Friday, April 29, 2011

A disgraceful sham of a program

We're on the second day after a historic outbreak of tornadoes in the southeastern US, that has had tragic consequences. Anyone familiar with these events knows that clean-up begins virtually immediately after a tornado has passed. A big part of the need for clean-up is to allow search and rescue by first responders, and so debris is moved off streets and highways to allow them access.

Although these and subsequent clean-up efforts are necessary and clearly need to begin as early as possible, one consequence is that they disturb the evidence needed for a "forensic" survey team. Therefore it has been deemed important that survey teams arrive as soon as possible after the event -- preferably early in the morning on the day following the event. They need access to the damaged areas (which often are closed off to prevent looting!) in order to glean the information they need before the rubble is piled up and carted away. BTW -- I've literally written the book on the subject and have been a national Quick Response Team member since it began -- I've been on precisely one damage survey (the 4 May 2003 event in Kansas City) since the QRT began! No one has called to ask me to participate in the survey for the current event.

In the past, we had Prof. Ted Fujita to do major event surveys. He had the influence and the resources to put a large team together and get them to the scene quickly, in order to obtain the information they needed to learn from these tragic events. With his death, there was a period when no one took any responsibility for doing scientific surveys after tornado disasters. The National Weather Service (NWS) was content with the "service assessment" process. Following the tornado outbreak of 3 May 1999 and especially the La Plata, MD tornado of 28 April 2002 (which was initially and erroneously rated an F5 tornado), the NWS instituted the Quick Response Team (QRT) -- the members of this national "team" were recruited from the ranks of those with experience at doing surveys of tornadic storms. They all volunteered to serve without compensation (save for travel costs) in order that we obtain the forensic evidence necessary first to understand what happened in detail, and then to learn whatever lessons could be gleaned from that evidence. The goal was to provide the advice of experienced people for the purpose of establishing the estimated intensity of the tornadoes (i.e, their F-scale - now supplanted by the EF-scale).

For a few years, this national QRT operated more or less as intended, but then it seemed that some tender egos in the NWS began to fear that they were losing control of the process. They felt they had sufficient "in-house" expertise to carry out the investigations and didn't require the services of "outsiders" in the process. I can't pretend to know precisely what NWS managers thought, but the net result has been that the national QRT is now a pathetic sham of a program. For all intents and purposes, it simply doesn't exist. The only person ever called to do a "national QRT" now is Tim Marshall, who is unquestionably one of the best. I'll leave it to the NWS to explain why Tim is the only one upon whom they now call who isn't an NWS employee. I don't understand why the NWS is refusing the advice of experienced "experts".

But a major event like the one of 27 April 2011 demands a team of folks doing the work. There are just too many tornadoes for one person to cover. Tim can only do so much and the clock ticks relentlessly as the clean-up proceeds. The 27 April 2011 outbreak of tornadoes in the southeastern US needs to be investigated using all available resources including the national QRT, and yet it seems the national QRT is on hold because the national Warning Coordination Meteorologist was out of the office yesterday!! And there are problems in coming up with the funding to support any travel by the team. Issues regarding travel support for the team should have been resolved years ago! This amounts to a disgraceful episode for NWS management. An important way to compensate our society for the damage and pain caused by tornadoes is for us to do our jobs and learn as much as we can from them. The moribund state of the national QRT is clear evidence of an inept performance and a lack of commitment by NWS management that is inhibiting the accurate assessement and comprehensive investigation of this tragic and historic tornado outbreak.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A dangerous illusion of safety

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of an infamous tornado outbreak. I'm not going to discuss the event itself here, but want to focus on the continuing problem that the news coverage of the storm produced. In that video two reporters from Wichita TV station KSNW (cameraman Ted Lewis and reporter Gregg Jarrett) are shown, first attempting to run from the tornado and then taking shelter under an overpass on the Kansas Turnpike (Interstate-35) near El Dorado, KS, and helping passerby Butch Gilbert and his children up between the overpass girders. They all emerge unscathed after the tornado passes, but clearly are frightened by their experience.

There are many issues with this video that can be debated, but the main point I want to make here is that 20 years later, we're still dealing with the problem the video created: people seeking shelter from severe weather under highway overpasses. An extended presentation about why using overpasses for tornado shelters is a bad idea has been developed in an effort to counteract the impression that highway overpasses are viable shelter options.

Some friends of mine and I made the prediction soon after we saw this video that people would die taking shelter under overpasses. That prediction, sadly, came to pass on 3 May 1999, when three people were killed (and many others sustained major injuries) while seeking shelter under overpasses in Oklahoma. It's my opinion that the airing of that video is clearly and directly responsible for those fatalities. Those fatalities (and others, likely to come) are the unintended consequences of journalists doing their jobs.

What concerns me most here is the enduring impression created by the many, many airings of that dramatic video. The very evident message of this video, whatever reasons may have motivated its creation and presentation, is the erroneous notion that taking shelter under an overpass provides safety from tornadoes. My NWS colleagues tell me they've learned that some people are leaving their homes to take shelter under overpasses! It seems that no matter how many times people say this is absolutely not the correct thing to do, the impact of that video overwhelms those spoken (or written) words -- it's the old saying about a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, a video is apparently worth tens of thousands of words. The video lives on via YouTube, of course.

