Weather forecaster Gary England played a crucial role in innovating tornado coverage at Oklahoma City’s KWTV Channel 9. His most important job is alerting audience members of severe weather.
England works in Oklahoma, the major thruway of Tornado Alley, where land is flat and tornadoes are easily followed. Helicopters and storm chasers follow the approaching storms and bring real-time tornado footage to viewers.
It’s television gold. Storm season is not only a dangerous time for citizens, but also a great thrill for closeted storm chasers wanting to see the power of a tornado from the comfort of their living room chairs. Television ratings skyrocket and competition for the best storm shots and the best storm coverage puts innovation at a premium.
This is not the case in smaller markets, such as that of Southern Illinois, where the hilly terrain makes storm chasing extremely dangerous and nearly impossible. In places like this, where weather is not a television event, where tornadoes are not followed from touchdown to dissolution, keeping viewers’ interest is more difficult. Jim Rasor, a meteorologist who works at WSIL TV Channel 3 in Carterville Ill., says his toughest job is dealing with complaints from fans upset that the latest episode of “The Bachelor” were pre-empted for storm coverage.
The 2011 tornado season was a tragic season in terms of lives lost and property damaged. More than 500 people died in a season that totaled some 1,200 tornadoes and four EF-5 rated tornadoes, the most powerful of all twisters.
A rash of tornadoes struck Alabama on April 27 resulting in over 300 deaths. In Joplin, Mo., more than 150 people died as an EF-5 tornado ripped through the town.
But the destruction of 2011’s tornados likely would have been worse without the work of television news weather reporters who got the news out about the oncoming tornadoes in a number of ways, from traditional newscasts to social media, including Facebook and Twitter.
But weather forecasting may have been part of the problem as well. A June 15 story in the Birmingham Times quotes local TV meteorologist James Spann saying repeated tornado warnings have numbed television audiences to approaching weather.
“I firmly believe apathy and complacency due to a high false-alarm ratio over the years led to inaction in many cases that could have cost lives,” Spann wrote in a June 8 blog.
Media tornado warnings have increased from some 100 per year in the 1980s to nearly 800 currently.
The reason is Doppler radar, which does such a good job of detects even the slightest tornadoes and cells that could produce bad weather. Doppler radar detects the speed of objects as well as the objects. It was originally used during the Cold War to detect incoming missiles, and is also used for air-traffic control and speed guns. When it comes to weather, advances in Doppler radar actually have made forecasters jobs more difficult as nearly 80 percent of the warnings detected by Doppler radar are false alarms.
“I ask the National Weather Service to consider stopping the use of tornado warnings when trying to catch small spin-ups within a
squall line (or QLCS),” Spann wrote in his blog. “These tornadoes rarely last more than a few minutes, and are next to impossible to detect in advance. And, in most cases, the greatest damage from a QLCS is from widespread damaging straight line winds, not tornadoes.”
For the most part, people in Joplin, worn out from numerous past tornado warnings, paid little attention to the tornado warnings that proved to correctly forecast the deadly tornadoes earlier this year. “I think that part of what happened in Joplin was people didn’t react to the warning,” Spann said. “They just assumed it was another warning and didn’t pay enough attention to it.”
The Joplin tornado was a “perfect storm” in England’s opinion. Weather stations provided 23 minutes of warning time for Joplin citizens to take cover but the size of the tornado, and the fact that Joplin is not considered a good weather market, helped create a major catastrophe.
“I’m aware it’s not a good weather market,” England said. “It’s easy to infer that the audience probably doesn’t know a lot about warnings and don’t know what to do and the other thing is that the tornado was just so darned huge. It was a giant tornado that was moving toward a group of people who were not weather aware.”
For those forecasting the weather for media outlets, that is the most difficult part. They can’t make people pay attention and sometimes a monster makes all the forecasting moot. But competition, education and a general desire to help the public prepare for the possibilities of a tornado provide people with an option for knowledge.
Oklahoma has had more than its share of storm-related tragedies over the years, and people in that state are aware of the dangers a tornado represents. But in other markets the attention span of the audience may depend on the direct link to a tornado touchdown.
“I presented a paper several years ago on how attitudes changed,” Rasor said.
He explained that the region avoided a major weather event for nearly 20 years.
“People had forgotten just how bad it could be. I’m telling you, in the 1990s, people just didn’t want me getting on television and talking to them about storms. They even complained when we ran a bug at the bottom of the television.”
A number of severe weather events occurred in the last decade and attitudes changed. Now, Rasor says that people are more receptive to weather interruptions. It’s still a balancing act. Rasor believes in letting programming continue until severe weather is imminent. Like many others, Rasor doesn’t want to numb the audience with too many appearances where no storm event happens.
“I guess it comes to education,” he said. “I try to educate people that if they see me on the television breaking in, then I believe it’s serious.”
It’s a difficult job. The amount of resources available doesn’t matter; covering tornadoes is one critical example of media serving their public. Keeping the public invested in their coverage may be the most difficult job of all. And saving lives is the final denominator in determining if media reached those people.