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Reflections on NC's tornado outbreak of April 16th, 2011

The property at 103 N. Pettigrew Street is still in shambles on April 10, 2012, after being damaged during the tornado that hit Raleigh in April 2011. The structure is one of a few that the city is having to step in and forcibly tear down.
The property at 103 N. Pettigrew Street is still in shambles on April 10, 2012, after being damaged during the tornado that hit Raleigh in April 2011. The structure is one of a few that the city is having to step in and forcibly tear down. srocco@newsobserver.com

On Saturday, April 16th, 2011, North Carolina experienced a day that will forever be burned in my memory, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. Thirty tornadoes touched down across the state, taking the lives of 24 people, injuring at least 304 more, and costing an estimated $328,610,000 in damage. According to the National Weather Service Raleigh Office, it was the greatest one-day tornado total on record for NC.

Do you remember where you were that day? Do you remember when you first heard that the severe weather threat was real and very serious?

As early as April 12th, forecasters began mentioning the potential for a severe weather outbreak that Saturday. The computer models were showing all of the ingredients for a major event, and as the day approached, the threat looked even more ominous. The morning of outbreak, the Storm Prediction Center put a High Risk bull's-eye over eastern North Carolina, which is a rare category for any part of the United States, much more so for the east coast.

Those of us who had been paying attention were already on edge that morning. I remember walking into the place I worked and a coworker asking me incredulously "is it really going to be that bad?" I did not hesitate in my answer: yes.

As the morning progressed, a squall line took shape over western North Carolina and began moving east. By early afternoon, the line was starting to break up into discrete supercells with strong updrafts, rotation, and eventually a few had the notorious hooked shape of tornadic storms.

When I saw the storm on radar to our southwest, the one that eventually produced the long-track tornado that started in Moore County and tore through Sanford and Raleigh, I was filled with dread. I convinced my manager to close early so we could all get home to safety before the line hit Raleigh. We all made it in time and rode out the storm in the safety of our respective downstairs bathrooms, but before the storm made it to North Raleigh, I watched the local news coverage as it approached from our southwest. It was frightening to think of the pretty large population just one storm was affecting.

And that was just one storm of 30 that day. When the day was over and the devastation was being tallied in deaths, injuries, and damage, the reality set in. It was a bad day for NC.

One of the things that astounded me about the stories I heard was that despite days worth of valid, accurate forecasting ahead of the outbreak, so many people still seemed to be taken by surprise by the system. Forecasters were broadcasting days in advance that it was coming, and still there were people who were caught off guard. One of my favorite cliches when it comes to the weather is "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." We can put the information out there on every form of media possible, and yet we can't make people listen, read, or in any way consume and understand it.

I hope that after a day like that one, people who were not paying attention to forecasts, watches, and warnings then would pay attention now, but the reports I've seen regarding studies of how the general public responds to weather warnings tells me otherwise. So many people "don't believe the hype" for whatever reason. They get a warning and then look to their social circles for the appropriate response instead of just acting on the warning as they should. Hesitation in a case like April 16th, when the storms were moving at 55 miles per hour, can be a deadly mistake.

Too many people remember only the false alarms (of which there are fewer every year as technology and understanding improves), or they don't have a safety plan or situational awareness. Whatever the reason, one death that could have been prevented by heeding the warnings and heading to a safe shelter is one death too many.

Meteorologists try to learn from days like April 16th to see how they can improve forecasting and warnings down to the phrasing of the broadcast alerts. What do people respond to, and how do they respond? There is a whole community of meteorologists who are trying to answer these questions now in the hopes of saving more lives in the future. If you have a solid, constructive idea on how to improve getting information to the public, please leave a comment on this blog or on my facebook page. I am truly interested in your suggestions.

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