Strong words: Are weather warnings dramatic enough to make you run for cover?

Posted: July 30, 2012

The flickering lights and the screaming winds got Jim Eberwine's attention.

He knew from the forecasts that a thunderstorm was coming, but the 15-minute, hurricane-like siege announced that this was no standard-issue cloudburst.

Eberwine, the emergency-management chief of Absecon, Atlantic County, climbed out of bed early June 30 and headed directly for the police station, an all-out disaster on his hands.

He had witnessed a storm or two in his 40 years as a National Weather Service forecaster, but, he said, "I never saw anything like it."

The incredible derecho windstorm ripped Absecon with 100-m.p.h gusts. In all, it plowed a 700-mile cone of destruction from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic, killing 22 people and knocking out power to five million.

It also stirred a fresh storm over how the National Weather Service issues and words its warnings.

It's not that meteorologists had muffed the forecast; they actually had gotten it right. So why did so few people get the message? Why didn't the forecasts grab their attention?

Was it something they didn't say?

Perhaps so, said Elliott Jacks, a National Weather Service official who is leading an effort to come up with ways to make storm warnings more dramatic and clearer without scaring the daylights out of people. He wonders whether different wording for such an extreme event - for example, "This is an exceptionally severe and potentially catastrophic thunderstorm" - might ring more alarm bells.

The June 30 derecho was not the first instance of a warning's failing to capture public attention.

"It just seems that examples are coming up all the time," said Jacks.

'I didn't know'

A few days after his Leesburg, Va., house was damaged when the derecho bombed the Beltway, he was getting his hair cut and overheard two women talking.

"Boy, I didn't know it was going to be bad," one said to the other.

"Whatever they've been doing all these years, it doesn't work anymore," said Richard Gober, a Ventnor, N.J., resident who weathered the storm in his home.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the weather service's parent agency, has been consulting sociologists for help in tweaking the warning wordings.

"We as physical scientists have not properly integrated the social sciences," said Jennifer Sprague, a NOAA policy analyst.

She is overseeing a separate project that began a few years ago to evaluate the warning wording for all meteorological mayhem, from hurricanes to floods to blizzards.

'Bugging me'

John Ferree, a NOAA severe-storm specialist in Norman, Okla., who led a project to juice up wording in tornado warnings, said the public could be suffering from "warning fatigue" because of phantom scares. Despite sophisticated technology, 75 percent of all tornado warnings turn out to be false alarms.

Ferree, Jacks, and others believe that a big part of the problem lies in both the warning language and government policy.

Do people really know the difference among terms such as warning, watch, advisory, and special weather statement? Jacks asked. "These terms have been bugging me for quite some time."

In the Atlantic County case, the weather service office in Mount Holly issued several "severe thunderstorm warnings."

Technically, by agency standards, Mount Holly performed flawlessly.

All the warnings for South Jersey were verified, meaning the storms met the official criteria of damaging winds.

Although the public might have disagreed, "in terms of the verification process, it looks excellent," said Tony Gigi, a Mount Holly meteorologist who was on duty on derecho night.

Gary Szatkowski, the Mount Holly chief meteorologist, noted that severe thunderstorm warning would apply both to the derecho and to the garden-variety storms of last week.

With Ferree's guidance, depending on the circumstances, tornado warnings at some offices now contain more-specific and dramatic language - for example, "a large, extremely dangerous, and potentially deadly tornado is on the ground" and "take cover immediately."

But standardization is rooted in logic, said Sprague, and won't be easily undone. Emergency officials, commercial weather companies, and others who receive weather-service alerts coast to coast expect a degree of uniformity, and in many cases, warnings are computer-coded.

"You can't have 122 offices running amok," she said.

The robotic wording saves valuable time, said Ferree. You don't want forecasters fumbling for the thesaurus when a tornado is about to hit.

"It allows our forecasters to not really think about it," he said.

No matter how good the warnings, however, weather officials say they are aware that some people just aren't going to pay attention.

When a snowstorm Jan. 25, 2011, approached Washington, the local weather service office advised everyone to get off the roads by 3 p.m.

Sprague called her husband at a downtown office to make sure he got the word.

He ignored both his wife and the National Weather Service, and was stuck for seven hours.


Contact Anthony R. Wood

at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.

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