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How disaster warnings can get your attention

Tim Henderson, Stateline.org on

Published in Weather News

WASHINGTON -- Gerardo Ramirez, a central Texas dairy worker, was near his home but taking an unusual route to a children's hospital in April when he drove his Volkswagen Jetta into a flooded section of road, not seeing in the pre-dawn dark that heavy rains had turned a tiny creek into a death trap. Ramirez survived, but his wife and two children drowned.

In March, 800 miles away in Lee County, Ala., 23 people ranging in age from 6 to 93 were killed in a 170 mph tornado -- despite an evacuation warning by local authorities just like ones that many residents had heeded in previous storms this year.

The deadly situations illustrate what experts increasingly see as two common reasons for unnecessary storm deaths: unfamiliar terrain that leads to bad decisions, and people ignoring too-familiar warnings that haven't panned out in the past.

Harnessing new prediction technology, federal authorities hope to sharpen the disaster warnings they send directly to cellphones, as well as to state and county emergency managers, to make the warnings faster and clearer about life-threatening conditions. They want to alert people like the Ramirez family who may be on unfamiliar terrain as unexpected disasters like flash floods, tornadoes or wildfires unfold.

At the same time, social scientists working for the federal government are interviewing storm survivors like those in Lee County, gathering information for future advances in disaster warnings to combat "response fatigue" that can wear down people's sense of urgency, as apparently happened in Alabama.

Some of those who stayed put in Lee County had well-thought-out plans to evacuate, including gathering supplies, rounding up children and identifying a relative or friend in a more substantial house, according to Kim Klockow McClain, who interviewed survivors.

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"They rely on family resources, and frankly it can take all day to go and wait. People were losing money," said Klockow McClain, a scientist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Oklahoma, a research lab of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "They just didn't go that day. It's as simple as that."

To try to prompt residents to take action, in September, the National Weather Service will change flash flood warnings to specifically mention if the threat is "considerable" or "catastrophic," said Daniel Roman, a Maryland-based hydrologist at the National Weather Service. Officials will make that call based on information from local weather spotters, radar evidence of tornado debris or computer detection of conditions that caused storms in the past.

The "considerable" flooding category calls for "urgent action" by residents and local authorities "to preserve lives and property," while the "catastrophic" category means waters are "rising to levels rarely, if ever, seen" and will "threaten lives and cause disastrous damage."

In November, after that system is in place, flood warnings sent to cellphones nationwide will be cut back to only those in the considerable or catastrophic category, less than 10% of the 12,000 flood warnings now issued every year to cellphones and local authorities, Roman said.

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