Oklahoma meteorologist advises viewers to drive away from tornado – Time to revisit severe weather coverage

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.)

KFOR, tom terry (YouTube)
KFOR; YouTube (tom terry)

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.

https://twitter.com/Jacki_Dunn/status/340651341036806144

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6 thoughts on “Oklahoma meteorologist advises viewers to drive away from tornado – Time to revisit severe weather coverage”

  1. England had to tell the chasers to calm down, slow down at times of the coverage. He knows like Spann how to keep calm.

  2. I have such mixed feelings about Mike Morgen’s reaction to the tornado and to his advice for residents to try to flee the dangerous areas. Growing up in OKC, I can say that the meteorological reporting and leadership of Mike Morgen has saved my friends and families lives countless times. After having just spent a week in Moore, Oklahoma aiding the May 20th tornado victims, I am leery of placing blame on any human being for anyone’s death or endangerment from these horrendous acts of God. My parents, who’s home was in the direct path of the May 31st tornado took Mike Morgen’s advice and went south. This advice was contrary to any logic or knowledge we had ever gained having lived in tornado ally all of our lives. However, given the May 20th devastation, I was convinced that Mike Morgen would give sound advice. Why? Just the day before, I stood in the yard of a homeowner in Moore who’s house was in a heap on top of his foundation. He said had it not been for Mike Morgen telling him to drive to the south of the storm, he would have died in his home that day. Upon Mike’s instruction on May 20th, he got in his truck and drove away from the tornado and got clear of it’s path. Another homeowner I assisted also made the comment, “Mike Morgen saved my life, and I will always do whatever he tells me to during a storm.” After working on piles of debris all week in Moore, and speaking with many residents who lost homes, I am convinced that Mr. Morgen was responsible, in-part, for many lives being saved on May 20th. Anyone looking at the miles of destruction will ask, “how is it possible more people did not die in this tornado?” It’s becuase of what some call the ‘Media Hype,’ but in fact, is the good work of news stations in OKC. On May 31st, everyone in OKC and Moore that I ran across was on edge, fearful of the storms on their way. Many people, including city workers had taken the afternoon off to go find shelter…well before the storms hit. I am convinced that people were in a reactive mode that entire day, and were making decisions based on their fears and the experience of what they had just been through the week before. This is normal. Perhaps Mike Morgen was in this reactive mode as well. As my parents were stuck in gridlock on interstate 35 as a tornado bared down on them, I spoke to them on their cell phone as my Mom said, “We are being hit….I love you.” I though that was the last time I would ever speak to her. Thankfully they survived, along with many others that day. Though I’m not sure where I stand on Mike’s advice and reaction to the tornado, I told my parents before they left their house, “use your best judgement.” They did. They were wrong, as was Mike. But this goes to show that humans can’t outsmart nature, and even our best guess as to the safest route is a risk when facing storms of this magnitude. Had my parents stayed home and an F4 hit their house, they would be dead. Had the tornado hit in full force on I-35, they would be dead. Mike Morgen will take the blame for anything bad from this tornado. That is wrong. What about the thousands of lives he saved the week before? At the end of the day, we all have to use our own judgement and make our own choices. Mike Morgen was there to give us the scientific information he had at the moment, and it’s up to us to make the call as to what we do at that moment. I know lots of people may disagree with my opinions on this, but as someone who has seen first hand the lives saved because of Mike’s work, I lean toward supporting him even though my parents were put in harms way partially because of his advice. The people of Oklahoma are doing their best right now, including Mike Morgen, and folks from other parts of the country would be better served to pitch in and help us recover than putting energies toward placing blame. There will be time for blame later, right now we need to recover.

  3. I agree Clay. We are all human and we all make mistakes. I too live in OKC and was in the path of the 5/20 tornado. Everyone that was has been forever changed. I heard the voice on the NOAA radio say something to the effect of “You need to be either underground or out of the path of this storm…” or something to that effect. Since we didn’t have a shelter, I told my wife that if we stayed we were going to die. We decided to go ahead and ride it out in our closet wearing our motorcycle gear. We were lucky and the tornado dissipated before reaching our home.

    I’ll admit I panicked at first for the 5/31 tornado, given it’s initial path right down I-40. I think everyone, including Mike Morgen, was on edge. How could you not be? It doesn’t matter if it’s Mike, Gary England, or Damon Lane, these guys are the best in the business and they have saved more lives than any of us will ever know. I think they are allowed a few mistakes.

    I support you Mike and salute you too.

  4. I am not sure what to think. What Mike Morgan did was wrong and against what we teach even our elementary students. But I don’t think it is just him. Weather forecasting in Oklahoma has become a game. Who can be the first with the weather and who can give the biggest detail. When you receive 4 to 6 hours of snowflake by snowflake pictures and details by all the stations in the metro area it becomes to much I think. In the day of tweets and texts and apps is it necessary to cover a storm over and over.
    I have brought this up and have been told by stations that we are making sure the public is informed. But I think it has also become a ratings issue. Who will be the first and who can dominate the airways the most. I see these weather men and stations wanting to be first and most complete when it ought to be to see that the public is informed and safe and keep ratings out of it. Who can get the closest and who can get the best pictures got people killed this time. Who will be the first to advise the public on what to do got people killed. All these people killed we doing what the forecasters said.
    This time people died when they followed instruction even though they were wrong.
    I think it is time to sit down and revamp the way we forecast. It is time to see that people get the information and get away from the competition that is being held between stations. It is time to save lives instead of hurt them
    Maybe we need to have the forecasters take the oath. ” First do no Harm”!

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