HAVING too much time on your hands is a familiar problem, albeit a problem that's diminished in today's overscheduled society. How much time is too much when it comes to tornado warnings?
The question was raised this week in Washington as members of Congress mulled ways to manage weather warnings. This came in the wake of the evident chaos on May 31 in central Oklahoma. A local television meteorologist got unaccustomed criticism for how he handled reports of a tornadic storm moving east out of Canadian County.
TV weather forecasters are inured to grumbling about program interruptions and screen-blocking weather maps when “normal” severe weather shows up each spring. But this was different. On May 31, thousands of people were on the roads when the storm approached; some of them were motivated by what they were hearing on TV.
U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, wants to increase funding for weather research, a position that will no doubt draw sneers for a politician who usually wants to cut federal spending. At a Wednesday hearing in Washington, weather researchers and meteorologists discussed warning times and what people should do once a threat morphs from the possible to the likely.
Bridenstine's goal seems to be to lengthen warning times. But a University of Oklahoma weather researcher said the ultimate question is what people do with their time in response to a warning.
Nerves were frayed on May 31 because the tornado outbreak came so soon after the May 20 EF5 tornado in Moore that killed 24 people. Those victims were unable to secure adequate shelter. Had Moore not happened first, the reaction on May 31 could have been entirely different — and this includes how TV weathermen handled the storm.
Most of the 23 people killed on May 31 died not because of a tornado but by drowning. Some took shelter in the worst possible place during a heavy rain — a storm drain. The storm's tornadic element diminished as it crossed into Oklahoma County. Given the number of people in cars at the time the storm hit, the death toll could have eclipsed the highest yet recorded in this state. Fortunately it didn't, but fatalities mounted because of flash flooding. The eight people killed May 31 who didn't drown were in vehicles.
Kathryn Sullivan, acting director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said warning times aren't necessarily the key factor because “there's a genuine question about how humans respond to impending risks.” If they respond by increasing their vulnerability, it's a sign panic is trumping rationality.
While the National Weather Service plays an essential role in identifying threats and issuing warnings, people get their immediate information from TV forecasters, not academic weather researchers. We thus repeat a call we made June 5 for local TV weather teams to review how they handled May 31 and develop a less chaotic, more thoughtful approach. These people save lives, but they have a responsibility to help keep viewers calm. This means avoiding sensationalism that calls into question their objectivity.
Weather science is steadily evolving and vastly improved. In a state so devastated by violent weather, it's good that so much weather research is centered here. But government researchers can't dictate how TV weather teams conduct themselves. Just as we were reminded on May 20 of the importance of having adequate shelter to weather the most powerful tornadoes, we were reminded on May 31 that being in cars or storm drains is deadly.
We learned some things from both storms. What did the TV weather teams learn? How will they change their methods as a result? What people do in response to a warning is sometimes more important than how much lead time they have.