NWS received delayed info on Peru tornado

Peru, Indiana homes damaged by July 10, 2013 tornado. Emergency management agency photo from NWS Facebook page.

By guest blogger Michael Lewis, Warning Coordination Meteorologist, National Weather Service, Northern Indiana office

The National Weather Service (NWS) northern Indiana office received delayed reports of storm damage when an EF-1 tornado hit Peru, Indiana July 10. The northern Indiana office is located near North Webster and is responsible for issuing warnings for all of Miami County (of which Peru is county seat). The same office issues warnings for neighboring Wabash and Grant Counties. (See a map of all counties warned by the northern Indiana office.)

It is fortunate that the Peru tornado lasted for only five minutes and 3.5 miles. The absence of first-hand damage reports affected the warning process; requiring National Weather Service forecasters to rely on radar data and limited surface-based meteorological conditions as they issued subsequent warnings. In other words, the lack of timely and credible damage reports made the warning process more challenging. Had reports of damage been received closer to the actual time of occurrence, forecasters would have been able to refocus on other meteorological and radar data, and changed the message and content of the subsequent impact-based warnings.

As the storms continued to organize, strengthen and move east, the Northern Indiana NWS office searched for details of damage in the warned areas. This included searching numerous social media sites, making phone calls and listening to police and fire radio transmissions. The office continued to issue warnings as it gathered reports of wind damage, torrential rainfall and large hail.

Shortly after 3:11 p.m., a Facebook post indicated that damage had occurred in Peru but it didn’t provide complete details.
The NWS office received its first reliable information of the situation in Peru at 3:57 p.m., nearly two and a half hours after the tornado struck! At that time, a media partner forwarded a message that an Indianapolis journalist had posted in an Internet chat room devoted to the Indianapolis NWS office. The Indianapolis journalist relayed a report of extensive damage that he received from Kris Marks, the Miami County Emergency Management Agency director.

NWS northern Indiana office meteorologists surveyed the damage in Peru the day after the storm. During that survey, several local officials stated that reports of damage had been forwarded to news media in Indianapolis — not the National Weather Service. During the discussion with several other residents who witnessed the damaging storm, the common statement was that they rely on Indianapolis media because “that’s where they get their weather from.”

Public safety officials and the media in every community need to understand how the weather alert system works. They need to understand that reliable reports of storm damage must be forwarded to the appropriate NWS office as soon as possible.

These reports are critical to a successful warning process. While the damage was already done in Peru, such damage reports critically affect warnings for the next township, community and county over. While the Indianapolis news media broadcasts warning information, official tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings for Miami County and many other counties in the same area originate from the National Weather Service office in northern Indiana. The media cannot issue warnings that trigger the NOAA Weather Radio and Emergency Alert Systems. Any delay in reporting damage to the NWS can therefore significantly affect public safety.

Fortunately in this event, warnings were issued and the event occurred during daylight hours; no lives were lost.  It is critical to understand that the next time we may not be as fortunate.

Failure by local officials to relay reports to the appropriate NWS office hinders the NWS’ ability to issue warnings and prevents the NWS from fulfilling it’s mission of saving lives.

My thanks to Michael Lewis for this first-hand perspective of the issue. -W9LW