As Midwest storm bears down, forecasters use more urgent voice in tornado warnings

The National Weather Service is testing phrases like 'catastrophic' and 'unsurvivable' to describe looming storm systems in a bid to engage Americans’ survival instincts. Saturday's tornado-bearing storm was called 'high-end' and 'life-threatening.'

Gene Blevins/Reuters
Storm clouds gather near the water tower of Benkelman, Nebraska Thursday. Forecasters are warning of a possible major tornado outbreak in the Midwest this weekend, with Kansas and Oklahoma seen at particular risk as early as Saturday.

As a massive storm system crawling into the Midwest sent tornadoes touching down in Norman, Okla., on Friday, the National Weather Service sent out an unusually early and strongly-worded warning, suggesting the system could become a “high-end, life threatening event” through Saturday.

"We're quite sure [Saturday] will be a very busy and dangerous day in terms of large tornadoes in parts of the central and southern plains," National Weather Service spokesperson Chris Vaccaro told the Associated Press. "The ingredients are coming together."

Last year’s devastating tornadoes in Alabama and an early, violent start to this year’s tornado season has forecasters testing a more active, urgent voice to better communicate storm warnings to Americans.

Other phrases being tested, though not in today’s outbreak, are “mass devastation,” “catastrophic” and “unsurvivable” – all deviations from the weather service’s traditional monotone recitation of warnings and watches.

Whether more alarmism will actually help break through a “cry wolf” immunity that many Americans exhibit toward tornado warnings – even sirens – is an open question. But it was clear from the strong, early warnings about today’s storms that the National Weather Service is becoming more proactive in trying to communicate both storm severity and potential impacts.

Forecasters are expecting tornadoes, baseball-sized hail and 70 miles-per-hour winds across parts of Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas as the system moves out of the Rockies, fueled by warm air from the Gulf of Mexico. Erratic upper atmospheric winds could help start tornadoes spinning, forecasters say.

"All the pieces of the pie are coming together to make a particularly dangerous situation,” according to Accuweather meteorologist Paul Walker.
Issuing a high-risk warning 24 hours ahead of the potential event is extremely rare for NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center, in Norman, which barely escaped damage when a tornado touched down nearby on Friday. In fact, it had only happened once before, in 2006, when almost 100 tornadoes struck across the South, killing 12 people and damaging 1,000 homes.

Weather scientists continue to fine-tune new radar and Doppler technology that make it possible to more accurately predict possible tornado strike zones, work hastened by last year’s massive and deadly tornado outbreak in Alabama and several destructive, tornado-bearing storms that have already dogged the Midwest and parts of the South this year.

But amid evidence that even tornado sirens at times don’t alarm residents, the NWS says better forecasting isn’t enough. Communication, too, has to fit the times and the circumstance, officials say. Too often, warnings sound too much alike. The service is testing the new language in five locations in Missouri and Kansas, and an academic team in North Carolina will investigate findings this fall, after the end of tornado season.

“We’d like to think that as soon as we say there is a tornado warning, everyone would run to the basement,” Ken Harding, a weather service official in Kansas City, told the Associated Press last month. “That’s not how it is. They will channel flip, look out the window or call neighbors. A lot of times people don’t react until they see it.”

"With three out of four times that tornado warnings are issued by the National Weather Service, they are false alarms,” adds NBC-17 meteorologist Bill Reh, in Raleigh. “I think people get desensitized and they might not act,” he told the station.

So are more colorful, urgent warnings warranted or will storm-prone Americans toss it off as hyperbole? A lot will likely depend on how accurately the stronger language correlates with the actual severity of the storms.

“We live in town and hear the sirens fairly often…. We may have become a little desensitized…. So hearing ‘unsurvivable above ground,’ would probably make us heed the warning more closely,” writes Lona Guntharp Culbertson on Facebook.

“I think these ‘new wording’ tornado warnings will do nothing but create panic,” writes Rana Gordon Sullivan, also on Facebook. “People are already nervous and anxious on a weather alert day and I feel that the new warnings will be counterproductive.”

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