2011...A Deadly Year for Tornadoes.

2011 has been a crazy year for weather in the U.S., to say the least. But perhaps the most memorable and tragic events of the year may be the deadly tornadoes.

More than 550 people lost their lives this year, making 2011 the second deadliest year on record for killer tornadoes, tied with 1936. The deadliest year was 1925.

The majority of the deaths this year happened on two days: April 27, when a severe outbreak of tornadoes occurred in the southeast, and May 22 when a single tornado killed 158 people in Joplin, Missouri.

The big question is, in this day and age with advanced technology, how did so many people lose their lives?

In some cases, the tornadoes may have been so strong that they were just not survivable. But there are some behavior patterns that may have come into play. According to the National Weather Service assessment of the Joplin tornado, many people interviewed did not immediately react to the sirens and the tornado warning. In an extreme example, it took 9 risk signals for one man to take protective action…and that was when the manager of the restaurant he was in instructed the customers to take shelter.

At a Town Hall Meeting this Fall in Birmingham, Alabama, I got to hear from some tornado survivors first-hand about their attitudes and reactions to sirens and warnings.

FIRST: Many indicated that the sirens go off too much and they have become complacent.

A man on the panel in Birmingham comments: “We live on the edge of the county, and most of the time when it goes off it’s for the other side of the county and it’s a big fuss for nothing.”

Now, keep in mind that different counties in different states have different protocols on when and how often to sound the sirens. Some sound it for the duration of the warning, some sound for a few minutes and then a second time for an all clear. Some sound the sirens for strong winds during a severe thunderstorm warning, like they do in Joplin. Some sound the siren when there may be no warnings, but a trained weather spotter has reported a funnel cloud.

I spoke with Mike Sabones, Meteorologist in Charge at the National Weather Service in Northern Indiana to discuss some the issues.

Regarding sirens: “There are different schools of thought on who should control when sirens go off. Should it be solely based on a National Weather Service product? Or should it continue to be done as it is done now where the decisions to sound the sirens is a local government decision based on the local government that controls the sirens?”

Tough question, especially when you are dealing with a blend of local and national entities.

There are some who believe that sirens shouldn’t be used at all. But one thing is for sure: sirens need to be upgraded to a GPS based system so that they can follow the polygon warnings issued by the National Weather Service. That would allow sirens to only be sounded for the part of a county under a warning, not county-wide like many counties have (including Michiana). The problem is that the cost of upgrading the siren systems may not make it possible to do any time soon.

Keep in mind that the sirens are meant to warn people who are outdoors so that they can take shelter inside. They were never meant to be able to warn everyone who is inside. That is why weather radios are so important.

SECOND: Some felt that there are too many tornado warnings.

Here is the comment from Mike Sabones: “We have a tricky problem with tornadoes. There’s a wide range of tornadoes. There’s very weak tornadoes that touch down, do a little bit of damage, aren’t very deadly, and there are very big, very deadly tornadoes. Clearly we want to warn people about those very big, very deadly tornadoes. The ones that kill people. We want them to know about that. The problem is, if we go to the other end of the scale, it’s very hard to warn for those and to give anybody significant lead time. So as a result, we have a pretty high false alarm rate, when you factor in all the weak tornadoes. But if you just look at the high end tornadoes, our probability of detection is really pretty high.”

THIRD: Some people think that a tornado will never happen in their area.

This is just one of several comments made by people on the panel at the Town Hall Meeting in Birmingham: “…even though there’s a warning going off right outside my window, I know that it’s not for my part of town.”

Strong words from Mike Sabones: “If you’re 25 years old and you say, ‘Gee, I can’t remember the last time we had a huge tornado outbreak here.’ Well, if you go back to 1974 and 1965 there were huge outbreaks in these areas, and if they happened before, they certainly can happen again. So, it’s something that’s part of nature in the part of the world that we live in, and you never, ever want to assume it’s not gonna happen to you.”

So, how do we overcome these issues so we can reduce the number of fatalities?

One way may lie in the warning process itself. Mike Sabones touches on the discussion of tiered warnings: “So, people are kicking around things like, gee, should we issue one type of warning for what we think are more significant tornadoes, the EF2 and higher end tornadoes, and some type of a lower-end warning for the EF0, EF1 tornadoes, the ones that are short-lived, weaker, don’t tend to kill people. I think there are reasons for that, but somehow we gotta get control of this situation of how we inform people about the different types of tornadoes that we get. The question is, ‘Is the state of the science at the point that we can do that?’”

And, as discussed before, upgrading sirens would be a huge step in overcoming the “overwarning” issue. People would be more likely to pay attention if they knew the siren was for their part of the county. Upgrading weather radios to GPS technology is in the works, and should be available in the next few years.

One positive thing that we are seeing is the role of social media in getting the warnings and information out. People are getting more and more information from places like Facebook and Twitter. We hear from a lot of viewers that when the power goes out, they are turning to their smart phones to get their weather updates from us on Facebook.

One last thought from Mike Sabones, which I heard echoed by several of the victims in Birmingham: “There is some responsibility that has to be borne by the individual. To insure that he’s given himself a lot of options. A lot of different ways to make sure that he can get that critical weather information that just might save his life.”

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