New Radar Allows Ozarks Meteorologists to See What They Couldn't See in Joplin Tornado: Debris

Jun 23, 2014

Immediately after the Joplin tornado, we asked the question:  is our severe weather warning system good enough?  Today, in this Sense of Community piece, we’re following up on that by bringing you news of some important updates in our local warning system.

In our earlier coverage, we were in the Newton County Emergency Dispatch Center, where supervisor Brenda Miller was on standby, ready for meteorologists to send a tornado warning so she could then switch on the local outdoor sirens.

“And these are them. And all you would have to do is click on the button: so Diamond, Fairview, Neosho, Saginaw, Seneca. They go off one by one,” Miller said.

And back then, meteorologists over at the National Weather Service were scouring their radar and satellite data for any signs of rotation. Often, it was tricky to see. But now, new technology is allowing them to take a much closer look than they could when the Joplin tornado hit. Doug Cramer is a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Springfield, which oversees all of southwest Missouri and parts of Kansas. He said the NWS has upgraded its radar since the Joplin tornado.

“And that upgrade was called ‘dual-polarization.’ And what that allows National Weather Service meteorologists to do is to see debris from a tornado,” he said.

Now, meteorologists can see two-by-fours, sheet metal, roofing shingles that have been thrown up into the atmosphere by a tornado—and upon seeing that, make a definite and immediate call.

Another difference, Cramer said, is how the warnings are worded. This came about after the National Weather Service consulted social scientists on how the NWS could communicate better with the public during severe weather.

“And what the social scientists were telling us was that we needed to have more plain, and easy to understand language, written in our warnings. So, we’ve tried to simplify our warnings to where there’s less text. There’s less text to read in a warning,” Cramer said.

The warnings only touch on the most important, critical information.

And the National Weather Service advises the public to set up a variety of ways to be notified of severe weather, not just one method.

“Weather radios are just one [way]. Outdoor sirens are another one. Getting text message warnings on your cell phone. Or watching your TV station. There are actually vendors that will allow you to look at radar data from your phone,” Cramer said.

Cramer says living so close to the infamous “Tornado Alley,” the Ozarks region has learned to be more aware of severe weather, including tornadoes.

“In the Ozarks region, we get tornadoes 12 months out of the year,” Cramer said.

Again, Doug Cramer with the National Weather Service in Springfield. If you’d like to receive those text alerts, you can click here.  Or if you need more information about how to get your hands on a weather radio, you can click here. If you don’t use the internet, you can visit a Radio Shack or other electronics store to learn more about those weather radios and other alert systems.

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