Oklahomans must be thankful to see the calendar turn to June. The month of May was devastating in the heart of tornado alley, right down to the final day. On May 31, a tornado rolled over the Oklahoma City metro area, killing nine. As the ingredients came together for a particular dangerous storm, the right mix was also present for a media catastrophe.
On NBC-affiliate KFOR, chief meteorologist Mike Morgan told viewers in the storm’s path to get underground or “go south” – advocating evacuation as a tornado approached. Telling people to leave their homes and get in their cars earned criticism from fellow meteorologists, and made this blog post written one day earlier seem prophetic.
As the storm approached the south side of Oklahoma City, the news became dire:
And by the end of the night:
That number rose to 8 of
9 12 in the days that followed.
There is no direct causal link between the gridlock on the interstate and Morgan’s comments. It is, however, exemplary of why you do not tell people to drive away from a tornado, as he did.
On May 20, an EF-5 tornado leveled a mile-wide swath of Moore, Okla., killing 23, including 9 children. It was a classic heartland tornado, spawning on the southwest end of a supercell thunderstorm, apart from the heavy rain to its north. Storm chasers had no trouble spotting the tornado. Even media helicopters were able to fly at a distance and capture real-time images of the tornado as it moved into populated areas. Broadcast meteorologists were able to complement the images with street-level warnings to residents. When it comes to telling people to get to shelter, live video of the actual tornado is probably more effective than blobs of red and green on radar imagery. People died on that day – the sheer ferocity of a rare EF-5 tornado – but many more were likely saved by the advance warnings.
May 31 did not work like May 20 for a number of reasons. The tornado formed out of an oblong high-precipitation (HP) supercell. Any tornado that formed would be wrapped in rain and, combined with the setting sun at dusk, made for a practically impossible situation for storm chasers to obtain visual confirmation. That didn’t stop them from trying, and as the unusual supercell “wobbled,” many of those chasers got caught in the tornado they couldn’t see. The Weather Channel’s team of chasers, including on-air meteorologist Mike Bettes, were thrown 200 yards; their vehicle totaled.
Three storm chasers, including veteran researcher Tim Samaras and his son, were killed.
Oklahoma weather guys are pros; for them, large tornadoes are just part of springtime. They remain calm so that viewers remain calm. The coverage on May 31, perhaps spurred by fears of another May 20, became downright unsettling. So what can be done?
First, it might be time to question keeping storm chaser mics open during severe weather coverage. KWTV’s Gary England has been a comforting voice for Oklahomans for over 40 years, but on this night he was overpowered by screaming storm chasers breathlessly reporting on the monster, huge, violent tornado none of them could actually see. With so many people working on severe weather coverage today, there’s got to be room for a radio-style call screener to feed chasers through to the airwaves and prevent the type of hysterics and shouting over one another that could easily cause panic amongst viewers.
(My favorite example of calm coverage remains the king of weather social media, James Spann, who still gave the FCC-mandated station identification at the top of the hour during the April 27, 2011 Alabama tornado outbreak – watch the first few seconds of this clip.)
On KFOR, the results were even more alarming. As Morgan was telling residents to evacuate their homes, and at least one storm chaser was shouting the same advice. (The storm chaser may have actually been the first to share the idea. It’s the earliest mention I could find, though the video I’ve found of the coverage is incomplete. Regardless, Morgan should have immediately corrected the suggestion, not reinforced it.)
Driving to escape a tornado is dumb. A chief meteorologist telling his viewers to do so is reckless. We’ve got to scale back the rhetoric. Severe weather coverage should exist to keep people safe; not to create a panic.
Even the National Weather Service could do with some reflection. Severe weather warnings are not uniform across offices, and all of them try slightly different fear appeals. After all, people need to be compelled to seek shelter. And while the Norman office (where the Storm Prediction Center is housed) seemed to strike a good balance, other offices issue apocalyptic warnings, like this one from the NWS office in Wichita, Kan., for a tornado nearing the city on May 19 (h/t to Chris Mergerson, @LSUHealthChris):
“YOU COULD BE KILLED IF NOT UNDERGROUND OR IN A TORNADO SHELTER. COMPLETE DESTRUCTION OF NEIGHBORHOODS…BUSINESSES AND VEHICLES WILL OCCUR. FLYING DEBRIS WILL BE DEADLY TO PEOPLE AND ANIMALS. […]THIS IS AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS TORNADO WITH COMPLETE DEVASTATION LIKELY. YOU COULD BE KILLED IF NOT UNDERGROUND OR IN A TORNADO SHELTER […]TORNADO DAMAGE THREAT…CATASTROPHIC”
Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad only wishes it could have been so fear-inducing! It’s not hard to understand how frightened people in the tornado’s path might decide to hop in a car and flee. That Wichita tornado, by the way, was rated an EF-2, which isn’t “underground or die.” In fact, researchers investigating the May 3, 1999 Oklahoma tornado outbreak (including the F5 that struck Moore), found that among people who were inside a house hit by an F4 or F5 tornado, only 1% were killed. Summarizing the study, Dr. Harold Brooks at NOAA’s Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman noted, “Violent tornadoes are very dangerous, but they do not bring certain death.”
Severe weather coverage has long been local television’s loss leader. The public interest it serves generates goodwill from the community well worth the lost ad revenue (not to mention the antiquated, but still-present FCC PICON regulations). But today, it at times seems indistinguishable from reality television; the meteorologists getting caught up in Storm Chasers. That has to change. Hopefully one last deadly May night in Oklahoma did the job.