Thursday, April 26, 2012

Norman tornado and broader implications published a story today about Norman schools acquiring GPS radios to keep kids safe from severe weather. The story includes the quote that 24 minutes before the tornado, kids were released because all was clear to do so. The tornado formed at 3:59 PM putting release just after 3:30PM. At that time a severe thunderstorm warning was in effect for Norman issued at 3:14 PM.  Oddly though Norman was not mentioned in the original warning nor in the update at 3:38 PM. By 3:55 PM Norman was in a severe thunderstorm warning but for 17 minutes the mesocyclone, though weak and complex, was not a warned on feature.  At 3:59 PM a tornado warning was issued. [Please, kindly  correct me if I am wrong.]

There are many questions to ask:
1. Does every mesocyclone warrant a warning? This should include a discussion on the mesocyclone location relative to populated areas, relative to its vertical location and thus structure, and its strength. How did the specific characteristics of the mesocyclone influence the warning forecasters? I am NOT a warning forecaster, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn one time. I don't have the answer to these questions. Clearly more work is needed to understand these issues from various (science and service in the face of uncertainty) perspectives.

2. Why would schools let out with a severe thunderstorm warning in effect? What information and when would have contributed to make the decisions to either release or not release? These are time sensitive decisions and become complicated quick, mostly because you go from a situation involving a building to one involving an entire city. And more importantly, why purchase GPS radios for the buses? I hope they come with training. I certainly hope there will be someone on the other end of the radio helping bus drivers steer clear of potential storm hazards. But wouldn't it be wiser for the schools to secure dedicated personnel to monitor severe weather situations so they don't release into an existing warning? I am all for being prepared if there is a surprise (the probability of a surprise is much less than than it used to be).

The decision was made quite quickly to solve the problem with technology. It would appear we have a significant opportunity for social science research to understand a very specific situation in the warning process. And I am going to go out on a limb and say that its a bit soon to say we have a greater understanding of the entire situation from all relevant perspectives.

Not having a significant social science presence to rapidly assess this situation is disappointing. It would be par with an organization like the NTSB. Investigate the whole situation, assess ways to make the system better, to make the components better, and ultimately provide better service. By not having a system in place to do this we are losing valuable feedback on the process. But as everyone says, "in austere budgetary times", it is difficult to do so.

Well,  the NWS didnt do a service assessment for 2 March which was a big event and would have been costly. Other notable days with notable tornadoes include: 4/3 , 3/23, and 2/28. And probably others. All stick out to me as missed opportunities to learn from impacted communities. I am optimistic about the Weather Ready Nation initiative. I know people are passionate about solving problems. We must also be passionate about identifying them and having the courage of our convictions to keep after this important aspect of bridging science and service.