Friday, March 02, 2007

Knowing When to Shut Up (and Let the Locals Talk)

Our thoughts and prayers are with the good people of Enterprise, Alabama; Americus, Georgia, and other areas hard-hit by yesterday's tornadoes and severe thunderstorms. As someone who spent most of his adult life in tornado alley, I know what they're going through. My elderly parents barely survived an F3 tornado that pummeled their home town less than a year ago. Their lives were saved by early warning from the National Weather Service and the local media, and by knowing what do do when a tornado threatened their community.

By comparison, it's always a bit interesting to watch the cable channels as they try to cover these destructive storms. Judging from some of the anchor comments I've heard, many of their talking heads (and their producers) know next-to-nothing about tornadoes, and the safety precautions associated with that particular weather threat. Perhaps we should be thankful that twisters don't routinely threaten New York or Los Angeles; I could only imagine the hysteria--and misinformation--associated with that type of coverage.

For example, after we learned that the high school in Enterprise had been hit by the storm, one cable anchor (perhaps on Fox) asked why school wasn't dismissed early, so students could presumably get home before the storm. As it turns out, the school was planning for dismissal when the twister struck, but the idea of relasing students early to dodge a storm threat is usually a bad idea, something than an anchor in New York might not understand. In rural areas--like Enterprise--most kids travel to and from school in buses or their family automobile. Leaving school to avoid a tornado theat, they could actually wind up driving into the path of a storm, particularly on "country" bus routes that take an hour--or longer--to complete.

As a result, many districts have a policy of keeping students at school until the threat has passed. In view of what happened at Enterprise High School, that might not seem like a smart idea, but it's based on sound reasoning and careful analysis of past tornadic events. ONe of the nation's worst tornado disaster involving a school occurred in April 1967, when a twister hit a school in Belvidere, Illinois, as they departed from the day. Thirteen students died, and more than 300 were injured; many of the victims were elementary students, already loaded onto buses in front of the school complex. Had the storm struck a few minutes earlier (while the students were still inside the building), the number of dead and injured would have been greatly reduced.

On another network, I heard an anchor ask a meteorologist how long the tornado threat would last. Apparently, she had heard that some people in Enterprise spent a couple of hours in their basement, as multiple severe storms passed through the area. To her credit, the weathercaster pointed out the difference between a tornado watch (conditions are favorable for development) and a tornado warning (a twister has been sighted, or indicated by Doppler Radar; take cover now). Judging from her question, the anchor seemed to suggest that all normal activity stops when a watch is issued, and students should be sent home from school. Again, I'm betting that the newsbabe in question hasn't spent a lot of time in the south or Midwest. Back in the Land of Faulkner (where I still have a home), you learn to keep an eye on the sky until the sirens sound, or your NOAA weather radio goes off. At that point, you follow the safety plan for your particular location.

One final note: as a "reformed" school teacher, I've spent plenty of time crouched in the hallways with my students, because of a tornado threat. Thankfully, my school was never struck, and I can only imagine what the students and teachers in Enterprise experienced yesterday. But, I cannot recall a single instance when school was dismissed early for a tornado or severe thunderstorm threat. Despite the tragedy in Alabama, it normally makes more sense to keep the students and faculty in the school building, rather than taking chances on the road.

But a lot of that "common sense" is lost on media types from the Big Apple. That's why they'd be better off by leaving tornado coverage to the folks who actually know the story--their local affiliates. Just tell your New York anchors to shut up, and plug in to the feed from a local station like WSFA-TV (the NBC station in Montgomery, AL, which was first on scene in Enterprise), or WBRC, the Fox affiliate in Birmingham that provided expert, wall-to-wall coverage of storms in central Alabama. Both FNC and MSNBC did that from time-to-time on Thursday, but the insistence of network anchors to "get a word in" added nothing to the coverage, and actually detracted from the local effort.


ADDENDUM: This story (from the U.K. Daily Mail) also hints that school officials screwed up by not dismissing classes early.

"Twister victims were told to stay in school"

But, you'll also note that the article states that weather conditions had grown so bad by 11 a.m. that students could not be sent home early. Based on everything I've read, I think the school officials in Enterprise made a difficult--but correct--call.

BTW, check out the comments threat for the Daily Mail story. A woman from London claims that most U.S. homes are built "out of cardboard" and wonders why the U.S. government allows this practice in 2007 (remember: it's George Bush's fault). Needless to say, her misinformed post attracted a lot of American responses, including many from tornado-prone areas. They set her straight on U.S. home construction, and tornado safety.


Mike H. said...

I'm convinced that a lot of those newspeople honestly think that nature can be scheduled or the effects mitigated by human action. They don't realize that the effects are mitigated until the full force of the event hits.

A.C. McCloud said...

I feel for the parents. Obviously they are going to second guess the decision out of grief, with the clueless 24/7 media fanning the flames to satisfy their constant quest for ratings.

This same kind of thing happened here in Memphis last Spring. There was a high risk of tornadoes, and the local school system decided to release early (first I'd ever heard of it for thunderstorms) and consequently the supercells came thru right as they were releasing. Fortunately no schools were hit, but it goes to show the difficultly in these kinds of calls.