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How disaster warnings can get your attention

Tim Henderson, Stateline.org on

Published in Weather News

While many people have the impression that residents ignore disaster warnings, her experiences interviewing survivors led her to a different conclusion.

"People are thinking about it, they're looking for confirmation and trying to decide on the best course of action," Klockow McClain said. "Sometimes meteorologists will criticize people for looking outside for a sign of the storm, but that's a very natural instinct."

Floods, tornadoes, wildfires and hurricanes killed 226 people last year, according to federal statistics.

There already have been 38 deaths from tornadoes and 67 from flooding this year; two-thirds of the flooding victims were in vehicles. They include 10 deaths in Texas, six in Kentucky and five in Missouri.

In recent years, the Wimberley floods in Texas contributed to a nationwide flooding-related death toll of 186 in 2015, and in 2017 Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston, contributing to 182 deaths.

The new format for flood warnings comes as the National Weather Service revamps other warnings to make them shorter and more specific about damage. Starting Sept. 24, the service will cut back and simplify warnings on everything from fog to ice.

Impact-based warnings include more specifics to help people visualize what could happen -- for instance, a severe hailstorm warning might say "people and animals outdoors will be severely injured," said Gregory Schoor, severe storms leader for the National Weather Service.

Where disasters are a familiar part of life, people know the drill and generally respond quickly to disaster warnings and evacuation orders, many emergency managers say.

Tornadoes hit El Reno, Okla., in 2011 and again in 2013, when a 2.6-mile-wide storm, the widest ever recorded in the United States, killed eight people including three well-known storm chasers.

There was little warning in May before the latest tornado in El Reno, which killed two as it shredded mobile homes and blew Dumpsters into motel rooms, said Andrew Skidmore, Canadian County's emergency manager.

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