Sunday, June 9, 2013

When Being Right About a Forecast Brings No Joy

Recent events in Oklahoma have validated something I have been saying for many years.  Specifically, the gridlock to the south and east of the deadly tornado of 31 May 2013 verifies comments I've made many times - escaping a tornado in your vehicle is very much dependent on the specific situation.  You need to be "situation aware" if you choose to attempt to escape a tornado by driving away.  I'm far from the only one who's said such things, of course.

Out in the open country or in a small town, driving away is generally feasible, assuming road conditions permit it.  But in a metropolitan area, this can go tragically wrong.  On 31 May 2013, many people were told a falsehood - that there was no chance they would survive "above ground".  This falsehood owes its origins to Gary England during his coverage of the 03 May 1999 tornado.  His statement, unfortunately, garnered much positive attention and was credited with saving lives.  But the statment is simply not true, as has been demonstrated many times over.  Even in homes hit by the EF4/EF5 winds in EF-4/EF-5 ("violent") tornadoes (Those extreme winds occupy only a tiny fraction of the damage path in such tornadoes.), most people will survive!  Dispensing such misinformation creates unnecessary fear and such fear can induce bad decisions like people in urban areas trying to escape by driving away since they have no underground shelter, rather than seek to shelter in place.  Spreading misinformation via media broadcasts is irresponsible!

The gridlock of 31 May 2013 resulted from a combination of factors, including the recent EF5 killer tornado that struck Moore, OK on 20 May 2013.  But when media weather broadcasters directly or indirectly encourage people living in a metropolitan area to drive away from tornadoes, the potential loss of life skyrockets.  On 10 April 1979, the F4 tornado that struck Wichita Falls, TX killed 44 people, with many of the fatalities occurring in vehicles, including people who left homes that were undamaged, only to drive into situations where they were caught in their cars and killed.

The gridlock of 31 May 2013 didn't involve a tornado tracking over all those immobilized vehicles, but many of us have been worried about such a scenario for a long time.  We have predicted a potential disaster.  As of today, such a disaster hasn't occurred, although the 1979 Wichita Falls event provides a foretaste.  But if we do little or nothing to prevent it, such a tragedy will occur eventually.  Should things work out that way, none of us making this prediction will be exultant!  We may or may not say "I told you so!" but whether we do so or not, none of us will gain any pleasure from saying it.

When I saw the infamous "overpass video" from 26 April 1991 in Kansas, many of us agreed that this video eventually would cause unnecessary deaths in tornadoes.  On 03 May 1999, that prediction came to pass - 3 people died sheltering under overpasses.  We still see people gathering under overpasses to this day, despite the continuing repetition of the message "Do NOT seek shelter under overpasses!" by everyone involved in tornado preparedness.  There will be more such fatalities unless we can change that behavior.  I hope the producers of that video are finding it difficult to live with the consequences of their irresponsibility.  I know it brings me no joy to have made that prediction and live to see it verified.

Because the long-term trends in tornado fatalities have been steadily downward, a level of complacency has emerged.  The evidence seemed to suggest that big numbers of fatalities had become a thing of the past.  Tornado forecasts and various preparedness efforts had removed the potential for tornado disasters in the modern era.  But some of us knew that this complacency was not based on reality.  The threat was still there - the relatively low fatality counts were as much a matter of good luck as they were the result of casualty mitigation efforts.  Survivors often feel they've experienced the worst (e.g., on 03 May 1999), but the reality is that things to come can always be worse!  Then came 2011 and the good luck ran out - the most fatalities since 1925 - the year of the massive death toll associated with the "Tri-State" tornado of 18 March 1925.  Many of us knew something of the sort was still possible, and said so.  Again, being right is no consolation for the huge losses of 2011, mostly on 27 April (Mostly in MS and AL) and 22 May (Joplin, MO).

Another item that causes concern for many of us in severe storm research and operations - large venue event disasters.  Eventually, at some crowded venue for some large entertainment event, a tornado will strike with insufficient warning to evacuate.  With tens of thousands caught essentially in the open, the casualty figures could be enormous.  Some efforts are underway to try to do something about this potential nightmare, but in at least a few cases, it seems nearly impossible to do anything about the threat.  Something of this sort inevitably will happen.  The fact that I can say that, without specifying where and when, of course, doesn't alter the awful feeling that will ensue when this prediction is verified.

No sane person wants tragedies to happen.  Science gives us the capacity to make predictions of disasters, and we can try our best to convince others to take our predictions seriously enough to induce them to seek ways to reduce the disaster potential.  Sadly, we can get out our message, but there's usually little or nothing done to prevent tragedy until people die.  It seems we need a body count if we're to have any hope of changing things for the better.  The only solace we can offer to the victims is that their loss might mean gain for people in the future.   Might.  That prospect is what we cling to when sad events we've predicted come to pass.

1 comment:

Brett Thompson said...

One thing that really sticks in my mind about El Reno was that while the tornado was excpetional, the gridlock afterwards was an absolute nightmare. How unimaginably stupid it was for all those people to be out in their cars attempting to run away from the storm when they should have been sheltering in their homes! I agree the statement that you CANNOT survive an EF5 tornado above ground is untrue, as the most intense winds are found in varying places within the damage path. Experience from after the Moore cleanup lends credence to that.