Sunday, June 9, 2013

Call Off the "Impact-Based Warning" Experiment

Friday, I wrote about multiple NOAA employees unfairly criticizing an Oklahoma City television meteorologist.  That posting is here. Their first criticism was based around the TV station suggesting viewers without shelters drive out of path. I covered that Friday. The second criticism was based on "over the top" (my phrase) language. I want to cover that in more detail today.

I've commented on the three National Weather Service - Wichita forecasts of "deadly" tornadoes, "catastrophic" damage, and "complete destruction of neighborhoods...will occur" that (thankfully!) were utterly wrong in a space of just 13 months. This language is part of a program called "Impact-Based Warnings" (IBW) that is a response to the terribly flawed "Service Assessment" of the Joplin tornado.

I received this response to that blog posting via email:

As for the tornado warnings issued during the Wichita even on 5/19, I thought the dire consequences of assured death and mayhem were a little over the top, especially if you’re trying to inspire the public to prepare for this threat with calm, resolute, and orderly emergency response. [ Son's name ] and I were in our basement in a safe place, with all of the recommended emergency supplies and equipment, and he and I had already discussed how we would react to a worst case scenario. We were as ready as anyone could be. But our NOAA weather radio was blaring away about large destructive tornadoes, killing everyone and destroying everything in its path while I was trying to stay calm and keep [son] from freaking out at the same time. All I could think of, at the time, was, “Gee, this isn’t the way to not inspire panic!” 

I have been a critic of the IBW since its inception for the simple reason we simply don't have the scientific skill to forecast the strength evolution of individual tornadoes, plus trying to scare people into shelter is just not a good idea. When the program was first announced, on February 16, 2012, I wrote,
"Ka-BOOM! That is the sound of the National Service blowing up the severe thunderstorm and tornado warning system that has served us so very well for so many years." That entire posting is here.

As the IBW language continued to fail, I continued to criticize it (see here and here for just two examples). My concern: If we keep telling people it is the "tornadic end of the world" and nothing happens, will they ever believe an 'ordinary' tornado warning again? 

So, what, exactly, does this language say? Here it is (emphasis mine) from three Sundays ago:
What happened? Nothing! Not a single home in Wichita was damaged by a tornado!

So, when a TV station in OKC, the same day as the above, used similar language, what did a NOAA employee write?

Many in the tornado safety community are concerned about an inappropriate message that seems to have become very popular recently, but that differs significantly from the basic safety idea. Some broadcast meteorologists have offered the advice that “if you don’t get underground, you won’t survive.” Sometimes, it’s couched in terms of “this tornado is so severe, the usual advice doesn’t work” or “you can’t survive an EF5 above ground.” The message suggests that even in-residence shelters built to the design specifications of the Texas Tech wind engineering groups and the FEMA standards won’t survive.
This advice is wrong and providing it is irresponsible at best, and dangerous at worst.
So, the last three days, in the wake of the El Reno tornado, we have had the unseemly spectacle of multiple NOAA and National Weather Service employees criticizing television stations for using this same language without ever pointing out their agency does the same thing! The above criticism, in its entirety, is here. [The other examples are on Facebook and you must be Facebook friends to see them.] (Addition 8:45pm Sunday, no sooner did a I post this than an ex-NWS meteorologist blamed another broadcast meteorologist.)

From where I sit, this entire "impact-based warnings" experiment has become a fiasco. It is fracturing the meteorological community, and it serving no one in a constructive manner. IBW has the potential to cause people to fail to respond to tornado warnings at the cost of their lives.

There is only one conclusion that I can reach:

I call on the National Weather Service to immediately terminate the Impact Based Warnings experiment before it does more damage to the credibility of the tornado warning system. 

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