Weather-Readi(er) Nation

Lots of ideas and food for thought put forth at Tuesday’s opening session of Weather Ready Nation: A Vital Conversation – a three-day workshop held here in Norman at the National Weather Center. With nearly two hundred people present, you’d expect nothing less.

Here’s a not-so-organized-but-not-totally-random selection.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin gave a great keynote to start the day. Speaking tip: every one of us wants to matter. What’s more, we justifiably feel, no matter how low our station, that we do. This deep-seated desire is hardwired in. So the best speakers are those who can help us make this connection, help us see we’re making a difference, and just how. They also show us that our occasion – whether conference, meeting, or workshop – is significant. Governor Fallin, like most political leaders, has this gift.

Most important step? Showing up. She has to have many competing claims on her time and attention. But she took the trouble to come down from Oklahoma City with her entourage for this workshop, out of all the events she could have scheduled. Step two? She told a story (always good!). In this case, she recounted the run-up to her inauguration, and her first few weeks in office. She attended classes for new governors (there’s an interesting educational niche!). There she was told that as early as her first day in office she, or any governor, might have to deal with a natural disaster or emergency, and she should be prepared right from the start.

In her case this warning proved prescient. Turned out that her inauguration itself – especially significant because she’s the first woman to serve as governor here – took place on the day of a major winter storm. That was followed two weeks later by an ice storm that shut down the state government for two days. Since then, in the span of several months, Oklahoma has suffered major tornadoes, earthquakes (!), and sweltering summer heat and drought. So Governor Fallin and the state have been paying attention to her emergency manager and to the meteorologists.

She said she was waiting for the plague of locusts.

Subsequent speakers added national perspectives on 2011 severe weather. [There has been some discussion here of weather extremes rather generally – brief references to the Midwest flooding, Hurricanes Irene and Lee, and the heat wave, drought, and wildfire season – but most of the focus has been on this year’s tornadoes.] The picture that emerged? The number of tornadoes wasn’t that unusual. The number of strong ones high, but not stunningly so. What was different? The number of direct hits on heavily populated areas…think Tuscaloosa and Joplin, for example. The result was hundreds of deaths, thousands of injuries, and enduring personal tragedies for many more. Property and economic losses ran into the several billions of dollars. A bad year.

To my ears, the message was this: (1) Loss of life and injury could have been much worse. (2) Even so, we can do better. (3) But no matter what, worse yet will come at some point in future years.

Loss of life and injury could have been far worse. All the estimates suggest that given the populations in the path of last year’s tornadoes, it’d be easy to contemplate far greater losses. Instead, warnings are better, thanks to improved observations – from satellite and radar, from surface networks and more – and to advanced computer modeling of the storms to predict where the existing tornadoes are headed, and where new ones may develop. And, by and large, people heed those warnings. Loss of life occurred in those especially-damaging tornadoes where sheltering in a basement or an interior room was not enough. For the most intense tornadoes, only an underground shelter or carefully engineered and constructed safe room provides protection.

We can do better. Even though forecasts have improved, we still find much room for enhancement in the warning messages. They cover too broad an area. [On a personal note, this plays into my brother’s pet peeve; TV graphics, text, etc., transmitted to viewers not particularly in harm’s way, but interfering with coverage of summer golf tournaments and other scheduled programming. He’s not alone. Many others have registered similar complaints. Unsurprisingly, work is underway to address this problem.] Meteorologists also find it hard to predict tornado strength, much as they struggle to forecast heavy precipitation events. It’s proving stubbornly difficult to push those improved forecasts that “last mile,” to reach and save those directly in harm’s way. Public awareness and preparedness remain a challenge, although last year’s tornadoes and their attendant news media coverage no doubt have given that a boost. Workshop participants have a lot of ideas for these and other needs.

Then there’s the built environment itself. Making homes safer will save lives. In part this is a matter of engineering. But in part, as one of the most interesting presentations of the day emphasized, it’s the vulnerability of aged building stock. The speaker had been tasked with damage surveys over the past year. He found that many of the buildings totally destroyed had in fact been weakened by moisture and rot built up gradually over many years prior to the event. In some cases, he said, he’d reach behind baseboards and drywall and find not wood but material that was little more than “good soil.” He pointed out that owners of such older homes may frequently renovate the visible parts of the exterior and interior – the cladding, kitchen cabinetry, floor surfaces, bathroom fixtures, etc. – but make no corresponding effort with respect to maintenance and refurbishment of the structural frame of the residence.

But no matter what, worse yet will come at some point in future years. That’s because as tightly concentrated as Joplin or Tuscaloosa might be, they don’t approach the population densities in major urban areas such as Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, etc. And though the odds are against any direct hit of a true downtown area by category 4- or 5 tornado, such odds are decreasing. Disaster will strike someday. And today’s warnings will leave no time for escape from such urban centers.

This is where individual responsibility plays in. Have your choices and/or circumstances placed you or me in such a location? Then we should develop a plan for the actions we’ll take to prepare, and in the event of such a hazard. Shelter in place, or evacuate. Remember, streets will be hopelessly clogged immediately before such events; others will be trying to escape as well. City dwellers or workers might at least consider evacuation on watches, even if the false alarms will be substantial.

But maybe we feel lucky.

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