The U.S. Senate introduces a TORNADO Bill

[A tip of the hat to Taylor Cox, a meteorologist at KOCO in Oklahoma City, for bringing this legislation to my attention a few days ago. You can find her post here.] Earlier this month, U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, introduced the Tornado Observation Research Notification and Deployment to Operations (TORNADO)[1] Act, “To improve the forecasting and understanding of tornadoes and other hazardous weather, and for other purposes.” Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), John Thune (R-SD), and Joni Ernst (R-IA) joined in.

An accompanying press release from the offices of Senators Grassley and Ernst added this: The TORNADO Act would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) to update its methods for communicating alerts to residents in the surrounding areas… [The Act] seeks to simplify, update, and improve forecasting technology and infrastructure. The legislation would also require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to review technical infrastructure problems that have delayed life-saving alerts…

…After a tornado outbreak took seven lives earlier this month, the National Weather Service (NWS) confirmed technical issues caused some delay in disseminating tornado warnings – including a maximum delay of seven minutes for a tornado warning issued for the storm near Winterset, Iowa. NWS has confirmed at least13 tornadoes touched down as this severe weather system swept across Iowa.

Senator Grassley was quoted as saying “When it comes to keeping Iowans safe from severe weather and tornadoes, every second counts. 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, and I continue praying for those who lost loved ones in the recent tornado outbreak in Iowa. We must act to minimize these tragedies moving forward.” Senator Ernst was quoted in a similar vein.

You can find the full text of the proposed bill here. Several features are striking.

The bill purports to stem from a problem, but in actuality focuses on an opportunity. As is often the case, those introducing the bill cite government performance failures (per press releases) that need fixing, but the bill’s substance is oriented more toward positive measures.

Specifically, the bill highlights communication and social science. For example, early in the text, Section 3 (b) (3) states: [A new or repurposed NOAA hazards communication] Office shall improve the form, content, and methods of hazardous weather and water event communications to more clearly inform action and increase the likelihood that the public takes such action to prevent the loss of life or property. These aspirations are consistent with recent NASEM calls (here, e.g.) for more community-wide (federal-agency, private-sector) attention to relevant social science.

The bill calls for the same balance when it comes to research and development. The framers want to see as much or more attention to improving risk communication as to improving the capabilities and use of technologies to monitor severe weather itself. That is testimony to the remarkable progress of the last decade or so in detection and short-range prediction of tornadoes but also an acknowledgment that that has not been matched by improved public safety.

The bill stresses development and use of social-data infrastructure. The Senators state: The Under Secretary [of Commerce] shall establish, maintain, and improve a central repository system for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for social, behavioral, risk, and economic data related to the communication of hazardous weather and water events.

This represents a big step forward. Infrastructure for storing, accessing, and working with quality-controlled geophysical data on the atmosphere, oceans, and solid earth has existed for decades and is continually upgraded and advanced. To make progress toward meeting public-safety and economic goals requires no less for social sciences. Traditionally, however, social data collection and archival has been intermittent, fragmented, incomplete – catch-as-catch can. This provision would correct that and establish a foundation more for rapid progress in risk communication and public benefit.

The bill emphasizes pilot programs… explicitly calling out HBCU’s for special attention. The bill calls for establishment of a pilot program to ensure that basic research is carried through to application and actual improvements in service. Interestingly, the bill specifically indicates that a grants program should target HBCU’s. It makes other references throughout to the importance of equitable societal access to benefits from improved service. These features are certainly most welcome (but one might wonder if other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSI’s) shouldn’t be given similar explicit emphasis).

The bill shares DNA with the 2017 Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act . At several points the bill makes references to this so-called Weather Bill, offers specific amendments, etc. But the proposed TORNADO Act’s entire tenor, with its “fix-NOAA” message, requirements for additional NOAA reporting, and detailed prescriptive language on topics such as warn-on-forecast, a tornado rating system, post-storm surveys and assessments, and a VORTEX-USA program of research, are all evocative of the Weather Bill (as noted here and here).

These connections to the Weather Bill suggest that the TORNADO Act just might enjoy a better-than-average chance of Congressional passage. With that in mind, it’s worth thinking about

What’s missing. Here there remains at least one big challenge. The TORNADO Act and the Weather Bill both broadly include public, private, and academic sectors, and speak to an inclusive outreach to society as a whole, but remain narrowly focused on weather service provision.  To achieve benefit, however, depends equally on societal uptake of the weather information on offer. Most days, in most places, weather is a fairly benign backdrop to human affairs, which have been tuned to climatology. And most individuals and institutions are fully maxed-out responding to daily needs of work and family (and related crises there). Community resilience to dangerous weather requires a population able and willing, and equipped, to drop other preoccupations in order to respond to life- and property threats. This is much more than simply noting a warning.

Resilience favors a public paying attention to weather. It requires individual and institutional ability to assess and manage weather threats, options for action, and access to those options, and more. This high-stakes complexity can’t be managed on the fly only once an event is in progress. Communities must be prepared and equipped for months and years beforehand. Current NWS Weather-Ready Nation efforts provide communities with some of what’s needed. But WRN will be of most help to communities where K-12 education is strong and has included years of emphasis on the geosciences generally and weather, water, and climate in particular.

The United States occupies some of the most dangerous real estate on Earth. We have our share of earthquakes and volcanism, but we are uniquely challenged by dangerous weather. We face as many hurricanes as the tropical world, and as many destructive winter storms as the high-latitude world. Cycles of flood and drought control our thousands of watersheds. And we have a virtual monopoly on the world’s dangerous tornadoes. We underinvest in K-12 public education on these matters and their consequences.

[1] The title is a bit forced/contorted, but achieved a desired acronym.

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