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Changes in weather technology and alerts bring hopes to save... - KOAM TV 7

Changes in weather technology and alerts bring hopes to save lives

Severe weather is a possibility this weekend.  Many forecasters are already using technology to try to figure out the likelihood of tornadoes in certain areas.  Forecasters say storm spotters will always be valuable, but forecasters are seeing storms in new ways thanks to a technology called dual polarization radar.

In this special report, we look more at this technology, as well as how the National Weather Service is testing the psychology of how people respond to storm warnings.

 

Dual pol radar: Another tool for meteorologists and storm chasers

Monett, Missouri High School teacher and storm chaser Gary Cook remembers a nearby tornado in Pierce City in 2003.

"We could hear what sounded like a continual thunder, that's when I think I became it's not just a fascination anymore, to some extent my love of going out storm chasing, it became more helping inform and warn so they know what's coming," says Cook.

The weather warning system and radar technology have changed over the years in the U.S.  Storm sirens were originally designed to warn of nuclear attacks.

And in addition to traditional radar that locates precipitation and calculates motion, there's now dual polarization radar.

Doppler radar sends out beams of energy horizontally.  Dual pol adds vertical beams, which provides a better understanding of what is falling from the storms, like hail versus heavy rain.  Dual pol can even pick up debris from a tornado.

"Where you have ragged shapes, longer versus shorter, that gives us an indication that there's building materials, stuff that's up in the atmosphere that's not normally up in the atmosphere," says Steve Runnels of the National Weather Service in Springfield.

A Doppler radar indicated tornado doesn't always mean a tornado has touched down.

"But when you add the dual polarization capabilities, it adds in our confidence what's going on out there and our ability to let the public know," says Runnels.

Two months ago installation of dual pol radar was completed at all National Weather Service locations.  It can also be seen on many weather apps.

People like storm chaser Gary Cook believe recent weather technology has made a big impact.

"Especially for the average person like me to be able to access the information," says Cook.  "All the meteorologists had access to the good information before, but as the Average Joe, I have more access than I used to."

 

Clarifying warnings in an effort to save lives

The National Weather Service is also testing the psychology of how people respond to storm warnings.  One job of the National Weather Service is to save lives and after the Joplin tornado, NWS forecasters say their eyes were opened more to human nature.

"Shortly after the Joplin tornado, the National Weather Service sent an assessment team around to speak with many people and we were one of those that they spoke to," says Joplin Emergency Manager Keith Stammer.  "They had a social scientist with them, which I found very interesting, and one of the questions that they had was, 'were the words adequate?'"

Were the words the NWS used for weather watches and warnings effective in getting out the information?  With the death toll from the 2011 tornadoes, that was the question experts were asking.

"2011 was just a horrific year when it came to tornadoes," says Steve Runnels of the National Weather Service in Springfield.  "550 people died due to tornadoes, not just in Joplin, but in the southeastern part of the United States as well.  So ultimately it was a signal that the National Weather Service had to do a better job of letting the public know what our thoughts were, what our expectations were, but perhaps more importantly, what is the urgency?  What is the impact from a given storm?"

In 2012, five NWS offices began testing using more descriptions in weather alerts.  The test program has since spread to all NWS locations across the central part of the country.

"There's going to be added information - is it radar indicated or is it confirmed?" says Runnels.  "In the case of a tornado, is it potentially a once in a lifetime catastrophic tornado such as unfortunately what Joplin witnessed a couple years ago?"

"Most of our tornadoes are EF-0's through EF-2's, with the occasional 3," says Stammer.  "What that means is short tornadoes.  So our average warning time from when we actually see one to when it actually touches down is something like 10 minutes.  That's not enough time to find your glasses, find your car keys, get the kids together and go somewhere.  It's only enough time to see shelter where you are."

 

Dual pol radar and new alerts in action

On April 18, Joplin Emergency Manager Keith Stammer was watching a severe storm roll through northeast Oklahoma.

"Dual pol was being able to show that there was debris coming up from Grove, Oklahoma," says Joplin Emergency Manager Keith Stammer.

As that storm system went from Grove to Joplin, Stammer says Doppler radar showed rotation, so he made the call to sound the storm warning sirens.

"They were radar indicated, so they may or may not touch down, but to my way of thinking we had already proved that one had already touched down in the Grove, Oklahoma area by use of the dual pol radar, and so that's good enough for me," says Stammer.

But the storm sirens were only sounded in the southern part of the city.

"And we found out the next day that many people who had heard them had called their friends and family on the northern half of the city to find out if the sirens were going off there, and vice versa, just proof that people are seeking additional forms of information," says Stammer.

 

When there's a tornado warning seek shelter first, then seek out information

"I can issue an hour long warning lead time of an EF-5 tornado coming into a city, but if people do not receive it, understand it, and respond to it, that warning is useless," says Steve Runnels of the National Weather Service in Springfield.

Emergency managers and National Weather Service forecasters say as soon as a tornado warning is issued, get to a shelter first, then check out the radar and other details of the storm.

When a storm warning is issued, emergency managers say there are at least six mental processes a person has to go through. 

  • They must first hear or receive the warning.
  • They must believe it.
  • They must personalize it.
  • They must decide to act.
  • They must decide to act appropriately.

Emergency responders say miss one of those steps and a person runs a good chance of not being safe.

 

Lesson learned

One survivor of the Joplin tornado has ongoing battles like many others.  Shelly Anderson says she's been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of May 2011.

"When there are dark clouds outside or things look odd to me or even when it's raining and lightning and thundering hard, even if I know in my brain it's not going to be like that, I still kind of have a panic attack," says Anderson.  "I think people like me need more than just a watch or warning, because I like to know as much detail as I can."

These days Shelly Anderson hits the shelter as soon as a tornado warning is issued, with or without details.  But she says appreciates the extra information.

"I think what they're doing is great," says Anderson.

 

Test program to continue

This NWS test program continues for more severe weather events with the goal of whatever it takes for fewer injuries and deaths.

Longer audio alerts over NOAA weather radio could mean shorter response times for people to get to shelter.  But emergency managers say the new alerts are still a good idea, since sometimes people won't be able to watch television and visually see the details of a storm.

It's also important to remember that different cities have different policies when it comes to storm sirens.  In Joplin, for example, there is never an "all clear" siren.

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