADO WARNING means that either a tornaado is occurring (on the ground) or the tornado rotation is detected on doppler radar. You should take cover immediately.
All severe storm watches are issued by THE STORM PREDICTION CENTER in Norman, Oklahoma. All warnings are issued by the respective National Weather Service office covering the specific area. Northeastern Ohio is covered by the NWS office at Cleveland Hopkins Airport.
Friday morning before sunrise, the SPC issued a "moderate risk" then expanded the risk area and upped it to "high risk" which only happens maybe once a year.
The warnings were out there early on. They were on television, the internet, Facebook and Twitter. Yet people died.
What can we do?
I think the answer is twofold. First, educate yourself on the differences between a “watch” and a “warning”! This thing called GOOGLE is great. Use it and look up the difference. I just typed in "watch and warning difference". The 5th entry in the list is what you want. I screen captured it so you can see two things: The first is the entry that explains the difference. The second is how long it took me to find the answer circled in red at the top. 0.19 seconds! We might not have lots of time in our busy lives but we have 0.19 seconds.
If you don't have internet access, talk to your kids. I would bet a nice dinner that your kids know the difference if you don't. This difference is taught in grade school science classes as early as 1st grade in some school programs. It bothers me that many adults have no idea what the difference is between a WATCH and a WARNING. Most third graders know the difference. An adult has ABSOLUTELY no excuse. Your Life; your family’s life is worth your time and effort.
Yet there exists this mentality that quickly diminishes the severity of these warnings. Maybe it is denial. People think that it won't happen to them. Maybe people today are inundated by information so much so that the "true, lifesaving" information gets lost or watered down in the mix. Just scanning the comments on Facebook and twitter after weather events shows how much negativity the public has toward these warnings during harsh weather.
The meteorologists in the areas hit by the tornado Friday did an exceptional job in getting the necessary information out to their viewers. This saved lives! Facebook and Twitter were lit up with information from credible sources on the tornadoes on ground. Hats off to you all. Severe weather coverage on LIVE tv is a lot harder than it looks.
The bigger question we need to address long term is how do we change the public’s perception of severe weather. A big step in the right direction would be for some television stations to rethink their coverage philosophy. I am lucky enough to work at a station where we DO NOT believe in breaking into a television show unless the weather situation ABSOLUTELY warrants it. If a TORNADO WARNING is issued, we go LIVE. No questions asked. Other stations feel the need to "break into programming" during any garden-variety thunderstorm. This "crying wolf" coverage creates a false sense of security. So when a real event does occur, people think "no big deal. It won't happen here" and continue with their afternoon or evening activities. Television stations cannot continue to cry wolf! They need to remember that their primary objective is to INFORM THE PUBLIC WITH QUALITY, SEVERE WEATHER INFORMATION as its defined by the National Weather Service and SPC not by management!
Viewers need to WANT TO BELIEVE what they are hearing yet they’re conditioned to doubt that very same information. Television stations need to remember this and focus on their primary objective. That is to INFORM THE PUBLIC WITH QUALITY, WEATHER SEVERE INFORMATION. No over hyping and no "crying wolf". Television stations are a conduit of information. Information is power. If that power is used incorrectly, the harm to the public can be irreparable. I just hope the damage isn't as great as I fear it is.