Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Headline We Should Have Seen -- But Didn't

These are the actual headlines:

I would like to suggest they missed the biggest story. If I were the headline writer, this is what I would have written:

Tornadoes Strike Metroplex
No Deaths, Few Injuries Thanks to Modern Meteorology
Instead, this is was on the Dallas Morning News' web site:

This morning, Mayor Mike Rawlings and City Manager Mary Suhm provided a brief update on yesterday's tornadoes.

There was substantial property damage in southeast Dallas. But at City Hall, as in the rest of the city, the main feeling was that of relief that the storms weren't as catastrophic as they could have been.

No one was killed and injuries were limited.

"We were very, very lucky. And thank God for the protection he provided," Suhm said.

Rawlings said he and Suhm went out yesterday to survey the damage."It was amazing no one was hurt in the city of Dallas," he said.

While we should always be thankful for the blessings of Divine Providence, this is almost insulting to the meteorological profession.

In 1957, before today's tornado warnings existed, a single tornado struck north Dallas. Ten were killed. Yesterday, multiple tornadoes struck the 5th largest metropolitan area in the U.S. and no one was killed even though far more buildings and homes were affected!

Yes, luck always plays a role but that fact is the timely watch and warnings from the NWS, from the local television and radio meteorologists, and from AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions to our commercial clients
are largely responsible for this happy outcome.

The Dallas Morning News' editorial writers got it mostly correct (there were factual errors earlier in the editorial) when they wrote this morning:

The Emergency Alert System provided early warning that North Texas was in the bull’s-eye this time. Schools took heed and moved students into shelters — some multiple times. Instead of releasing students as the school day ended, some administrators exercised well-placed caution and kept them right where they belonged — inside concrete-and-steel buildings that offered a far greater prospect of safety. Heavy damage to an Arlington nursing home also, miraculously, does not appear to have inflicted major injuries.
Smart thinking spared lives.
The television coverage was nothing short of phenomenal. One helicopter crew hovered over southern Dallas County as a tornado raked its way over homes and industrial complexes. It was one of those rare occasions where viewers could witness nature’s raw power as the tornado lifted multiple tractor-trailer rigs more than a hundred feet into the air and hurled them around like ragdolls.
Meanwhile, weathercasters’ constant attention to radar screens and explanations of how the patterns signified new tornado activity made absolutely clear that this was a storm system to be taken with deadly seriousness. That’s how you save lives.

Immediately below is a story about the crash of Southern Flight 242 after an encounter with a severe thunderstorm 35 years ago today. Thunderstorms used to be the leading cause of airline crashes in the U.S and we'd have one every twelve to eighteen months. The last one was 18 years ago! This, too, is no coincidence. Through the hard work of Dr. Ted Fujita, Dr. John McCarthy, and others, thunderstorm-related crashes in the U.S. have nearly been eliminated.

But, if people do not know how good the warnings have become, they won't take them seriously. So, we lost 551 lives to tornadoes in 2011 even though 99% of the deaths came in areas where both tornado watches and warnings were in effect at the time of the storms' arrival.

I'm so passionate on this topic, I wrote a book on the subject that was published two years ago.  You can read the first chapter here. The book, I believe, will convince you that warnings are worthy of your attention and action.

Regardless of whether you read Warnings, please take tornado warnings seriously this spring. You life may truly depend on it. 


  1. DFW is 4th largest MSA according to 2010 Census. That's nit-picking :)

    Obviously the advances in tornado monitoring, detection, and awareness heavily contributed to the amazing lack of fatalities yesterday. However, you are seriously discounting the fact that they got really lucky with the timing of those storms. Do you really think if that weather broke out at 4pm local time the fatality results would be the same? Or if the outbreak occurred overnight?

  2. Having grown up in east-central KS, in the heart of Tornado Alley, I think the development and refinement of Doppler radar systems is nothing short of phenomenal. These can show meteorologists the rotation inside a wall cloud even when visual observation is impossible due to dark skies and pouring rain, and you're able to get warnings out, often a half hour before a tornado even forms, with the storm track cone laid out showing when each town in the projected path should expect it to hit them.

    When I was a kid, the forecasters could tell us a big storm was coming, but couldn't call a tornado warning until someone had visual confirmation. By then, it could already have killed people.

  3. The 1957 tornado occurred in daylight and destroyed 120-140 homes. I'm hearing estimates of 500+ homes destroyed yesterday which means far more were exposed, yet a much better outcome. Clearly, the warnings played a major role...and at least some victims are explicitly confirming.

    Of course, the middle of the night would likely have been much different.

    Thanks for letting me know DFW = #4.

  4. I suspect that one of the most significant factors in keeping the death and injury toll down was the wall to wall live TV coverage of the approaching tornadoes with news choppers (I live in central Illinois but watched some of the live streaming from WFAA and KXAS yesterday).

    We know from last year's service assessments that people want confirmation -- preferably visual confirmation -- of a tornado threat beyond simply hearing a siren or a simple tornado warning announcement. Well, visual confirmation doesn't get much better than seeing semi trailers tossed into the air on live TV!

    It helps, of course, to be in a TV market with the resources to employ helicopters and trained pilots/photographers. Smaller stations often use tower cams and these too can provide dramatic images (as they did in Tuscaloosa and Joplin), but they can't see the tornado unless it happens to be in camera range, nor can they show the destruction on the ground as well as a chopper cam can.


  5. I also greatly agree with the points Elaine made, growing up in Central Oklahoma and having KFOR, KOCO, and News9 i have become spoiled. Having media visually tracking a tornado block by block is invaluable in my opinion. Between their tracking ability and the way they "educate" their viewers on different types of radar signatures and velocities, you tend to really see a difference in the fatality rate.

    I was appalled earlier this year when i was watching the streaming live coverage of various media stations during the March 2nd outbreak. A particular media station either didn't have much of a clue what they were looking at or severely downplaying the dangerous situation. I think as most of us saw those storms had perfect radar signatures and even debris ball. However the media in some locations was treating it as just a thunderstorm that had a tornado warning on it.

    Anyway i'll stop my rant, but it just blows my mind sometimes how so many people can ignore severe warnings and end up getting killed because of it.


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