Thoughts on the Outbreak…and Sociometeorology

This will be a long entry, but I’ll preface it by saying that I think it will be worth reading and hopefully be interesting. I’ll also preface it by saying that I am a meteorologist who didn’t experience or witness the Super Outbreak of ’74 or Palm Sunday 1965. What I know about those events is what I’ve read about, seen pictures of, heard stories about. What I know about this event is that while I hope and pray to God that we never witness anything like this again, the harsh reality is that we’re one day going to and there’s a chance that it will be worse than this. And I think there needs to be an open discussion about this event in the context of where we stand (in what I’m now coining as) socio-meteorologically.

Preliminary Map of Tornado Tracks (credit: NOAA)

Let me start by making a statement that I think is partially true: I believe that the proverbial “we” (the meteorology and OEM fields) did almost everything right in this event. We may learn in the days and weeks ahead that warnings weren’t received by the people they were intended for because of power problems or other infrastructure problems. And if that’s the case, certainly we’ll learn from it, but I find it difficult to believe that it will end up being the case. Warnings for this event were pretty much given 6-9 days in advance. Henry Margusity of AccuWeather even made the bold statement that he believed 300 more tornadoes would be possible 4/19-5/4. A lot of people I know (including myself) tend to view AccuWeather as often being overdramatic about certain things, but they get publicized, their comments get out there, and this time they ended up being correct. I even recall saying off the cuff to a colleague of mine the Thursday or Friday before that we “should just issue a PDS Tornado Watch for the Southeast next Wednesday now.” The point is, we all saw this coming. The SPC had enhanced wording and risks days in advance…including the first time I’ve ever seen a moderate risk issued on Monday’s third forecast day. The local NWS offices issued enhanced wording, statements, and tornado warnings with plenty of lead time in most cases. The TV meteorologists I watched in Huntsville and Birmingham did an outstanding job conveying and qualifying this information to residents. James Spann and his team of ABC 33/40 in Birmingham deserve some sort of medal for the coverage and warning they provided. Anyone who is in TV meteorology or aspires to one day be in TV meteorology needs to go back and watch their coverage, how they handled it, and how they presented it. They cover severe weather the way it is supposed to be covered.

Radar Montage of the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham Supercell (credit: Brian Tang/NCAR)

My point: I truly believe this was one of meteorology’s finest hours. There is no question that many lives were saved Wednesday because of the SPC, the local NWS offices, and local TV meteorologists (as well as national outlets such as The Weather Channel with Dr. Forbes, who also did a fine job and have been doing a fine job all month). But no one in the meteorology community can label Wednesday as a finest hour because of the enormous loss of life.

So if the warning angle and meteorology were close to as good as you could ever do, what went wrong?

We’ll learn more in the coming days and weeks about how the warnings were received by people (did everyone who needed the warning get it and if they did get it did they act on it?), what they did, how the unfortunate victims of these tornadoes died, if there was a pattern in the type of construction that saw the most fatalities (mobile homes vs. single family homes vs. businesses vs. highways, etc.). But as it stands right now, it seems like most people did what they were supposed to do…sheltered in their homes, lowest level, interior room, protected by a mattress, etc. Yet, it seems in the infancy of the aftermath of this event that many people that followed the rules still didn’t survive. Why?

It’s human nature to want to peg reasons for why things happen on some sort of singular thing. Someone or something is to blame for it. I will say something that a lot of people may not agree with (and as we learn more, may not even necessarily be true, but I believe it anyway): I truly believe the only thing you can “blame” for this event is that extremely violent tornadoes went across areas that are more populated than Americans are used to or comfortable with. In the 1974 Super Outbreak, there were roughly 150 tornadoes over 13 states that killed a little over 300 people. This one will likely see more tornadoes with more fatalities despite likely better warnings. Alabama’s population however was 3.4 million in 1970 and roughly 4.8 million today. I hate using gun analogies in this situation, but I think it illustrates my point well: If you fire roughly the same number of bullets at an increasing number of targets, you will likely hit more targets. The population has increased, and with violent tornadoes traversing some of these more populated areas, it is inevitable that we would see a large number of casualties. We have really only had isolated events in the last 35 years…yes there have been large tornado outbreaks, some of which have had an unfortunately large number of fatalities, but if you look at the list of tornado outbreaks since the 70s…many of the deaths have been the result of singular tornadoes in isolated but populated areas. We haven’t really seen multiple strong tornadoes traversing many populated areas. And as the population of some of the more vulnerable areas has increased, sadly it could one day be even worse than this.

So what else is it? I coined the term sociometeorology above, and when I Google search it, I get a grand total of 25 results, which tells me it isn’t a term that’s really been defined or is widely in use. After this month, it needs to be. Sociometeorology, to me, would be the crossroads of how people view and respond to significant weather. I think we’re learning a lot more about what Americans know, understand, and how they react to tornadoes. Some examples:

– Many of the stories I’ve been reading have said that many people in the south do not have basements or storm cellars.

– I read this article from after the North Carolina tornadoes earlier in April about how some have become desensitized to tornado warnings because they’ve occurred very often in places and have not occurred in those places.

– An anecdotal note: In a conversation with my mother yesterday, her comment was, “When I think of tornadoes like that, I think of Oklahoma, Kansas, and ‘The Wizard of Oz.'”

Climatological Tornado Alley Map - credit: NOAA

When we were in school, we were all taught in the couple of weeks of weather we had that Tornado Alley is the map on the left. It’s been engrained in you since you were a kid that the big tornadoes are there. And while this is somewhat true (yes, climatologically, the Plains experience more and more frequent violent tornadoes than you’ll see anywhere else in the country), it’s my opinion that this needs to now be treated as a myth. Tornado Alley no longer exists as we were taught as kids. It never has.

