Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tale of Two Newspaper Stories

Later this morning, I'm doing a presentation on mitigating the business risks of extreme weather to a group of CEOs. I'm typing this sitting at the breakfast table at a hotel in beautiful northern Michigan. I picked up a USA Today because I was hoping to see the article for which I was interviewed yesterday. I often refer to meteorology as the "Rodney Dangerfield of Sciences" for the lack of recognition for our life-saving contribution. So, I was really hoping my colleagues would get some recognition.

The front page headline, in bold type, How Could So Many Have Survived? Great, I thought. The words of praise for the NWS and the emergency management community would be there. As I read, my hope waned. It quotes a Republican Congressman who "thought [the death toll] could easily be in the triple digits."

The rest of the story, however, missed the point. It attributes the low death toll to, "luck, happenstance, timing, faith, heroics, preparation, and the seasoned experience that comes with living in the heart of Tornado Alley for the relatively low victim count."  The article goes on to tell of teachers shouting for their students go get into hallways and get down. If you wish to read that story, it is here.

But, how did the teachers know the tornado was coming? How did people know it was time to take shelter and how to save their lives?

Readers have to go to USA Today's web site to read the primary reason so many survived. In a story titled 16-Minute Tornado Warning Saved Lives (sigh!) a fuller picture emerges. But, you have to read a while. It starts:
Sixteen minutes.
That's how much of a warning the residents of suburban Oklahoma had before a tornado dropped out of a cloud onto the ground a few miles west of Newcastle, Okla.

But, if you keep reading,

The warning system for this tornado "worked well," said AccuWeather meteorologist Mike Smith.
Also, while the warning for the tornado was "only" 16 minutes, the tornado didn't hit the center of Moore until about 34-36 minutes later, he adds.
Additionally, "the area had been warned for days" that severe storms were possible, [Dr. Marshall] Shepherd adds, and a tornado "watch" was issued more than two hours before it hit Moore, Smith says.
The story still doesn't have it completely right. The "16-minutes" refers to the time from when the tornado warning was issued (scroll down to posting below) at 2:40 pm to when the tornado first touched down in an empty field west of Newcastle, Oklahoma. Newcastle had about 23-minutes of warning.

The west part of Moore had 36 minutes of warning. It crossed Interstate 35 an amazing 42 minutes after the warning was issued!

So, yes, we get some recognition but one has to search to find it.

A rare exception this morning is the local Oklahoma media. There is a story about David Andra, the chief meteorologist of the NWS office in Norman, that issued the excellent warnings for Moore. His daughter's home was made uninhabitable by the tornado. 

Some Other Thoughts Before I Give My Talk

Congratulations are also due to my colleagues at AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions for their outstanding work warning our clients (and we have several) in Moore. Nice, nice job!!

I've easily had ten emails and other communications asking, "Why don't schools have safe rooms?" Wichita's schools do and pioneered their installation. Other districts may wish to emulate Wichita. That story, from The Wichita Eagle, is here.

If you have found all of this interesting the last few days, I recommend my book Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather. It is a book about the people and the storms that lead to the creation of the amazing warning system that saved so many lives in Moore. 

A reader posted a new review at Amazon (where the book enjoys a 5-star rating) yesterday. The review, in part, states:

This book is really interesting because it tells the story of how people and technology changed everyone's lives. There are also interesting stories for those who enjoy severe weather.


  1. Well Mike I for one appreciate EVERYTHING you guys do. When I moved to Kansas in 1988 with a house full of kids I educated myself on the area's severe weather listening to every word you,Dave Shaffer and Jim O'Donnell said .Having lived in Calif. most of my life one can easily become used to good weather and my ex-wife was a good example.I bought a small farm south of South Haven and I remember our first "scare" like it was yesterday.Living on the border and only having 3 channels made it tough to keep a close eye on the radar but the last thing I remember hearing was a "large tornado on the ground" around Pond Creek, Okla.It was already dark so knowing that most tornado's move SW to NE I decided to gather us up much to my ex's dismay who didn't want to get wet.We went to a church and stayed in the basement until the threat passed along with about 100 other people. Locally that tornado was know as the "Blackwell Lake Tornado". It struck the Blackwell Lake area then made a jog left as it moved NE and struck a farmstead about 1 1/2 miles from ours. Fortunately it was spring break and the people weren't home. It took their double wide mobile home while leaving the hand built sturdy mud room. It killed 100's of hogs on the farm and tore up most of the out buildings to shreds. The next day I drove by with my wife and told her the next time I say head for shelter don't argue.

  2. As an arrival in Wichita from Alaska last August, I can tell you that your blog has become must reading. I know in Valley Center we had plenty of information about expected weather for Saturday and Sunday long before our sirens sounded in late afternoon on Sunday. It is critically important to pay attention to the information and take it seriously. We headed for our safe room very quickly and my daughters made me proud of them with their calmness. The radio coverage here was also excellent through the entire Wichita warning. I have found I will easily sleep through the siren, so I am glad we invested in a weather alert radio. Anyway thanks for all the good information.

  3. Welcome to Wichita, Carlsons! We are very glad to have you.

    Yes, Wichita radio and TV do an excellent job with severe coverage.

    Thank you for the comment.


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