Monday, September 26, 2011

Joplin, Revisited

The NWS put out their final assessment of the infamous EF-5 Joplin tornado that occurred on May 22.

The report didn't touch much on the final death toll. 159 people lost their lives in the tragedy, the most from a single tornado since 1953. The report also didn't cover the damages caused.

What the report did cover, in great detail, was the processes that lead up to the warnings being issued ahead of the tornado and the response the citizens took to protect themselves. The findings of the report are somewhat surprising!

The NWS Assessment team took an ethnographic approach to conducting some of it's research. The report stated that ethnographic techniques were used to, "Understand residents points of view regarding the process of warning receptions to warning responses and how decisions were made."

I am big fan of this approach. It definitely helps to know your target audience, in any situation! Understanding the thought process of the citizens is a huge first step to improving warning timing and distribution. Over 100 people were interviewed for the report. One of the more important findings was how the people in the path of the twister processed the warning information.

In this day and age, social networking is huge. Facebook, Twitter and text messaging are huge communication tools. These are great ways to get information out. Meteorologist James Spann, who covers the Birmingham, Alabama market, has utilized these tools about as well as anyone can. He sends out tweets and posts that pertain to weather watches and warnings in any part of his television viewing market. There is great potential in social networking when it comes to severe weather. The problem with it is two-fold. First, not everyone uses social media. Those who don't would then have to find their warning information elsewhere. The second problem to this is validity. Not everyone who is posting about a tornado or thunderstorms are trained experts. So there could be a lot of false information flying around out there.

Social media can be one method of risk awareness. What are others? Many towns in Tornado and Dixie alley have tornado sirens. Weather radios are common as well in these parts. T.V. weather reports are the best way to get access to severe weather information. In Joplin, it is "community policy to sound sirens when a tornado is moving towards Joplin OR a severe thunderstorm with expected winds to exceed 75 m.p.h." This causes a big problem.

When the sirens go off, what are they warning for?!?! There is a large difference between a severe thunderstorm with damaging winds and a tornado. While both can be destructive, a tornado is far more deadly than strong winds. There needs to be clarification between the two events. The people in Joplin on May 22nd had to process two different blasts of the siren. This should have been all it took for people to act. However, the report found out that people acted, "after processing a variable number of risk signals...". In a deadly, EF-5 tornado situation, people can not afford to take time and contemplate a "variable number" of warnings. There were many reports that people did not act until they visibly saw the tornado! Why weren't the sirens enough?

Several people who were interviewed said that tornado sirens have lost their credibility. A few of the responses show why:
 "the sirens have gone off so many times before"
"bombarded with sirens so often that we don't pay attention"
"...[the sirens] go off for dark clouds"

These responses go to show that people who live in tornado-prone areas are probably desensitized to the sirens. Folks would point to data to prove why they treat the sirens with such complacency. In all tornado warnings issued by the NWS nationally, it was found that over 75% of the warnings were false alarms. That information was averaged over roughly the last 4 years. So it is easy to see why people assume that a tornado siren is just someone crying wolf! But here is the bottom line, every environment is different. On this particular day, the environment was primed and ready to fire off dangerous, long-track storms. So you just don't mess with weather, even if it means you have to take to safety for 20 minuets or so.

What needs to be done to prevent this confusion and complacency again? It is critical that the NWS, media members and community officials are on the same page when it comes to warnings and stressing immediate action. Sirens need to be blasted for one type of event only. A reverse-911 action plan may help as well. Anything that puts emphasis on the danger of the situation and allows enough time for action to be taken.

This problem of complacency runs far past tornadoes and Joplin, Missouri. When faced with an approaching hurricane, several people disregard warnings and evacuation requests to ride out the storm because they think that the weather man is wrong, or that it would never happen to them. It is downright foolish to challenge mother nature. The minuet you don't respect it, it can take your life. 

Here is the link to the full NWS Joplin Tornado Assessment

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