Redefining Tornado Alleys in America, credit: Michael Frates/University of Akron (http://www.uakron.edu/dotAsset/1085452.pdf)

Michael Frates of the University of Akron did some research last year that I’ve really only seen get widely publicized recently (though there was a Discovery Channel article last April). His determination was that there are technically four tornado alleys in the US: The traditional tornado alley I posted above, Dixie Alley (NE Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia), Carolina Alley (NC/SC), and Hoosier Alley (Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky). In my opinion, this map needs to be in every weather section of every science textbook that exists.

I believe people living in these areas, especially Dixie and Hoosier Alleys, should have their homes built with the same foresight that most homes in traditional Tornado Alley have….storm cellars and/or well-built basements need to be absolutely required in every new home built in the South from now on. I don’t think that can guarantee you protection and safety when an EF-5 comes rolling through, but even that is better than the lowest level/interior room. And I believe that mobile home communities need to go beyond anchoring trailers…they need to have some sort of mass underground bunker for people to get to in the event of a tornado. How this gets done logistically, I do not know, but I think this discussion needs to start happening.

In reference to the article linked above about being desensitized to warnings, I think the National Weather Service needs to have a frank and open discussion with the public about this. For as much good as they do, the false alarm rate (FAR) on tornado warnings is still very high. Just doing a simple search on the Iowa State archive can produce some results that are disappointing in terms of percentage of warnings verified. I have always been a major, major proponent of overwarning in severe weather…the “better safe than sorry in this situation” mentality. I have always argued in conversations to support the NWS with warnings. And in many cases of warnings that don’t verify, they don’t have much choice. But based on the last few weeks, this conversation about how FAR can be reduced needs to happen, because as was seen in North Carolina, it’s evident that people do not always take things seriously (and yes, you can blame people for being irresponsible…but that’s really unfair). Storm based warnings replacing countywide warnings was a huge step in the right direction. But things can always be done better, and to me it seems they need to be.

What we witnessed last week was tragic on every possible level. I hope and pray that residents of the South can put their lives back together. But the truth is, this is going to happen again. While we pause to reflect and hopefully help others to recover, it would behoove us as a community of meteorologists, emergency managers, engineers, and politicians to have a very frank and open discussion about this concept of sociometeorology, about what is currently required of residents outside traditional Tornado Alley and what needs to be, and how we can offset the negative aspects of overwarning for other storms. I hope this can happen soon, because we’re inevitably going to see more tornado outbreaks in the future…and we may see ones that are even worse than this. There are a number of very large cities that sit in incredibly vulnerable areas. Weather has the ability to surprise. Everything you thought you believed is sometimes debunked. While it would be nice to hope this never happens again, it will, and I hope we can learn from this year to help mitigate how bad it might be next time.

Some links of interest about the outbreak and flooding:

Just go back through Alabamawx.com for tons of photos and videos…some powerful, some heartbreaking, some just incredible.

NCAR article on the meteorology behind the outbreak

Dr. Judith Curry on the climate change angle (including some insensitive and misguided comments from experts).

NWS New Orleans page on major flooding in the lower Mississippi

NWS Jackson, MS page on tornadoes in their CWA

NWS Shreveport, LA page on tornadoes in their CWA

NWS Little Rock page on severe weather/tornadoes/flooding in Central Arkansas

NWS Memphis page on river crests from record Mississippi River flooding

NWS Huntsville, AL storm survey page

Latest storm survey info from NWS Birmingham

Morristown (Chattanooga) NWS Page on the outbreak

Peachtree City (Atlanta) NWS Page on the outbreak

NWS Paducah, KY page on flooding

Storm surveys from Maryland, DC, Virginia

Storm surveys from Central Pennsylvania

Storm survey info from Herkimer County, NY

Storm surveys from NWS Binghamton, NY

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Outbreak…and Sociometeorology”

  1. I just saw this posting today (May 31). Based on what I know so far, I believe the power failures played a significant (i.e., ≥10%) role in the large loss of life in the tornado disaster.

    You say people were “aware” for days of the possibility of tornadoes and I don’t dispute that.

    Electric utility records show 700,000+ people were without power for twelve hours or more before the killer tornadoes arrived. By that time, those without power were concerned about where they were spending the night, the food spoiling in the ‘fridge, etc., in others words they were not in their normal routine and were distracted by the lack of power.

    Then, if TV, internet, local radio, NOAA weather radio and cell service were all unavailable (and that was the case in many areas), how do you believe people received the specific warning to “take cover”?

    1. Mike,

      First off, thanks for coming over here to comment….I think your blog is fantastic, and I frequently post links to it in my entries. I wrote this specific entry, pretty much as a reaction to what I observed and read and had thought about in the couple of days after the outbreak. Now, if power failures did play a role in more than 10% of fatalities, then I guess there are two ways you can look at it. Either a.) This is simply a horrible tragedy that was almost unavoidable (ie: there was no possible way to get people the warning…as it was a “back to the Dark Ages” type situation). Or b.) Something can be/has to be better the next time….foresight into the fact that there may be widespread power outages on a day ahead of a tornado outbreak….getting neighboring utilities there ahead of time to stage and help try and get the power back on, etc. Is that feasible? I really don’t know….my gut tells me it isn’t. But I honestly don’t know what the answer is. I think there’s a tremendous vulnerability, coupled with the theory of warning fatigue that seems to have doomed a number of people in Joplin, that means we’re at a crossroads of sorts in this field. I don’t know what the meteorology side can do better than is being done right now, other than localizing the warnings more, which may be a bit much to really count on, as I think we’re at the point where lead time/warning size isn’t bad. I think this falls under the realm of a sociopolitical issue that needs to be addressed in the aftermath of all this. Hopefully more socio than political.

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