Tuesday, September 20, 2011

NWS Assessment Found No Sense of Urgency Associated with Joplin Tornado Warnings...

The official National Weather Service (NWS) review of the Joplin tornado event has just been released. You can view the full report by going here.  This is basically their assessment of how the government performed during the events  leading up to this tragedy.

As far as this blog is concerned, I have officially "held my water" on the issue of how I think the NWS in Springfield handled the warning process on that fateful day - until now.  I made this decision early on, out of respect for the families and friends of those who lost their lives, and the thousands more whose lives were forever altered by this horrible event.

I must admit that I did "vent" a little back in July by making a comment (and a rather lengthy one at that) following this post on "The Turner Report", which is the blog of a retired Missouri newspaper man who is now a teacher in the Joplin Public School system.  You can read my full comment by going to the link above (scroll down to the comments section and look for the comment by "Rob in Texas".  An excerpt of my comment is shown below, with key points highlighted in yellow:

While I didn't post the above directly on my blog, a few studious readers of my comments after Mr. Turner's blog post e-mailed me with the typical "how dare you question the actions of those who were saving lives, etc."  I respectfully replied  that it was not my intent to diminish the efforts of the NWS (or any other party) on that day.  In fact, I pointed out (in that same comment thread) that the NWS warnings undoubtedly saved lives that day:

The official assessment report by the National Weather Service agrees that the warnings were insufficiently worded, as stated on page 18:

Whether they agreed or not, in my mind, the question isn't one of what did Rob (or anyone else) have to say about the effectiveness of the NWS warnings on that day, but rather "just how did we arrive at this point in the first place?"  If you'll stick with me for just a few more minutes I'd like to address this point a bit further.

The first NWS Tornado Warning on that day that specifically mentioned Joplin was issued at 5:09 PM CDT:

As a reminder, best estimates indicate that "the Joplin tornado" first touched down around 5:30 PM CDT, some 20 minutes after the initial warning.  Radar at the time of the original warning issuance wasn't screaming and shouting a big tornado, but all of the signs of enhanced tornado potential were there.

By 5:34 PM CDT, radar did indicate that a large tornado was likely on the ground, as shown by an increasing "hook echo" signature on reflectivity (rain and hail) imagery and a strong wind couplet on velocity (wind speed and direction) imagery (as shown by the white circled areas on the images below):

(For additional details on how to interpret the radar imagery from the Joplin event, please refer to this detailed post.)

The likelihood of a significant tornado event being underway was cemented by the 5:43 PM CDT radar scan, which showed a pronounced "debris ball" on the Southwest side of Joplin (as shown within the white circle on the reflectivity image below) and an extremely strong tornado signature on the velocity (wind speed and direction) image:

A debris ball is the radar signature showing debris that has been lifted up and carried aloft by the tornadic circulation.  Despite these very strong indicators of a violent tornado in progress, the wording within the NWS warning and follow-up statement products continued to be very "matter of fact":

It wasn't until after the tornado had already devastated much of Joplin that the official NWS warnings even began to hint of the true danger at hand, such as in this warning issued at 5:48 PM CDT:

It has long been my stand on this blog that warnings and follow-up statements need to be appropriately worded, particularly in a dangerous and life threatening situation such as the Joplin tornado event.  Whether or not an individual will take action and seek shelter in such an event is a very personal decision, and if an appropriate assessment of the potential danger(s) and/or a direct call to action message is (are) not provided, many will simply not act.

Without a doubt, there were many other factors that also played a roll in the unusually high death toll associated with this tornado:

(1).  a large curtain of rain and/or hail obscured the view of the tornado to many citizens, which caused some to fail to act

(2).  many citizens of Joplin had grown numb to outdoor tornado warning sirens being sounded countless times in the past - and with no resulting damage (which lead to a "crying wolf" syndrome)

(3).  the local NWS office in Springfield had a false alarm rate for tornado warnings of 85% in 2010 - higher than both the regional and national averages (which further enhanced the "crying wolf" syndrome)

(4).  the tornado struck late on a Sunday afternoon when many folks were away from traditional communication sources (i.e., in church or at other social gatherings) and may not have received the warnings (regardless of their  effectiveness) in a timely manner

In today's "always on" society, and with the social media craze in particular, citizens have hundreds (if not thousands) of ways of receiving warning information during a severe weather event.  It is the responsibility of those who issue the warnings to make sure that particularly life threatening situations are given even greater attention, with a strong sense of urgency and call to action statement(s) clearly communicated.  If this doesn't happen consistently, we run the risk of additional messages being lost in the information overload, which could lead to more deaths and injuries.

For more information on the Joplin tornado tragedy as documented on this blog, please go to this "Table of Contents" post, which pulls together all of the related content on my blog.

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