Anyone interested in severe weather, history, or both will greatly appreciate a series of posts that the National Weather Service northern Indiana weather forecast office (WFO) published on the micro-blogging site Twitter yesterday.
And the WFO’s staff should be commended for excellent work gathering a great deal of historical information about the April 11, 1965 Palm Sunday tornado outbreak and for presenting it in such a compelling way.
The WFO prepared more than 100 tweets, many with images of actual text products issued via teletype the day of the outbreak. Other tweets contained Google maps with tornado tracks marked on them and photos of the tornadoes taken by citizens and photojournalists.
To add to the drama, the WFO scheduled each tweet to appear on Twitter at times coincident with the actual times of day that the events occurred. Genius.
The WFO’s series of tweets gives viewers a real sense of how different severe weather forecasting, detection and warnings were 50 years ago. For example, one thing that struck me was the Fort Wayne Weather Bureau office relaying to local broadcast media via teletype word of tornadoes in the Lafayette area. These days, because of better detection and communication technology, you rarely see WFOs issuing text products regarding tornadoes that distant.
If you missed the live tweets yesterday, you’re in luck, because they’re still visible on the Twitter website, even to people who do not have Twitter accounts. Just follow this link. When you get there, scroll down to a point near the bottom of the page to the tweet that reads, “We are beginning the live tweet of the events of 4/11/65, the Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak,” and then read your way up from there.
If you follow the the northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service on Twitter (@NWSIWX) and if your smart phone beeps at you every time the office tweets, you might want to change your settings before tomorrow.
The office plans to send more than 100 tweets to mark the 50th anniversary of the April 11, 1965 Palm Sunday tornado outbreak that killed 145 people in Indiana. No other tornado outbreak in the state’s history has killed that many people.
The NWS office plans to send tweets in real time, as if it were live tweeting during the actual outbreak. Every tweet will include the hash tag #PalmSunday50. This will give followers a feel for how NWS received information that day and the warnings it issued.
You can follow along, whether or not you have a Twitter account. The tweets will be visible at either of the following Web URLs:
The NWS office has also created a special website that provides detailed information about the outbreak, including photos like the one at the top of this post and first-hand accounts that witnesses provided the NWS.
“There are millions of people across this country putting their lives on the line by listening for a sound they can’t hear.”
That’s my favorite line from a recent blog post by weather journalist Dennis Mersereau on “The Vane” blog.
Mersereau makes a strong case for a difficult change in mindset: relying on warning technology that’s more modern and reliable than the ubiquitous outdoor warning siren.
I’ve written about this topic myself. I’ve seen (as I imagine Mersereau has) more than one post-tornado report from the National Weather Service (NWS) that indicated victims failed to seek shelter after the NWS issued a warning, because they didn’t hear sirens. This has been true even for people who knew about the warning because they heard it on TV, saw it on Twitter, etc.
The main thesis of Mersereau’s post is absolutely correct: Communities will save a lot more lives spending money on free NOAA Weather Radio receivers for citizens than in upgrading or installing outdoor warning sirens.
But despite that facts that Mersereau presents, the average citizen doesn’t see it that way. You see, we have relied on outdoor warning sirens for so long (ever since the post-WWII re-purposing of air raid sirens — and that’s a long time) that they’ve become a strong tradition. I’d argue they’ve become an almost inextricable part of our culture.
As a case in point, (as I pointed out in my 2014 post linked above), I invite you to watch an Indianapolis Colts football game, where the stadium public address system often plays a warning siren sound effect. Why? Not because a storm is on the way, but because Colts staff members know that an emotional response to that sound is ingrained in fans.
The fact that the Colts use that sound effect in that way is evidence that outdoor warning sirens have become a part of our collective psyche. That’s hard to fight.
More evidence comes from the vehement arguments that siren-lovers have posted in comments beneath Mersereau’s blog post. As Mersereau put it in a tweet to me, “People believe in their sirens like a religion.”
@RadioW9LW The angry reactions stunned me. People believe in their sirens like a religion. Can only hope it doesn't bite them one day.
I’ve wondered for a while whether tornado sirens (or, as emergency managers often call them, “outdoor warning sirens”) have become so ingrained in our culture over the past several decades that people instinctively treat them as our most important (if not our only) method to receive warning of impending weather danger.
Lately, I’ve seen evidence that this is unfortunately the case. It would be unfortunate, because such sirens were never intended to provide warning to people who are indoors and because many, many communities (including the Indiana community in which I live) don’t have enough warning sirens to assure that every person in the community can hear them, even when outdoors.
Why do I think our culture nonetheless puts too much stock in tornado sirens? Here’s one case in point: CBS Evening News reporter Vinita Nair did a report July 9 about a rare New York State tornado that killed four people in the town of Smithfield. In part of her report, Nair said, “Smithfield doesn’t even have tornado sirens.” What prompted that line in her report? I submit that its inclusion indicates how widely-held is the belief that tornado sirens are a primary way to receiving warning of impending danger.
The authors write, “Sirens in Moore were sounded six times with the initial siren occurring shortly after the first NWS tornado warning was sent (14:41hr) with the final warning at 15:20hr (Kuligowski et al., 2013). The first mention of sirens also begins at 14:41hr (N=22 tweets in 4 minutes) with tweets such as ‘Sirens going off now!! Take cover…be safe!’, ‘Sirens sirens sirens. Becoming so real’, and ‘If u hear a tornado siren, uve got 6-8 minutes…’”
The tweet that included the words “becoming so real” particularly got my attention. It almost seems as if the writer of that tweet did not begin to appreciate the seriousness of the situation, until she heard sirens. And it came from a person who was obviously connected to the Internet (either via computer or smartphone) and therefore had at her disposal official tweets from NWS and other information sources to enhance situational awareness before sirens sounded.
If, in fact, sirens have become so ingrained in our culture that we need them for motivation when severe weather threatens, I consider that a dangerous trait. Too many of us will never hear a siren, even if a tornado is about to destroy the home we’re in. Even a person who lives close to a siren will likely never hear it just before a non-tornadic severe thunderstorm drops a tree on his house and kills him (because many, if not most, communities don’t sound tornado sirens for severe thunderstorms without imminent tornado threats).
How do we remove tornado sirens from their strongly held homes deep in our collective psyche? Perhaps we can’t. But it sure wouldn’t hurt if trusted news sources and public officials continue to share information with their audiences and constituents about the shortcomings of tornado warning sirens, the necessity of having alternative means of receiving warnings and the importance of reacting immediately and appropriately to those warnings, regardless of whether a tornado siren is audible. Likewise, if you’re reading this blog, chances are good that you’re the severe weather expert in your family, circle of friends, church, etc. You can help to, by spreading the word in your community.
The sound of a tornado siren is so motivating and our response to the sound is so emotional, that the Indianapolis Colts NFL football team uses that sound to rile up the fans during home games at Lucas Oil Stadium. We might never change the emotion associated with that sound. But perhaps we can help protect our communities by doing what we can to build up the importance of other warning methods.
If we’re successful, perhaps someday, the sound of a weather alert radio’s alarm will prompt a tweet like, “Weather radio sounding off. This is becoming so real.”
What do you think? Add your comments to this post (there’s a link right under the title).