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Weather Experts Mull over Getting Information out Quickly and Simply

Social media is also a tremendous tool for emergency managers and they should be using it more, in most cases.

by Jeff Fox, The Examiner, Independence, Mo. / February 21, 2017

(TNS) - As the Midwest edges toward what is typically the season of its most active and severe weather, meteorologists, emergency managers and others are looking at simpler ways to communicate messages than can save lives.

Some changes are in the works, taking effect late in 2017

"That's kind of what we're after: short, sweet and to the point," said Mike Hudson of the National Weather Service.

In the meantime, emergency managers and others remind people that the severe thunderstorms that bring damaging winds, tornadoes, hail, heavy rain and flooding are likely only weeks away. Missouri's Severe Weather Awareness Week is March 5-11, and the statewide severe weather drill – sirens will sound, people are encouraged to act it out as if it were the real thing – is at 10 a.m. March 7.

Severe weather takes a toll. According to the Weather Service, 34 tornadoes were recorded in Jackson County from 1950 through 2016, roughly one every other year, and those tornadoes caused 37 deaths (many of them in the 1957 Ruskin Heights tornado).

Although that is the most dramatic thing a thunderstorm can produce, lightning kills dozens nationwide annually, and flash flooding took 27 lives in Missouri in 2015 alone.

So, what to do? Aside from basic preparations – supplies in the basement, supplies in the car, a good flashlight, a weather radio – emergency managers stress the need to keep an eye out for weather in the spring especially. Know what's brewing, and check in with broadcast media.

But there's an app for everything, right? And Twitter and Facebook are just as fast, right?

National Weather Service officials and others are trying to keep up with that phenomenon.

"It's a tremendous tool. ...; We all struggle with having enough resources," Sharon Watson, public affairs and communications director for Johnson County, said this week at an "Integrated Warning Team" meeting hosted in Kansas City by the Weather Service. It was a chance for meteorologists, emergency managers and broadcast journalists to compare notes on how effectively the word gets out when the weather turns potentially dangerous.

Watson's message to her colleagues: Whatever you're doing on social media, it's probably not enough.

Social media give people more means to check out information on bad weather, and that leads into one of the main topics the meteorologists and others returned to again and again in their conversation – that this is as much about psychology as it is about meteorology.

Think about it, the experts say. What do you do when a severe thunderstorm warning – even a tornado warning – is announced? Head for the basement? Not likely.

Instead, emergency managers say, people seek confirmation. They flip the channel. They call a friend or relative. They step outside and look up.

"They will check constantly. They will go from source to source to source to check if it's real," said Dennis Cavanaugh of the Weather Service.

The hitch, he said, is that if just one of those sources says it's not really a big deal, then people have a strong tendency to do nothing. From the standpoint of safety officials, that means the message getting out to the public needs to be clear and consistent.

"We have a very complicated message ...;" Cavanaugh said, referring to the Weather Service's many types of advisories, watches and warnings posted on color-coded maps that can be tricky to decipher.

The backdrop for all that, emergency managers often fret, is that many people don't know a watch from a warning and therefore are less likely to know when to take action.

Take tornadoes, for example. They usually occur late in the afternoon or early evening. The conditions that create them – warm, humid conditions but overall atmospheric instability – can be forecast and observed hours in advance.

So a tornado watch might be issued at mid-day, would likely cover a wide area – several counties or a few states – and would likely last for hours. It means the conditions are right for tornadoes – and for residents it means look sharp.

The Weather Service posts a tornado warning when an actual tornado has been detected. That means a trained spotter has seen one, or, more often, radar has detected rotation inside a supercell. A warning is usually fairly short in duration and limited to a much smaller area than a watch. Tornadoes touch down, go up and sometimes touch down again, but the Weather Service usually can at least say minute by minute and city by city where the thunderstorm itself is likely to hit.

Although Kansas City will go through another severe weather season this spring with the current set of watches and warnings, the Weather Service plans to roll out a simplified system this fall. The aim is a punchy, more direct message: What's coming, when and where will it hit – and what should people do? Is it time to move the car into the garage? Should I head to the basement?

"That's how we're going to organize the information," Hudson said.

Longtime Fox4 meteorologist Joe Lauria made the argument that, at least in Kansas City with its abundant thunderstorms, warnings are so common that people tune them out.

"And I think after awhile it just becomes noise to my customers, my viewers," he said.

Lauria looked at years of data for the area covered by the Weather Service office in Pleasant Hill – 37 counties in western, northwestern and north-central Missouri plus seven counties on the eastern edge of Kansas.

The Weather Service criteria for issuing a severe thunderstorm warning are winds of 58 mph or greater, or hail an inch or more across. Lauria said bumping the criteria to winds of 70 mph or hail of one and a half inches would reduce the number of thunderstorm warnings coming out of Pleasant Hill by two-thirds. People say they would listen more if there were fewer warnings, he said. Alternatively, he suggested, maybe there could be another category for especially severe storms.

"The problem that I think we're having is for the marginal thunderstorms," he said.

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