Ins and outs of severe weather alerts

Cow-Calf Commentary

When I was a youngster way back in the 1960’s, I was fascinated by tornadoes. And quite concerned about them as well.

I think I was concerned because every thunderstorm seemed to bring on adult speculation about whether a tornado was in the offing. The stronger the storm, it seemed, the closer many adults edged toward tornado panic. They usually tried to hide their fear and worry, but it was there for all the world – including the “younguns” – to see.

Fortunately, there was a severe weather alerting system in place. I didn’t know it at the time, but the system was fairly new. Weather alerts were issued for specific areas and localities. They were issued by regional National Weather Service meteorologists, via teletype, to local law enforcement agencies and the media. Upon receipt of an alert, law enforcement and other emergency services providers would put their response plan into action, and the media – radio and television of course – would broadcast the alert.

There were basically four alert levels. A Thunderstorm Watch meant conditions were right for the formation of thunderstorms. A Thunderstorm Warning meant a thunderstorm was present in the area. A Tornado Watch meant conditions were right for a tornado to form. A Tornado Warning meant a tornado had actually formed and had been spotted nearby.

When a Thunderstorm Watch was issued, it was basically a reminder a thunderstorm might pop up at some point, so you should keep an eye on the sky while you went about your daily business.

A Thunderstorm Warning reminded you there was a thunderstorm present or nearby. Thunderstorms, as the language of the warning stated, can produce high winds, hail, and lightning. Though never explicitly spelled out, the message was clear. Take a close look at what the storm is doing and act accordingly. Maybe you should get yourself and your tractor out of the field. Maybe you should head your horse for the barn, or get off the lake or the golf course or get your kids out of the swimming pool. On the other hand, perhaps the storm was passing safely clear and you could continue with whatever activity you were engaged in, keeping a close eye on the weather just in case.

A Tornado Watch meant the weather in the area – usually including energetic thunderstorms – was conducive to tornado formation. In general, you were supposed to pay a little closer attention to the weather during a tornado watch and be aware of the increased chance of a tornado forming.

The Tornado Warning, however, was a different kettle of fish. A Tornado Warning meant a tornado had actually formed and been verified by a reliable observer. It was considered to be a real emergency, and with tornadoes being both unpredictable and destructive, it meant that you should take shelter immediately. In the basement. Or lacking a basement, in the strongest interior room of your house, preferably one without windows. If you lived in a mobile home, you could climb in the bathtub (which were all made of cast iron back in the day) and drag a mattress over the top of the tub. Or you could find a ditch to hunker down in.

I remember spending long, frightened minutes in dank, musty basements while tornadoes flailed about “somewhere nearby.” The experience was always too frightening to be an adventure.

But that was then.

Beginning several years ago, things changed. The National Weather Service began to issue Tornado Warnings based on radar data alone. It seemed that every time there was a thunderstorm in the area, I would get a television announcement and a reverse-911 call, saying, “The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning for Kimball County. At (time, say 6:15), National Weather Service Doppler Radar identified a thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado at (location) moving (direction and speed).” There was always a long spiel about taking precautions and an expiration time for the warning. The alerts are usually repeated every 10-15 minutes.

In my opinion, this was pretty much useless information, akin to Henny Penny claiming the sky was falling. In similar fashion, the false alarms took much of the power from the phrase “Tornado Warning.” People were hearing the phrase constantly, or at least whenever there were dark clouds in the sky. Human nature being what it is, “tornado warning” soon meant little more than “dark clouds.”

Perhaps the idea was sound, but I suspect those who designed the “new” alert system had never heard the fable of the boy who cried wolf. It’s also possible they were pre-defending themselves against criticism should a tornado actually strike.

In some sense, we’re fortunate tornadoes developing here in the tri-state region rarely exceed F-0 or F-1 power, producing winds from about 70-112 mph. Though still quite dangerous, they generally lack the destructive force of tornadoes formed at lower elevations.

Recently the NWS have improved on their warning methods and we’ve largely returned to the old system, but now with modern technological enhancements. This seems to be a good thing.

At the end of the day, though, we can’t rely on the NWS or any other agency to protect us from everything. When real things happen in the real world, we’re each of us still responsible to take care of ourselves. This isn’t a bad thing. We still have powerful minds and good analytical skills at our disposal, and we can all do our own tornado-potential analysis with each and every storm. There’s some very good information on tornadoes available on the internet (a lot of garbage, too, so read carefully). We can all prepare ourselves and use our own initiative to protect ourselves. Just like everyone did back in the old days. 

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