Monday, November 07, 2005

With Little Warning

It's always interesting to watch themes develop in media coverage of any breaking news event. Last night's deadly tornado that swept across Southwest Indiana is no exception. During the hours that followed the killer storm, most major media outlets (including our friends at Reuters) reported that the tornado was unexpected, and struck with very little warning.

In a severe weather event, such words carry a powerful connotation, suggesting that somehow the National Weather Service was asleep at the swtich, and failed to provide adequate warning to residents of the Ohio Valley. Was that the case Sunday morning, when the deadly storm ripped apart a race track near Henderson, Kentucky, then skipped across the Ohio River and slammed into nearby Evansville, Indiana?

I'm not a meterologist, but I have a long-time interest in severe weather, dating back to my childhood in the Midwest, where tornadoes were always a threat. Later, as a print and broadcast journalist, I covered the aftermath of deadly storms in several states, and delivered countless weather bulletins to my audience. Along the way, I developed an appreciation for the professionals at the Storm Prediction Center (who issue severe weather watches) and the local NWS offices, who issue warnings for affected areas. I also learned quickly that severe weather forecasting is an inexact science at best, despite such technological advances as Doppler Radar, which provide better detection of severe weather--and earlier warnings--than in the past.

In isolated cases, the Weather Service has failed to detect severe weather, most notably during a March, 1998 tornado in northern Georgia that killed 12 people, and prompted a lengthy internal investigation.

Thankfully, that was apparently not the case last night. Based on information from the NWS in Paducah, KY (which covers the affected area), a tornado warning for the Henderson storm was issued at 1:28 a.m., roughly 30 minutes before it crossed the river and slammed into Evansville. Twenty to thirty minutes of warning is considered acceptable by NWS standards, giving residents enough time to take shelter.

So why were so many people caught unprepared? Due to the late hour, many were already in bed, their radios and TVs turned off. By some accounts, local warning sirens sounded late (or not at all), suggesting that fire departments and other agencies that active the sirens may have been slow to react, or simply not expecting a tornado in early November. In some instances, the approaching storm cut power lines, leaving the sirens silent.

The loss of life in Indiana is tragic, and given the hour the storm struck, perhaps difficult to prevent. There will almost certainly be a review of disaster planning and preparedness in the wake of the storm, and it will likely on local responses, and not the warning provided by the NWS. Based on what we know right now, the NWS appears to have done its job, although the lack of a tornado watch at the time the storm struck is a bit puzzling.

Last night's tornado is also a remember that we, as individuals, have a responsibility to be prepared for a weather emergency. Something as simple as a battery-powered NOAA weather radio could have made a difference--and saved lives--last night.

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