Saturday, April 21, 2012

What does "Storm Ready" really mean?

Many of my readers know the National Weather Service has a program called "StormReady" that gives communities "StormReady" status when they meet certain criteria.  You can read the criteria on their website.  Some recent experiences here in my community - Norman, OK - have given me reason to doubt Norman's actually readiness for storms, in spite of their having been granted this "distinguished" status.

I wrote an extended essay after a tornado developed near my home late at night in 2009.  The local sirens weren't sounded until well after the tornado began, apparently because no one was in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to push the button.  On 13 April 2012, a tornado developed just west of Norman and moved across the heart of the city, wrapped in rain.  It turned out to be a weak tornado (EF-1), fortunately.  It dissipated not far from my home.  The sirens again were not sounded until the tornado was well into the city - apparently again because no one was staffing the EOC.  Just how "storm ready" can Norman actually be if this is their track record in threatening situations?  Why was there no one already at the EOC in these situations?  Having an EOC is not very meaningful if there's no one there to operate the facility.

Sirens are not the best means of disseminating tornado warnings, but Norman recently spent a fair sum to install new sirens.  Was this the best possible way to use that money?  I think not.  Apparently, from what I heard, the mayor made that decision on her own, basically, for reasons unknown to me.  I'd like to see the general public wean themselves of their dependence on sirens as their sole means to alert them of approaching hazardous weather.  Yes, sirens might still have a useful function, but people shouldn't be accustomed to depending on them alone to obtain information about the weather.  Whatever I might think about the efficacy of sirens for tornado warnings, however, these two recent incidents seem to suggest that Norman is not so ready for storms as their resume might suggest.

What does "storm ready" really mean?  As I see it, the NWS criteria don't go nearly far enough to establish a meaningful preparedness level for communities to meet.  To be truly ready, communities need to do much more!  For example, who has reviewed and approved the tornado plans in place in the local public schools?  Have those plans been evaluated by someone independent of the school who actually has the qualifications to know what's needed?  Dr. Matt Biddle and I have done some informal snooping around in schools over the years and found several disturbing things:
  1. Many schools don't have a functioning weather radio
  2. The designated shelters in many of the schools I've investigated have serious problems that would endanger anyone sheltering there
  3. Schools often have suitable shelter spaces that are unnecessarily unavailable for use - e.g., interior rooms filled with stored items
  4. The structural integrity of school buildings is not always known, so any structural defects that could affect safety need to be identified by someone competent and those flaws fixed
  5. Some of the tornado plans I've seen contain fundamental flaws that could put children and staff at risk
A similar evaluation of all the other places in a community where people gather - businesses, malls, recreational facilities, universities, private schools, hospitals, nursing homes, churches, and so on - should be undertaken.  Most of our concerns with tornadoes are focused on residences, and deservedly so, but they're not the only locations where people are at risk in a tornado.  Residential building codes should be in place that mandate enhanced structural integrity.  Families and businesses need to be encouraged to develop tornado hazard plans and to practice them at least once a year.  Public information campaigns to make the community aware of their responsibilities and resources should be routine.

In my experiences here in Norman, the politicians seemed distinctly uninterested in taking full advantage of the numerous subject matter experts in the university and the Norman Weather Center.  Similarly, it seems many of those experts have little interest in contributing to the improvement of the community's preparations for storm hazards.  That this is the case here in Norman seems incredible to me.  How can we presume to lecture to others about what to do to prepare for storms, when our own community is not a shining example of what can and should be done?  Is Norman truly storm ready?  I don't think so!  That should be an embarrassment to everyone.


Michael Shaffer said...

Another nice rant, Charles :-)

Bob Maddox said...

Chuck, In some ways this reminds me of about a decade or so ago when the NWS began touting itself as the "No surprises weather service."

There is an article in the May issue of Scientific American titled "A Better Eye on the Storm." It has purportedly been written by Lubchenco and Hayes - heads of NOAA and NWS respectively.

Article concludes "This vision for for a weather-ready nation is motivated by the desire to avoid the unmitagated disasters of 2011.
The goal is that by 2021 the rebuilt and thriving city of Joplin would receive a severe tornado warning more than an hour in advance."

Oh my, what can I say?


Chuck Doswell said...


My feelings regarding NOAA and NWS management are well-known. The idea of an hour's lead time is not completely without basis, assuming that it could be a probabilistic warn-on-forecast. But the bigger question is tied to the fact that lead time is not the most important issue in tornado warnings - the task of teaching people how to use the warnings to make personal decisions is one the NWS consistently has eschewed. Just having an hour lead time will not necessarily change the outcome of the Joplin event!

Garrett Fornea said...

This essay reminds me all too much of the situation at the apartment complex I live at (the Pointe at MSU). I am quite sure that we are not "storm ready."
Why so? We have well over a thousand people living there, in small area (less than a square mile by my estimation). There is no storm shelter or basement that I have seen, and I do not know of a clear severe weather plan. If a large and violent tornado were to hit the Pointe, the chances of someone or many perishing in the destruction seem to be very high. The odds against a tornado hitting us are in our favor, but they won't help us when we are in the path of a violent tornado. (I think you said something exactly like this at the Southeast Severe Storms Symposium; it has since become part of my argument.) I would also like to add that Starkville, as well as the University, has a history of being hit by tornadoes or passed over by mesocyclones.
A mentor and friend of mine asked me, "Garrett, what would you do if a tornado was coming?" Chances are that I would know of impending severe weather and would be waiting in the Climate Lab to take pictures, even if it was night. In the same building I could take shelter in the basement. In that situation, I know what I am going to do.
But let's say I wake up in the middle of the night, and I have seconds to take shelter. I don't know what I would do - hide in my roommate's walk-in closet? It's the innermost room in our apartment; however, we're on the second floor, so I would not feel safe in there. This raises another point: two-thirds of us are on the second and third floors, and are at an increased risk of death and injury. And get this: we're about to significantly expand with a phase three and phase four, therefore significantly increasing our population!
With all of that said, I definitely can see how our community needs to put a lot more effort in ensuring our safety. Bottom line, we need a legitimate plan - something much better than "get in the closet" or "get in the hallway" - and an actual storm shelter. It can be hard to fit fifteen-hundred people into a shelter, but the Pointe owns plenty of land and can easily build multiple shelters. There's also that water table excuse, but we have hills we can build into for basements and shelters; they do it on campus. They also may cry "expensive," but maybe the Pointe could have residents supply their own furniture and cut back on some of the more luxurious amenities that they offer. I would even pay higher rent if that's what a storm shelter would require. I don't know about them, but I think that it's well worth potentially saving the lives of their residents.

