Sunday, April 22, 2012

An unusual picture

In the wake of the big tornado outbreak on April 14th, I'm still thinking back to that day and remembering particular radar images, different things we said, and some of the amazing storm shots we collected that night. There were so many unusual events taking place that night, such as 4 tornado emergencies issued in one night (Macksville, Conway Springs, south Wichita, and east Wichita). The other thing that was unusual (but not unheard of) is that the National Weather Service in Wichita (located by Mid-Continent Airport) turned their duties over to the National Weather Service office in Topeka. It is rare that during a big tornado outbreak, you would see the weather service operations center empty. But when the storm was coming out of northern Sumner county and approached Clearwater, we were informed the staff at the Wichita weather service office may in fact take cover. So as the storm rolled into Wichita, here is what their office looked like. I've had a first hand glance at the room in which they take shelter, and it's very small and reinforced for their safety.

Several people have asked what KWCH would do if a tornado approached our studio location on the north side of town. We have narrow hallways here and they are made of concrete, cinder blocks. That's where our staff would likely take cover in the event of a tornado, but we wouldn't take those precautions unless we were certain KWCH was going to take a direct hit. In my career, I've only signed off one time, and that was during my time at Channel 6 in Lawrence when a storm was coming right over the city and had been producing tornadoes. It's not something we like to do, but when it comes to safety, we don't take any chances.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Warning changes

You may have heard recently that there will be some minor changes in the severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings that are issued in parts of Kansas. I say "parts" because the National Weather Service offices in Wichita and Topeka are participating in an experimental project that will hopefully make the warnings issued more effective when the public gets the message. In the wake of more than 500 tornado deaths that occurred in 2011, an assessment conducted by meteorologists and social scientists found the public is getting complacent with the warnings.

If confidence is high that a destructive tornado will occur, words like "catastrophic" and "threat to human life" will be included in the warnings. If a tornado is possible, but not necessarily confirmed, words like "radar indicated" will be used in the bulletins. Still a serious situation, but maybe not life threatening at that time.

The hope is that people will perceive the most significant storms as possible life changing events and take the necessary steps to protect property and human life. Too many times when a tornado warning is issued, we have a tendency to want to go out and "see" with our own eyes what is going on. The other problem is that people wait for the tornado sirens to go off, and by then, you may only have seconds to react to the approaching storm. Research showed that the loss of life in Joplin was high because people waited to hear the sirens as their first means of getting the warning information.

There is no change in the criteria for a storm warning to be issued. It is still 1 inch hail, 58 mph wind or stronger, or tornadoes. So if you hear our team communicate warnings a little differently this spring and summer, you'll know what is going on. This is an experimental project, and based on its success, will determine if the rest of the country goes to this new method. So stay tuned.

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