Lesson from Joplin: Heed warnings, meteorologist says



Most people don?t think a tornado will happen in their town, and for many in Joplin, Mo., May 22 seemed like just another day, according to information presented Feb. 16 at a storm spotter?s meeting in Marion.

Brad Ketcham, lead meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Wichita, spoke to more than 60 people attending the class in the USD 408 Marion Performing Arts Center.

?People in Joplin were out on a Sunday afternoon shopping, going on with their normal lives when a tornado decided to cut their town in half,? Ketcham said. ?For those who don?t think this will happen to them, then why are you here??

The answer, he said, is because those attending either want to help or make sure they are safe.

?Last year was a wake-up call for all of us,? he said. ?We had warnings out in advance, but we had the largest loss of life in over 50 years.?

He said the question is: Why did this happen? Kansas has had the highest number of severe-weather reports per county since 2000.


Risk signals

Ketcham said people find out about the risk for severe or hazardous weather in a variety of ways.

?One of the most logical ones are warnings from the National Weather Service,? he said. ?Another one that people still rely on is outdoor warning devices?sirens.?

Other risk signals include television, radio, social media (Facebook, Twitter), the telephone and the one people use a lot?but it can get them in trouble: their eyes.

?People try to get visual confirmation that they are in harm?s way,? he said.

Most people interviewed after the Joplin tornado said they waited for two or three risk signals before they decided to take cover, Ketchum said.

Many heard the warning siren 35 minutes in advance, but even though the sirens were sounding, nobody realized the magnitude of that tornado.

The problem is that two storms converged, Ketchum said.

Some people continued to watch television broadcasts and learned the tornado was spotted seven miles north of their location.

?Not a big deal, it looked like a regular storm to them,? he said. ?But how do you tell a regular storm from a bad one??

When the second siren sounded about 27 minutes before the tornado hit, which actually came from the southwest, too many risk signals had already been made.

The common denominator was that most people, Ketcham said, did not go for shelter immediately; instead, they sought clarification about the situation.

?That is the thing about human nature,? he said. ?We are very skeptical?maybe it will happen and maybe it won?t.?

People are getting complacent with warning signals, he said.

Ketchum cited the example of one man, who, instead of taking cover when the first siren sounded 30 minutes before the tornado hit, went out on his front porch to smoke a cigar.

?After the second round of sirens went off, and before the two storms converged becoming a monster tornado, the man still was standing outside as the tornado was starting to move into the city,? Ketchum said.

It wasn?t until the man?s wife yelled, ?basement,? that he actually went for shelter. Although his home was destroyed by the tornado, the man lived to tell the tale.

?Lucky for him, but how many times did it take for him to actually go and seek shelter??

Ketchum said the NWS does not sound the sirens; it is done on the local level. Yet many people still want to get confirmation and start watching television.

?Some people say NWS issues warnings all the time, and there is that chance you could become complacent,? he said.

Some counties in Alabama had five to six tornado warnings on April 27. During that day, more than 100 tornadoes were spotted in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia.

?This is also the day more than 200 people were killed,? Ketcham said. ?A 24-hour notice was issued that a high-risk, dangerous situation could occur.?

Know what is coming

Based on these two tragic situations, the NWS stresses that people should not only be good storm spotters, but also know what is coming at you and be safe.

?We are taking a different spin this year by going with the acronym ACES?which stands for Awareness, Communication, Escape Route and Safety Zone,? Ketchum said.

Awareness is about observing clouds and recognizing certain severe situations, he said. Ketcham spoke about the classic shelf cloud, wall clouds, supercell thunderstorms, squall lines and SLCs.

?SLCs,? he said, ?are what meteorologists call scary-looking clouds.?

Ketcham said he hopes people will become familiar with these situations and when it?s not a good idea to be complacent.

In a lot of situations, people who see a squall line wait until it rains before taking shelter

?When it comes to squall lines, worst is first, then comes the rain,? he said.

People at the Indiana State Fair didn?t have time to wait for the rain.

?It is the wind that causes most of the problems,? he said.

Becoming aware

Ketcham encourages people to visit the NWS website at: weather.gov/wichita. Once at the site, go to the outlook; there is a color-coded hazardous weather outlook for that day and days later in the week.

The color coding is 0 to 5 with 5 being the worst, he said.

?We cover 26 counties across southcentral and central Kansas,? he said.

He also recommended these websites: the Storm Prediction Center at spc.noaa.gov, the NWS Wichita?s YouTube at: youtube.com/user/NWSICT/ and the Online Spotter Training Course at meted.ucar.edu/training_course.php?id=23.

Ketcham said the NWS office wants people to be safe during severe weather and knowing when something is not right requires awareness.

For more information, call the Marion County Emergency Management office at 620-382-2144 or the NWS office at 316-942-8483.

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