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With weather warnings, how people use their lead time is key

by The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: June 28, 2013

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.

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by The Oklahoman Editorial Board
The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Gary Pierson, President and CEO of The Oklahoma Publishing Company; Christopher P. Reen, president and publisher of The Oklahoman; Kelly Dyer Fry, editor and vice president of news; Christy Gaylord...
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