When the tornado warning fails

courtesy NWS Des Moines

I’ve written recently about the 1992 Channelview tornado outbreak when, fortunately, not a life was lost. The best we could do then to warn the public was break into live TV. By the time we received a warning from the National Weather Service and typed that warning into a crawl machine and then put it on air a good 20 minutes would pass. But those were the two warning methods for television along with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio. So we’ve come a long way. But not far enough.

On Saturday, March 5, a breakdown of fiber optics out of the Dallas National Weather Service office caused a domino effect of delayed tornado warnings across Iowa. The reason is that the back-up for such a situation is satellite based transmissions and that takes more time. An afternoon of 17 tornado warnings occurred with 13 touchdowns, but those warnings were delayed by as much as seven minutes. That doesn’t sound like much, but one of those tornadoes killed six people in Winterset just over 20 minutes after a delayed warning.

The NWS knew of the delay and did their best to get the word out on television and Twitter:

NWS Des Moines tweet of tornadic storms

However, if you weren’t tuned in to TV or on Twitter then you would miss those warnings. There is some history with the dissemination problem from snow squall warnings in the Northeast this year to tornado warnings in Birmingham in March 2021. A full article on the Iowa incident can be found here from The Washington Post. Critics are calling it “a huge problem” and “beyond acceptable.” From AccuWeather: “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link — and right now the data dissemination capabilities of the NWS are a weak link, which is a major public safety concern.”

One immediate fix is to not rely on satellite as a back up, but rather another NWS regional office. And now Congress is stepping in.

TORNADO

Our government loves acronyms and TORNADO is one of the newest which stands for a bill introduced by Iowa and Mississippi senators and stands for Tornado Observation Research Notification and Deployment to Operations. The bill calls for updates to warning methods and the means by which they are sent out to the public. From Sen. Chuck Grassley’s news release: “Our bill will ensure NOAA is taking necessary steps to streamline life-saving alert systems and keeping their communication equipment up-to-date. One life lost is one too many...”

There is a lot to unpack on just what this bill calls for and if you have some time, here is the full article including links to the bill itself. The point is, something is being done and Congress may well embrace this bill and pass it -- what state doesn’t need better warning methods?

In the meantime, here is a link for you to get NWS alerts on your Android or iPhone. You’ll get a lot of them and they can be annoying at times, but they could also save your life.

Frank

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About the Authors:

KPRC 2's chief meteorologist with three decades of experience forecasting Houston's weather.

Amanda Cochran is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. She specializes in Texas features, consumer and business news and local crime coverage.