The “no warning” libel

It happens without fail every year, sometimes several times a year. The world learns that a tornado has ravaged part of America, and it wants to hear more details about what transpired. Reporters swarm in, armed with colorful digit-bearing microphones, and ply the locals for their stories of heartbreak and heroism. Words and images are collected, spliced, and reassembled. A maelstrom of pallid, shell-shocked residents, insulation imitating Spanish moss, and neighbors embracing among splintered homes are beamed to orbiting satellites from dishes.

Whenever I sense one of these pieces is about to air on the evening news, I grit my teeth, as do many of my colleagues. Here it comes…

“There was no warning.”

It’s happened more times than I can count. Reporters seem to go out of their way to find someone, anyone, who claims to have had no warning. And often, they succeed. People gathering up scattered possessions in the wreckage of their homes and lives appear to blurt out, “We had no warning,” as though on cue.

It happened yesterday. During the overnight hours of 22 January, a tornado outbreak impacted “Dixie Alley” in the southeast U.S., and horribly, two fatalities were confirmed. The outbreak occurred overnight, compounding the difficulties in disseminating warnings. The following evening, Dianne Sawyer led off the ABC World News cast thusly:

“Something terrifying took the South by surprise last night. No warning. Twenty-five tornadoes striking in less than 24 hours, roaring through four states in the darkness. And this was the scene today in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, where entire neighborhoods were wiped out as families slept. At least two are dead, one hundred injured.”

“No warning” is such a familiar refrain, it’s practically a joke. Granted, we meteorologists are accustomed to being the butt of jokes. But “no warning” is worse than a tired tagline or an injurious cliché. It’s a libel that impugns the reputations of my colleagues in the National Weather Service (NWS).

Libel is not too strong a word, because in most instances, a claim of “no warning” (i.e., zero or negative lead time) is unequivocally false. For starters, look at the archived products from the Storm Prediction Center for 22 January 2012. Every Day 1 Convective Outlook issued from 1200 UTC (6:00 a.m. CST) on contains a moderate risk over the outbreak region, the second-highest category of risk and “tornado” appears in the discussion. Tornado watch boxes, many of which were tagged “PDS” (particularly dangerous situation), popped up across the region as early as 5:20 p.m. CST, hours before residents went to bed.

But those are large-scale outlooks spanning several states. What about warnings? The NWS office in Little Rock, AR issued 12 tornado warnings on 23 January (UTC time). The Birmingham, AL office issued 16. The list goes on. Informal accounts from colleagues within the NWS indicate that many of the tornadoes had 20 or more minutes of warning lead time. (The mean lead time for a tornado warning currently stands at 9.5 minutes; Simmons and Sutter 2005.) NWS personnel have no cause to lie or exaggerate on this point, because the warnings, watches, and discussions are all a matter of permanent public record.

But death sells. People die in a tornado, and survivors ask, “Why?” Is anyone to blame when such a violent, seemingly random act of atmospheric violence steals or maims a loved one? Appearing to malign the victims is not an option, even when, by all accounts, the victims are unable, unwilling, or simply too disengaged to even be cognizant of imminent danger. Neither is laying the blame on supernatural powers (for fear of rousing the ire of nonbelieving viewers) or pure chance (which it is not). Who’s left? The organization mandated to issue timely and accurate weather forecasts and alerts to the public: the NWS. NWS personnel are likely to be tied up in the immediate aftermath doing damage surveys and service assessments, and perhaps less likely to respond to such criticisms. So, falling back on the “No Warning” tag line is a safe choice. The viewer is left in a “No Warning” echo chamber. Outrage builds. Legislators demand answers. Something Must Be Done. Despite having carried out their duty to the best of their ability, NWS’s reputation can only erode in the face of such repeated, inaccurate reporting.

The NWS is not a faceless government entity. Flesh-and-blood-human forecasters and support staff work there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in largely invisible service to millions of people who will probably never thank them. I know a handful of these forecasters, many of them former classmates. Without exception, they are passionate about their work, despite meager pay, grueling hours, and routinely having to endure slings and arrows of misinformed public opinion.

As a consumer, I challenge ABC to publicly correct the erroneous “No Warning” newscast from 23 January. I would also like to challenge members of the media to verify claims of “no warning” before they are repeated in a national broadcast. Call the NWS office responsible. If you can’t get an answer, query databases of severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings. Here’s one from the University of Iowa that takes only a few seconds to search. (Hint: the prefix for a tornado warning is “TOR”, Ctrl+F will get you a quick count.)

What alternative tack would I suggest? There were other likely contributing factors to the 22 January fatalities that could serve as a starting point for inquiries. For example, residents may not have been as tuned in to the weather as they would have been during the typical “Dixie Alley” storm season (roughly March through May). Nocturnal tornadoes are known to be a disproportionate source of tornado fatalities, because they catch victims in a diminished state of awareness (Ashley et al. 2008).

Remember that viewers at home are the other end of the weather information conduit. If they’re tuned out, all the warnings in the world won’t make one iota of difference. Hook viewers in and empower them with accurate weather safety information well in advance of storm season. Showcase weather radio and publicize severe weather preparedness events every year. Eventually, the defamation of “no warning” will ring as hollow as it truly is, and be replaced by, “Everyone did everything they possibly could have.”

References:
Ashley, Walker S., Andrew J. Krmenec, Rick Schwantes, 2008: Vulnerability due to Nocturnal Tornadoes. Wea. Forecasting, 23, 795–807.
Simmons, Kevin M., Daniel Sutter, 2005: WSR-88D Radar, Tornado Warnings, and Tornado Casualties. Wea. Forecasting, 20, 301–310.