Editorial: Weather service has a tough task

Published 10:11 am Friday, May 18, 2012


The National Weather Service has a daunting task of alerting people to be safe, and research time and again backs up just how incredibly daunting that task is.

No matter how you warn people, no matter how severe and urgent you make a severe, urgent weather situation sound, people do not take cover when they are first warned. Studies show that after being warned they will seek additional information to confirm that warning, which often wastes precious time.

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That’s because the average advance warning for a tornado is about 13 minutes.

Part of the problem is that people in the Midwest become accustomed to tornadoes. Warnings are part of life. Is this one really severe or just another small one? Is it yet another a false alarm? Is this one hitting my county, my town, my house? Just how serious is it for me and my family? People watch the skies and hunt for any information possible to decipher just how close the purported twister really is. Some people actually enjoy storms that produce tornadoes, rather than fear them as they should.

Many people like to knock the National Weather Service, and that’s the easy route to take. We want to applaud the National Weather Service meteorologists for being heroes who have saved many lives, yet regularly go unsung for their timely warnings.

And we want to commend the National Weather Service for taking additional steps that might change tornado warnings for the better. According to Minnesota Public Radio, the service has used stronger, more specific language in Kansas and Missouri for the most dangerous tornadoes as part of an experiment to see if stronger warnings are heeded. It also is rolling out more advanced radar to help identify true tornadoes quicker and to avoid false alarms.

Still, in the end, the action of taking shelter is in the hands of the people. It our sincere hope that whenever there is a tornado warning, people get to a safe location. A Tribune employee died because of a tornado on June 17, 2010, and another was injured. We never want that to happen to anyone. Heed the warnings.