With recent advances in meteorology, forecasters can pinpoint within a few miles where a tornado is likely to form. Leaps in communications technology make it possible to disseminate that information faster than ever, giving people time to take cover.
But neither will keep people from being killed by tornadoes without a better understanding of human sociology, the science that can explain why people don’t protect themselves when they’ve been told a twister might be bearing down.
A year after the outbreak of 28 tornadoes that killed 24 people across the state in a single day, there are no guarantees that everyone in the path of a tornado will learn of the threat in time or that they’ll take precautions if they do.
“When I’ve gone out and done surveys and talked to people affected by tornadoes, people who maybe lost their homes but managed to survive, there is one thing I keep hearing over and over: ‘I didn’t think it was going to happen to me.’ ” says Nick Petro, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Raleigh.
“Because of the technology, we’re able to get the warning out to more people than we ever have before. Once that information is in the hands or the mind of the individual, how they react and what they do is totally up to them.”
Improvements in forecasting help, Petro says, because they reduce what the National Weather Service calls its “false alarm rate,” the percentage of times a warning is issued and the threat doesn’t materialize or isn’t confirmed. Just as they learn to ignore a malfunctioning fire alarm at the office and remain at their desks, people can become inured to weather warnings and stop taking them seriously.
A National Weather Service study of the May 22, 2011, tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., found that the vast majority of Joplin residents did not take immediate protective action when alerted to the risk of the EF-5 storm, though a local siren system was used. The storm killed 158 people and injured more than 1,000, making it one of the deadliest tornadoes in the nation’s history.
People had different reasons for not acting when they heard the alerts, the weather service found, but the most common was that they had become desensitized to sirens and other severe-weather warnings.
“Obviously we want to avoid the ‘cry wolf’ syndrome,” Petro says. “We don’t want people to be misled to thinking that it’s just another warning and nothing’s going to happen.”
In North Carolina, the weather service had a 68 percent false alarm rate for tornadoes in 2011, ahead of the national average of about 72 percent, Petro says.
In 2007, based on improved science, the weather service took a leap forward in the way it issues warnings for severe thunderstorms, flash floods and tornadoes, a warning meaning the phenomenon has been indicated by radar or sighted by spotters.
Warnings used to be sent out for whole counties; a tornado warning could affect several counties at a time, sending tens or hundreds of thousands of people into their basements or interior closets when the real threat was miles away.
The warnings now include where the tornado is and, based on conditions, what path it’s likely to take. Rather than alerting a four-county area, the Weather Service now issues a precise warning that shows up on a map as a well-defined polygon. People inside the polygon need to take immediate action. People a quarter-mile away should pay attention, but they don’t need to duck and cover.
“If you have a storm that’s only affecting Wendell and Zebulon, why freak out somebody in Apex or Cary when it’s not going to affect them?” says Greg Fishel, a meteorologist for WRAL television.
New warning services
Using the weather service’s polygon forecasts, WRAL began offering a service in 2008 that lets subscribers register an address and phone number and get a call when a severe-weather warning polygon includes their location. The service, which costs $8 a year inside WRAL’s viewing area, is operated by a company based in Colorado but uses a prerecorded message in longtime forecaster Fishel’s voice.
Nate Johnson, also a WRAL meteorologist, said the system is designed to overcome known obstacles in getting people to comply with weather warnings.
Johnson says research has found that people go through a series of steps in deciding whether to take action against a weather threat. Once they receive the warning, he says, they go on to determine: whether it’s credible, which often involves seeking second opinions or even waiting to get a look at the storm; whether it affects them personally; what protective action they need to take; and whether they can take it.
With WeatherCall, Johnson says, when the phone rings, it’s a familiar, trusted voice calling specifically for them, “and we can skip to, ‘What do I need to do?’ ”
The tornado warning call, kept short to avoid overwhelming people with information, includes quick reminders about the best places to seek shelter.