Roger Edwards said...

My daughter was under a desk in a windowless room when the tornado hit Norman High. Her instructor did the right thing, though there was some chaos after the event that her mom and I may address with school personnel in the next few days.

I've done some tornado-preparedness consultations with a few of the elementary schools over the years, and found much the same thing as you and Matt--lots of inadequate interior sheltering and inconsistent planning from school to school. Washington Elementary has at least one concrete-lined "safe room" classroom and some windowless interior restrooms. Others aren't so endowed. Most have interior staff lounges, restrooms and/or storage rooms that haven't been considered as shelters until some "expert" brings it up.

Some preparedness tips for school admins:

In light of your comments and the other anecdotes I've heard from the recent tornado here, this photo from a couple of years ago (taken on Jenkins next to Battlestar Norman) may represent the present state of "storm readiness" of the city:

Jay said...


I only recently became aware of your blog and am in the process of catching up on some of your recent and not-so-recent stuff. They make for very enjoyable reading.

I have an observation to share regarding community awareness and decision-making when a tornado warning (siren) occurs. Before I moved to Michigan (Lansing area) 10 years ago, after having lived only on or near the east coast, I had never heard a tornado siren. I now experience them at least once or twice a year. So while we are not in a major tornado area, they do occur with sufficient frequency that everyone encounters them and remembers the experience.

It is my perception that tornado warnings are taken very seriously in this area. Based on question and answer sessions I have had when doing weather presentations at elementary schools, ALL of the kids (and, I presume, their parents) know exactly what to do when they hear a siren. The kids all report that they have spent the night in the basement when the sirens blow, even in the middle of the city. Based on what you wrote above and anecdotes I have heard from other areas of the Midwest,it sounds to me as if this is not necessarily the norm, even in much more tornado-prone areas.

Is this indeed the case, or do the "personal decisions" you mention above refer to something else?

--Jay Charney

Chuck Doswell said...

Garrett ... insofar as I can tell, virtually all communities need to do a LOT more. But it always begins with individuals accepting a big share of personal responsibility for one's own safety.

Jay - when I refer to "personal decisions" it means the preparations they have made BEFORE hearing of a tornado warning, in addition to the choices they make when they hear of a warning of an approaching tornado that could affect them personally.

Chuck Doswell said...

Edit: I'd like to retract the words "the task of teaching people how to use the warnings to make personal decisions is one the NWS consistently has eschewed." The NWS has in fact done quite a bit to teach people how to use the warnings to make personal decisions. I believe the NWS should do more to help people understand their options in order to make good choices in a tornado warning situations. I don't believe call-to-action statements in warnings are the best way to do this, though. Rather, the NWS and the broadcast media need work together to educate the public regarding tornado situation awareness.

Brent Shaw said...

While I am no defender of how our county EOC gets staffed and decides how/when sirens should be sounded, I will defend them in the 13 April 2012 case. In that case, I would place fault on the local NWS office, who failed to issue any tornado warning for that storm until 3:59 PM, at which time it was already near I35 and Lindsey. I was at Norman High School in the path of the storm, and could clearly hear the siren outside sounding by 4:01 PM, just two minutes after the official issue time on the warning itself. My wife on the north side of town sent me a text at the same time saying that the sirens were going off. I went back through the warnings for that day, and the main part of Norman was not an ANY warning until a severe thunderstorm warning was issued at 3:55 PM, followed by the TOR at 3:59. Only the extreme NW part of Norman was in a previous severe thunderstorm warning issued at 3:14 PM which had a more northeasterly track than what actually happened. By 3:38 PM, there were pretty decent radar signatures of rotation and the storm was moving right towards Norman, which is why I was picking my son up from school at NHS and instead decided to take cover there. I did hear that the sirens on the south side didn't sound right away, and that has led some to assume they didn't sound in town at all, but I and my wife both clearly heard them within 2 minutes of warning issuance.

Chuck Doswell said...

@Brent .. whatever problems were associated with the NWS warning process, it is simply not acceptable to give the Norman community a free pass on this event. I don't know all the fact regarding the NWS warnings, but if the Norman emergency response is contingent on those NWS warnings, they are not fulfilling their responsibilities, in my opinion.

David R. Legates said...

Back when I was still the Delaware State Climatologist, Delaware became the 49th state to have a "Storm Ready" community and the First State (pun intended) to be denoted entirely "Storm Ready". It required the State, among other things, to put NOAA weather radios in all schools and for our Delaware Mesonet to have at least one functioning weather station in each county (we have only three counties). The State's emergency managers are much better trained now but their ability to warn the citizens is no better after "Storm Ready" status than before it. Indeed, at my house, I can only receive NOAA Weather Radio on a good day. The Governor and State officials took credit but I can't see where anything has changed.