New Tornado Warnings Seek to Improve an Ineffective System

Sometimes all the warnings in the world can't do much to help those in the path of these mammoth storms.

While with the right conditions, tornadoes can happen anywhere, for people in the Southeastern and Midwestern United States, they are an almost constant threat.  Even the winter months are not completely safe from a tornado outbreak.  For years, meteorologists and scientists have debated the tornado warning system, trying to find a way to morph it into a perfect life-saving tool.  Unfortunately, every version of the warning system has inevitably brought its own share of problems.  Some say the warnings are too vague, cover too wide of an area, and don’t do a good enough job of indicating the severity of storms.

The problem is that in tornado-prone areas, watches and warnings are so common that it can be easy to start to become apathetic to it.  It’s not uncommon during the spring and summer months for the same counties and parishes to experience full-blown tornado warnings in their proximity two or three times in the same day or week.  Unfortunately, many people start to pay less attention to the potentially life-saving warnings because they are simply too frequent and thankfully, most of the time nothing happens.

Years ago, a tornado watch meant simply that conditions were favorable for a tornado to develop in a specific region.  A tornado warning was only issued when an actual tornado was sighted on the ground.  The positive side of this procedure was that tornado warnings were issued much less frequently, causing many to take them more serious when they were issued.  However, the system was revamped when opinions soured after a few unfortunate incidents when schools or churches were struck with little or no warning.  Opponents of the system at that time felt that issuing a tornado warning only when one was actually sighted on the ground was just too late to give anyone an opportunity to increase their chances for survival and injury prevention.  Currently, the tornado watch is still the same, but the tornado warnings are issued whenever radar indicates a storm shows proper rotation to possibly form a tornado.  This resulted in tornado warnings becoming as frequent as watches or thunderstorm warnings.  Furthermore, weather radios and tornado sirens alerted people in entire counties whenever a warning was present.  This practice caused many warnings to interrupt people’s activities only to find that the possible tornado was many miles away and of little threat to their part of the county.  This only leads to more people ignoring the warnings when they happen.

In Kansas City, a new tornado warning system is being piloted.  If it returns successful results, it may be rolled out to the rest of the country as well.  The idea here is to use effective terminology when describing tornado threats.  What meteorologists want to do is to provide some separation between an average twister and a huge one.  While tornado warnings will continue to be issued for all storms that may show tornadic symptoms, the worst storms will receive extra emphasis in warnings, with harrowing words like unsurvivable, catastrophic, and complete devastation becoming commonplace.

While this might be a positive change in some cases, it is hard to see how this will address the overall problem.  Meteorologists complain because too many people don’t heed the warnings issued.  But the statistics are not in their favor.  Out of every four tornado warnings the National Weather Service issues nationwide, only one of them ends up actually producing a tornado.  When you take this statistic and put it up against the hundreds of warnings issued each year, it’s easy to see how people have grown weary of warnings and have started to disregard them.  A better strategy would be to change the parameters of the warning system or add an intermediary warning to give people more clarification as to what they are up against.  Then, maybe using scary words would be effective in extreme cases.