Forecasters Review Violent Storm Warning Message

By KELLY P. KISSEL | May 6, 2016

After warning for days about violent storms that could rake the central U.S. with huge hail, high winds and strong tornadoes, forecasters will review whether the messages they sent were appropriate for severe weather that some considered a “bust” because the tornadoes that did develop were small.

NOAA Storm Prediction Center severe weather forecast for 4/26/2016
NOAA Storm Prediction Center severe weather forecast for 4/26/2016

Storms on Tuesday brought grapefruit-sized hail in Kansas and winds near 75 mph throughout the Great Plains and Missouri River Valley. But the tornadoes that formed lacked enough of the “right” ingredients to become monster storms.

“We had signals that it could be on the higher end,” said Bill Bunting, the operations chief at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. “But each system is different, and (this one) didn’t live up to our expectations.”

The center for the first time had said six days out that a severe weather “outbreak” was possible – raising questions on whether it was appropriate to sound a general alarm that far in advance.

“The one thing missing was what the hazards were,” said Kim Klockow, a visiting scientist at the National Weather Service who studies meteorology and human behavior. “It was always entirely possible there would be tornadoes and it was possible there won’t be.”

The Storm Prediction Center doesn’t quantify the chance of specific hazards in its forecasts until the day the storms are expected. On Tuesday, it predicted that the central U.S. had a “moderate risk” of severe weather based on a 45 percent chance of 1-inch hail, with at least a 10 percent chance of 2-inch hail. The center said there was a lesser risk of tornadoes.

Klockow, who was brought aboard to help forecasters communicate their messages more effectively, said the solution lies not only with the Storm Prediction Center but with all charged with spreading the news about bad weather. She noted that some broadcasters talked up tornadoes as though they were certain.

“No single one of us communicates alone. We need to be on the same sheet of music,” she said.

The dire predictions led several Oklahoma school districts to shutter their doors. Businesses cleared inventory from exposed areas, fearing the worst.

“So many people were sheltering for the tornado, I would be surprised if there wasn’t some talk of a bust,” Klockow said.

Marshall Shepherd, a former president of the American Meteorological Society, a professor and director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia and the host of a Sunday talk show on the Weather Channel, noted in an email to The Associated Press that forecasters and the public often focus on tornadoes when discussing severe weather.

“I think the communication of (a) severe weather threat is still tornado dominant,” Shepherd said. “The overall event was generally ok, the `bust’ is in the hyper-discussion and anticipation of an outbreak.”

In a piece that he wrote for Forbes on Wednesday, Shepherd said some discussion of a “bust” is likely fair after the hype of Tuesday’s storms. “However,” he went on to say, “I frequently encourage society to move beyond the notion of being upset when preparing for the worst and it does not happen. Just say thank you.”

Klockow said she would like to know how people handled information they received before and during the storms’ development – using actual data, not just anecdotes from people tweeting about what was perceived as a flawed forecast.

She said she also would like to see the National Weather Service collect data on social behaviors, like the agency already does on how storms come together.

“It’s a physical science agency,” Klockow said. “The pressure will need to come externally to bring that to the attention of the agency.”

Bunting, whose team made the forecast, said the pre-storm outlooks succeeded in drawing attention to the weather, even if storms weren’t entirely as bad as expected.

“We always have to work to improve how we present information,” he said.

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