Other new products have been introduced that take advantage of polygon forecasting, the longer lead times between warnings and when a tornado hits a given area, and the proliferation of mobile phones and smartphones with GPS.
In Wilson County, a tornado killed an 11-year-old boy in November 2008 when it picked up the stick-built house where he lived, flipped it several times in mid-air and slammed it to the ground. One ripped through the county during the April 16 outbreak, and another touched down last August.
In the past, county Emergency Management Director Gordon Deno looked into installing a siren system, but found they weren’t necessarily effective for nighttime storms and were too expensive. Instead, he urged people to buy weather radios that receive alerts from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Estimates are that only one or two of every 20 households has a NOAA weather radio, and many of those are unplugged because the radios can’t be programmed to receive the polygon warnings, only county-level warnings. That means they sound their smoke-alarm style alert more often than needed.
Without a NOAA radio, most North Carolina residents have historically had to rely on TV, radio or word of mouth to let them know when a tornado had been spotted.
Though there is no statewide system, some counties, including Wilson, now offer residents a free service that works like WRAL’s WeatherCall. One of many on the market, CodeRED uses weather service polygons and automatically calls anyone in the system when a warning includes their address.
The alerts go out within seconds of when the National Weather Service issues its warnings. On average last year in North Carolina, weather service warnings were issued about 18 minutes before a tornado reached the warned area.
About a fourth of Wilson County’s households have signed up for the service since it was introduced last year, Deno says, and he takes a laptop with him to public events to sign others up on the spot. The process takes less than two minutes, and still, Deno says, some won’t enroll.
“I’ve actually had complaints from people saying, ‘You can take me off that thing because it woke me up the other night for a thunderstorm and there wasn’t any damage at my house,’ ” he says.
CodeRED and similar services limit their calls to warnings for the three weather events that are most likely to result in deaths: tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods.
“It’s true, a lot of warnings come out when you have storm cells coming through,” Deno says. “But if you’re talking about your life and your family’s life, I want that phone to ring.’“
Wilson County pays $30,000 a year for the service, which also includes a customizable notification system it can use for other emergencies such as hostage situations, missing persons, escaped felons or terrorist threats. The county uses federal grant money to pay for a third of the cost.
Mobile phone alerts
State Emergency Management Director Dough Hoell doesn’t know how many of North Carolina’s 100 counties offer such services, which are more costly for highly populated areas than for rural ones.
Residents with mobile devices also can subscribe to services that alert them to National Weather Service warnings that include their location. Smartphone users with GPS can get the alerts even when they’re on the move and travel into an area that falls within a warning polygon.
Bill Murray, meteorologist in Birmingham, Ala., developed the smartphone application MyWarn with a programmer friend and began offering it to iPhone users in March for a one-time charge of $9.99. In June, it will switch to a subscription service at a charge of about $12 a year. He’s adapting the app to other phones as well.
When the 10-second-long beep sounds, the user can touch a button on the screen and see a dot on a map showing their location within the warning polygon.
“You don’t have to think about it,” Murray says. “When that thing goes off, you know you’re in a critical situation. We want you to know that it’s time to do something.
“It cuts out the middle man and gets the information to the person who is going to be affected. That’s how we save lives.”
The company is developing a feature that exploits the way people use mobile phones in an emergency, contacting loved ones who might also be in danger. Users will be able to create a list of contacts, touch one button and let them all know a tornado may be coming.
“Each person with a smart phone can be like a megaphone and warn their communities with a lot of credibility,” Murray says.
With the options available, residents can increase the likelihood that they’ll know when a tornado is headed their way in time to hunker down. But officials say they don’t know that there will ever come a day when tornadoes no longer kill people.
“At the end of the day, it’s the citizens’ responsibility to take care of themselves,” says Deno, the Wilson County emergency director. “It’s up to us to put as much information out as we possibly can, but if people don’t take advantage of that information, it’s not our fault.”