New warnings will pull no punches for strongest storms

For residents in Missouri and eastern Kansas, a change is about to occur in the way some tornado and severe storm warnings are issued.

And if phrases like “catastrophic,” “complete destruction” or “unsurvivable if shelter not sought below ground” get your attention, well, that’s the point.

Starting Monday, the National Weather Service is kicking off an experiment that it hopes will more accurately describe the most severe storms and help people in their path understand the risks they face.

Dubbed “Impact Based Warning,” the new system is designed to communicate more information to the media and emergency management. It will be tested at National Weather Service offices serving Topeka, Wichita, Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield.

“When there is a known, very large and significant tornado heading for a populated area, we can better convey that threat and elevate the warning over a more typical warning,” said Dan Hawblitzel, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill.

Last year saw a historic number of tornado fatalities across the United States, including the EF-5 twister on May 22 that killed 161 people in Joplin. But even after sirens sounded in Joplin, some people waited to take shelter until the deadly tornado began chewing a path through the city.

The weather service, the media and emergency managers are participating in the effort.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a scare tactic, but people need to know when to take a warning seriously — which is always — but there are some storms that are different magnitudes and there are different ways that you should take precautions,” Hawblitzel said.

The weather service enlisted social scientists to help with the wording. The new warnings will be similar to current ones but contain several additions.

First is a line that will identify the specific hazard, such as large hail, strong wind or a tornado.

A second line will say whether the tornado has been indicated by radar or observed by spotters or law enforcement.

A third line will describe the potential outcome, such as uprooted trees, extensive damage to buildings or loss of life.

The warnings also may contain taglines, such as “significant” or “catastrophic.”

“Significant” indicates a strong tornado that could cause major property damage.

“Catastrophic,” which would describe the Joplin tornado, is a tagline that weather officials don’t expect to use often.

It will require confirmation, such as video or numerous damage reports.

The enhanced warnings also might be issued on severe thunderstorms that threaten property and safety, Hawblitzel said.

An example would be a storm with winds over 80 miles per hour or hail that is baseball-size or larger.

Under the current system, severe thunderstorm warnings are issued when wind speeds are at least 58 miles an hour or hail is at least one inch in diameter.

Those warnings won’t stop.

“We don’t want this to take away from a typical tornado warning,” Hawblitzel said. “The typical tornado warning will still constitute the vast number of tornado warnings that are issued.”

Joplin resident Jeff Lehr said he might have sought shelter had an enhanced warning come across his television on May 22.

Instead, it wasn’t until a siren distracted him from a sporting event that he looked out a window and saw dark thunderstorm clouds.

Even then, he didn’t take cover until his apartment windows began imploding.

“After hundreds of times of similar thunderstorms approaching Joplin, many of those with tornado warnings attached, and you see them pass you kind of get jaundiced about the warnings and tend not to give them the weight you probably should,” said Lehr, a reporter at The Joplin Globe.

The experiment will continue through Nov. 30.

Based on the feedback, Hawblitzel said, “there’s a possibility that it could be expanded across more of the country.”