The National Weather Service was awakened with a start after a tornado roared through Joplin, Kansas two years ago, killing 161 people and destroying thousands of buildings. They had issued an alert that it was coming and had urged everyone to go underground. Few people did.
“Nothing in that warning really stood out that said ‘this is a lot higher risk than a typical warning might be,’” said Weather Service official Mike Hudson in the aftermath of that tragedy.
As a result of this event in Joplin, it was decided to revise the wording of the alerts that the Weather Service issues. Doing so has become an ongoing process.
If you are someone who looks at the weather alerts on your TV screen—and here, especially in the hurricane season, we all do—then you know them. For those new to our area, here they are, together with official definitions of what they mean.
WEATHER WATCH: A potential for a weather hazard, with some factors, such as location or timing, uncertain.
WEATHER ADVISORY: Potential for conditions that could be dangerous if caution is not taken.
WEATHER WARNING: Dangerous hazard is imminent or happening.
These warnings have been around for many years. Indeed, before that there were no warnings at all. One recalls many a black-and-white western where a farmer would put his hand out the window and say, “Waal, it looks like it might rain.” In those days, officials predicting the weather were laughed at. They were almost always wrong. It’s a historical fact that nobody even knew the great Hurricane of 1938 that devastated Long Island was about to hit.
So now the Weather Service is making preparations to bring nuances and change to the weather alerts, and is doing it region by region. The alerts that work in an area where tornadoes are prevalent might not work in an area where hurricanes are prevalent. To that end, they asked, when the time came, for local residents to submit ideas online for them to think about. They did that in the Midwest after the catastrophe in Joplin, considered the suggestions, and then began rolling out the new alerts a few states at a time. They instituted them in Kansas and Missouri. They will shortly institute them in Wyoming, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.
After that comes us. For the month of March, a website where you could as a citizen add your comments for the Northeast was open, but it was not well publicized. I only read about it a few days ago while leafing through an issue of Newsday. And now it’s closed down.
I would have liked, frankly, to add my own thoughts to the conversation. So now that I can’t, I can only do it here and just hope that they see it.
We here in the Northeast, particularly in recent years, have gotten a really wide variety of nasty weather. It’s no longer just hurricanes and nor’easters. In the last five years we have had tornadoes, earthquakes, high winds and flooding. It would be hard to tailor an alert for our area.
On the other hand, with the advances in weather forecasting science, which have been terrific, I think the new alerts could be laser sharp.
It’s one thing to have hailstones, it’s another to have hailstones the size of baseballs, which we had last year for a brief time, though, thank God, nobody got hurt. Here are a few that I would have proposed if I had known about it.
WAIT ATTENTIVELY—Keep your eyes and ears open. Something is coming. We’ll tell you more when it firms up.
BE ON YOUR GUARD—Assume a prizefighter’s pose. Keep looking around.
WEATHER JOY COMING—There’s going to be a rainbow or some other neat thing. Or a flock of flying penguins.
WEATHER FIASCO—Several weather fronts collided, but not in any way like we thought they would.
WEATHER ONSLAUGHT—Things have been pretty quiet for the last few days, yes? Well, all hell is about to break loose.
FALSE RUMOR—That terrible thing you heard was coming, well, it wasn’t from us. It isn’t coming.
WEATHER OUTAGE—Someone pulled the plug on the National Weather Service. When we find them, we will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.
WEATHER OUTRAGE—Something we’ve never had before, something nobody has even thought about, is coming.
WEATHER INFESTATION—It could be locusts, the red tide or sleet, but whatever it is, it’s going to happen for a long time, stay, and be hard to get rid of.
WEATHER PRANK—Some kids tried to do something with the weather, but we caught them.
WEATHER CAUTION—Slow down, there’s slippery roads ahead with fog, black ice, deer darting across the street, tree limbs crashing down and a motorcycle cop waiting for you.
WEATHER EMERGENCY—It’s so bad we don’t even have time to tell you about it. Just open the Bilco door and get down in the cellar. Now.
WEATHER FLATULANCE—A big group of weather fronts came together and all the air went out of them all at one time. It wasn’t a fiasco, it was just loud.
WEATHER MUGGING—The danger today is that the weather is going to jump out from behind a bush and steal your watch, your wallet and your cellphone.
DEFCON 5—Put your head between your legs and kiss your ass good-bye.
ALL CLEAR—Whatever you were doing before we sent you that earlier alert, the danger has passed and you can start doing it again.
Do me a favor. Clip this out, put it in an envelope and mail it to:
National Weather Service
1325 East West Highway
Silver Spring, MD, 20910.