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The Ozarks' Severe Weather Warning System: Is It Good Enough?

KSMU - Ozarks Public Radio

Reporter Standup:  “I’m Jennifer Moore. Right now, I’m next to a field on the outskirts of Joplin. I’m at the intersection of 32nd Street and Newton Road. And according to the National Weather Service, this precise spot is where the May 22 tornado first touched down before it gathered momentum and slowly churned its way east through the heart of the city, claiming over 150 lives. For this story, we’re taking a critical look at the warning system in place for severe weather in the Ozarks:  did the system work as it was supposed to that day, and is it good enough?”

 “The system we’ve got in place right now [is]:the weather service issues outlooks, watches, and warnings,” said Steve Runnels.   He’s the meteorologist who coordinates warnings at the National Weather Service in Springfield. 

The Springfield office oversees 37 counties—including the two counties that straddle Joplin: Newton and Jasper.  Runnels said the strength of the current warning system is that it’s tiered.

“Outlooks are issued as far as much as seven days in advance.  When parameters come together for the formation of severe weather, we will issue a watch.  It just simply means that conditions are favorable.  On the other hand, when we show a warning, we sincerely hope that people respond immediately as if their families’ lives are in danger,” Runnels said.

Two days before the tornado, on Friday the 20th, the weather service began creating buzz on its website and in its forecasts about the possibility of severe weather on Sunday.

Then, at 1:30 Sunday afternoon, its storm prediction center issued a tornado watch for the Joplin area.  Later, the individual storm started developing.  A phone call between the weather service in Springfield and the Office of Emergency Management in Jasper County took place at 4:30.

“And then, the moment that none of us really look forward to, that was the issuance of a tornado warning—first at 5:09, and then again at 5:17,” Runnels said.

That whole afternoon, meteorologists had been looking out for signs of rotation on their monitors. Data was pouring in from Doppler radar, weather balloons, and satellites. At 5:09, about 20 minutes before the tornado hit Joplin, one meteorologist saw what appeared to be a “hook echo,” a very strong rotation that was likely to become a tornado.  So, with the click of a mouse, he sounded the warning, and with lightning speed, it flew through the system to its recipients.

When the National Weather Service issues a warning, it immediately goes several places—each of which the weather service is depending on to relay that message to the public. The warning is automatically broadcast on NOAA weather radios. An alert goes off in local newsrooms in real time. It races through Smartphone applications, and it appears on the weather service’s website. But the warning also shows up here.

[Sound:  security beep, door opening,]

Inside the Newton County office of Emergency Management, there’s a dispatch center that is staffed 24/7, every day of the year. Every county has an office like this. Supervisor Brenda Miller shows me on her monitor how she or another supervisor would activate the outdoor sirens upon receiving a warning.

“These are our radios here. So if we had a warning, a tornado warning or something, we’d go over here—and these are our siren tones.   And these are them, and all you would have to do is click on the button. So Diamond, Fairview, Neosho, Saginaw, Seneca…depending on where the tornado was at. They go off one by one,” Miller said.

[Sound: Phone ringing]

And about those sirens…Gary Roark, director of this Office of Emergency Management, said they’re not designed to be heard indoors.  So, lesson number one: don’t rely on them as your primary source for severe weather warnings.

“The outdoor warning sirens, whether it’s in Newton County, Jasper County, New York City, or wherever they may be—they are what they say:  they are an outdoor warning siren.  And it’s very hard to get the public to understand that that does not necessarily mean they’re going to hear that siren if they’re in their house.   The sirens are normally placed in the cities scientifically to give a complete coverage of the entire city that they’re set up for.  But they are designed to warn people who are outside who don’t have access to their weather radio, their TV, or their regular radio system,” he said.

Roark says just because you’ve heard them from inside your home before doesn’t mean you will the next time.

Roark:  “A lot of times, there’s going to be TVs going, people are going to be talking, and you may or may not hear them, even if sometimes you do hear them. And a lot depends, too, on wind direction—if the wind’s blowing hard at the time.”

Moore:  “So, why wouldn’t counties or cities develop sirens that could be heard indoors?”

Roark:  “There’s not enough money to do that.  The cost would be completely beyond their ability to do it. And we look at tornado sirens and weather radios and the media as being a combination of means that people have of learning what the weather situation is.”

I ask Roark about reverse 9-1-1 calls—where the county or city calls everyone in its directory. He said Newton County, in partnership with Jasper County and the City of Joplin, already has that program…but in the case of tornados, there’s a problem with it.

“What we found, after starting the program, is that it’s too slow. It doesn’t work well for trying to notify a large number of people in an area of a tornado warning or a severe thunderstorm. It takes too long to work. And that’s primarily because of the actual phone lines that are available. They can only put out so many calls per minute,” he said.

He said some local media send out severe weather texts, and it’s a good idea to sign up for those.  But the best bet, he says, is a NOAA weather radio—they don’t make a sound until there’s a weather announcement for your specific area. The National Weather Service says weather radios should be as common in homes as smoke detectors.

The weather service works with the most sophisticated weather forecasting equipment in the world.  Just 30 years, meteorologists trying to predict a tornado had a lead time of next to nothing—about two minutes. Now, though, that lead time is on average, 20 to 25 minutes, as it was in Joplin.

Many things have to function well for the system to work:  the National Weather System has to give as much advance warning as it possibly can, through outlooks, watches, and finally, warnings. That message has to get to people in a reliable way—and the weather service relies on a combination of things to do that, from outdoor sirens to news stations to weather radios.  But the last piece of the puzzle, Roark says, is crucial:  people have to take the alerts seriously.

“We’re complacent to a certain extent, because maybe 75 percent of the time, or 85 percent of time if a warning is issued, nothing develops from it.”

Steve Runnels agrees that awareness is an ongoing struggle. Part of his job after the tornado was to walk through Joplin and interview survivors on whether they heard the warnings, and whether they heeded them.

“The thing that sticks with me more than anything is the people that came up to us that told us they heard the sirens, they knew the warning was issued, but they didn’t believe it.  And that’s…that’s sad.  That’s something that we try our best—to give advance warnings as accurately as we can.  And if people don’t believe them, the system breaks down,” he said.

For KSMU’s Sense of Community Series, I’m Jennifer Moore.

For information on where to get a NOAA weather radio, click here.   To learn how to sign up for severe weather text alerts, click here.   To find out how to download special severe weather apps for your phone, click here.