Of course, someone might say, "Well, those folks sheltering under the overpass survived! What's the problem?" It's likely the reporter and his cameraman were ignorant of the fact that they could easily have outrun the tornado and then driven off an exit, at right angles to its path to escape the tornado. There was no need for them to stop and wait for the tornado to roll nearly over them. It's likely the reporters were ignorant of the inappropriateness of using overpasses as shelter. They simply did what they thought was right -- and took advantage of an opportunity to create dramatic video that no doubt profited them and the KSNW-TV station. Note that the tornado didn't pass directly over the location of the survivors under the overpass. And the tornado wasn't particularly violent at the time (although no tornado, even an EF-0, should be taken lightly). The violent tornado winds of 3 May 1999 blew people out from under the overpasses where they were hiding. The survivors in that video are lucky to have escaped unharmed. Their choice put them in considerable danger. What was clear to us when we saw the video was that if many others emulated this behavior, eventually someone would die as a result. It took several years, but the anticipated resulting fatalities eventually happened. If dangerous behavior is repeated enough times, someone will pay the price with their lives. When individuals survive unharmed after doing something life-threatening, that doesn't mean that the behavior is not dangerous!

Whatever their intentions, the damage from airing this video has been done and it apparently will take decades to repair that damage. Perhaps we need to air equally compelling, dramatic video of mangled overpass tornado victims? If on-air meteorologists and media journalists want to reinforce the message of not using overpasses in this way, they absolutely should never air that video! Never again! We must work to get that video out of people's sight, and perpetuating it on YouTube is only adding to the problem. Words alone have been ineffective in stemming the tide of people using overpasses as tornado shelters. If you show that video and say "Don't do this!" your words are wasted -- the evidence they see with their eyes overrides your words.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Humanity's hubris

I'm often struck by the absolutely absurd notion that this planet was created for humans. What incredibly arrogant nonsense! We're only the latecomers on the block -- the last few seconds of the 24-h geological and astronomical clock marking the history of the Earth -- if you actually accept the scientific notions of geological deep time and evolution. Of course, if you choose not to accept those ideas, it may be because you're living under the self-centered delusions of religious fundamentalism. In that fundamentalist view, we humans are created by an omnipotent and omniscient deity to have "dominion" over the planet and everything on it. But humble in the face of the overwhelming power of this presumed deity (Might makes right? Pretty tough to challenge a being who is omnipotent, after all. Better bow down and kiss ass.).

No serious scientist would ever subscribe to such an silly notion. Every year, our planet demonstrates to us mere humans how pathetic and weak we are in the face of the meteorological, geological, and astronomical forces that can easily and without malice -- only indifference -- sweep us from existence on this planet. Natural hazards occur, such as the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, that should make it clear to any rational creature that we are not the masters of this world! Of course, you can choose to attribute these hazards to an angry deity, punishing us for our transgressions, as did our ignorant ancestors who knew nothing of science. This is, of course, associated with the species-centric and pre-eminently religious notion that the putative deity, who presumably loves us above all of his/her/its creations, controls the processes that are responsible for devastation and destruction here on Earth. This deity, whose ways are mysterious (especially when no one can can offer a reasonable explanation for why he/she/it visits destruction on us, his chosen favorites), apparently uses natural processes to remind us of our place - subservient to the omniscient and omnipotent deity (which would seem pretty evident - why does he/she/it need to remind us of our insignificance in comparison to him/her/it?).

But leaving the religious nonsense aside, we humans seem only inclined to be worried about the planet and what we might be doing to it, when we ourselves are threatened. The late George Carlin noted that the planet doesn't need "saving" from the things we're doing to it. The Earth will return to its natural state quite nicely without us, should we be stupid enough to pollute ourselves into extinction. We depend on the processes ongoing here on Earth, but the Earth doesn't depend on us for anything!

Nevertheless, the only way to make any human care about what's going on seems to be to call attention to what we're doing to ourselves. What we might be doing to polar bears, or desert pupfish, or owls, or frogs, or spiders, or snakes, ... who cares? They're only lesser creatures, made by the mythical "creator" for our exploitation or indifference. "Let 'em go extinct. Who needs 'em?" says the species-centric idiot. Never mind the complex web of life on which we ourselves depend in the most critical ways. Endanger that web at our peril!

One of the most noble activities humans engage in is the rescue and rehabilitation of non-human creatures. When the Birds of Prey Foundation releases a healed raptor back to the wild, my sense of the ultimate value of humanity soars with them! This is an ultimate act by a thinking human being -- to seek to save the life of a member of a non-human species. Such acts on behalf of humans are magnificent, of course, but to do so for another species -- this is truly transcendental of your human arrogance. There are many advocates for non-human species who toil away in obscurity and indifference, but they tend to be drowned out by those who believe that all creatures are under our dominion! Must all species bow to our arrogance? Can we treat them all as disposable?

In the long run, it seems likely that humans are transients on this planet, not the chosen species of a mythical deity. Only our own hubris allows us to see ourselves as the crown of creation. We are nothing more than another step along a path that leads to a destination inconceivable and unknown to us. And that destination is not foreordained by some mythical deity who favors us above all other species. We'll be extremely fortunate to last as long as the dinosaurs, for instance. Our civilization and all its supposedly noble accomplishments (we're legends in our own minds) is meaningless in the context of deep time and evolution. We humans right now teeter on the brink of extinction from our own ignorance and arrogance. And the Earth would easily shake us off like a bad case of fleas (as noted by George Carlin) and go on its own way.