To Warn, Or Not To Warn

| April 12, 2011 @ 8:00 am | 98 Replies

Forget the issue with TV coverage last night… you can scroll down for my thoughts on that. I double boxed “Dancing With The Stars” simply because I did not believe we had a tornado on the ground.

The issue involves the warning process. Not all tornado warnings are alike; I think long time readers and viewers know that, and understand our point. The event last night was not in the same universe as the tornado disasters that killed many people on April 8, 1998, December 16, 2000, November 24, 2001, etc.

Last night’s situation was a QLCS (quasi linear convective system, or squall line), with potential for damaging straight line winds. Yes, within a line of storms like that you can have small, spin-up tornadoes, but they rarely last more than a few minutes, and are difficult, if not impossible to warn for in most cases. Instead of trying to focus people on small points along the line with a tornado warning, it takes away from the main message that the ENTIRE line is dangerous and capable of producing straight line wind damage. And, yes, there was lots of wind damage.

MY POSITION: Forget the spin-ups. The state of the science is not good enough to adequately warn for these short lived tornadoes, that quite frankly is not all that significant in relationship to the potential for widespread straight line damage from the line of storms. Blanket the line with severe thunderstorm warnings, and make it perfectly clear that small spin up tornadoes are possible within the line.

Last night the NWS in Birmingham took the “whack a mole” approach and tried to warn for spin-ups. The result was a rash of tornado warnings with polygons situated multiple times in the same county and lots of confusion. Below is the SPC storm reports graphic from yesterday and last night…

If you look hard enough, I am sure you will find evidence of damage from a spin-up tornado today, but that graphic clearly tells the story. It was a straight line wind event.

It is my belief that if you warn over and over and over for small spin-ups, when the big events come, like April 8, 1998, nobody will listen because they are so complacent. And, the tornado warnings that come from events last night simply rise the FAR (false alarm ratio). The tornado warning FAR is in the 80 percent range the last time I checked, and in my opinion it is simply too high.

Please understand I have no issue with the NWS… I have talked with my friend Jim Stefkovich, probably the best MIC (Meteorologist In Charge) of a local NWS office in the nation, many times about this, and we simply choose to disagree. Jim not only serves broadcasters, but also the local emergency management community as well, who seem to prefer the warnings for spin-ups. He is doing his job, and I love Jim’s passion and work ethic. Just a difference of opinion on handling these kind of severe weather situations.

BOTTOM LINE: It honestly doesn’t matter what I think, what the emergency management community thinks, or the NWS thinks. It matters what YOU think.

*Should the NWS issue a tornado warning every time they think there might be a small, short lived spin-up tornado a long a line of storms?

*Or, should a situation like last night be handled with severe thunderstorm warnings, with the clear wording that a spin-up is possible?

What say you?


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James Spann is one of the most recognized and trusted television meteorologists in the industry. He holds the AMS CCM designation and television seals from the AMS and NWA. He is a past winner of the Broadcast Meteorologist of the Year from both professional organizations.

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  1. Katie says:

    We were a half mile from the F5 back in 1998 so I take every warning as if it could happen. I also have a 15 month old so I want to be warned when there is the potential that any spin ups could happen, that way it would give us enough time to get to the storm shelter. Thank you for everything you do!

  2. Jeff says:

    Birmingham NWS thinks a Tornado may have hit the Vestavia/Bluff Park area. Sending survey teams out today.

  3. chris says:

    Last evening I heard someone say “It’s just those sirens again” no big deal. Just keep going as usual.” I think this is the way many people view things now. I hear the same thing everywhere.

  4. Beachbabe says:

    TOTALLY agree with Melster, the winds weren’t exactly “straight” Wehonestly thought it was a small tornado because winds were coming from literally ALL directions, trees(before they were brought down) were swirling so YES please warn for even the smallest rotation! I think you’d get even more hate mail if you decided to NOT stay on air during these severe weather events.

    Can the large outbreaks of violent tornadoes be predicted?

  5. Paula says:

    I take every single warning extremely seriously, and therefore spend a lot of time in our hall closet with my 1 year old. Having said that, though, I also agree with James’ approach to the storms last night. In a situation like that, I just don’t think we can rely solely on our warning system to keep us completely safe. With the possibility being so high for all the spin ups, it just wouldn’t have been smart to wait for a tornado warning. At some point, it becomes a personal responsibility to put all the information together and make an informed decision. I live across the street from mobile homes, and am always amazed at the residents’ blase’ approach to severe weather. All that to say, I don’t think tornado warnings for every little spin up are necessary, but I do believe people need to be educated (somehow) that the watch/warning system isn’t always a straight incremental system. What I mean is that I don’t believe people understand that a thunderstorm warning can indicate conditions as dangerous as a tornado warning in some cases. They seem to ignore anything until the siren goes off. In a somewhat related vein, better care needs to be taken to make sure tornado sirens are in working order in some parts of the state. I know that our siren in our part of Walker County hasn’t worked in a couple months. Not everyone stays glued to weather coverage like I do!

  6. T_Ham says:

    About last night: it was VERY confusing. I don’t think the double box really worked at all, and left everyone unhappy. The weather box was too small to see any of the specific areas where the tornado might have been, and the dancing show had no music so no matter which you preferred it wasn’t good. Also, could the live stream just show the weather, full screen, no double boxing? I hoped to get nothing but the weather online, but it was worse than watching the tv.

    As for the warnings issue: (Almost) No one takes a severe thunderstorm warning seriously. Sure, you may not go golfing in one, but certainly not need to take cover, or even stay off the road. I know this isn’t the case, but I still tend to think along these lines. Tornado warnings are the only way to get attention. That being said… “crying wolf” will eventually hurt even a tornado warnings ability to call for action if overused. In a case like last night, especially at night where you can’t see a tornado anyway, if it looks like there will be significant tree, powerline, or structural damage, go with a tornado warning to ensure people take cover. Treat it like a major tornado. As long as there is damage, claim it as a tornado even if it was just strong wind because on this level they are about the same threat anyway. This also wil prevent that false alarm complacency in the public, who won’t know the difference and assume it was a tornado unless you admit otherwise. You can change criteria all you want, but no one will ever take a severe thunderstorm seriously enough to take cover.

    If fudging reporting wind damage as tornado damage is not an option, then I would lean towards Spann’s position of don’t cheapen tornado warnings unless it is crystal clear a tornado is or is about to be on the ground. Because when we do get a big one, it needs to be taken as the dire threat it is.

  7. Sarai says:

    Do not close caption the weather! If you are blind, like me, then closed captioning doesn’t do any good. Warn for the tornados. It is personal responsability for the public to take the warnings seriously.

  8. Laura S. says:

    James, I was somewhat disappointed with the lack of respect you showed toward the Nat’l Weather Svc last night; you know better that most that these lines can drop a tornado anywhere,anytime and if you are out in a car or in an unsafe structure,it will be bad even if it is an F-1;
    Having said that,I want to tell you I appreciate your long-form coverage, no matter what is on television at the time…I hated the small window and couldn’t see the weather cams or radar hardly at all. Have the station rebroadcast any “important” program later…most of us have DVRs.
    I support both you and the NWS’ efforts last night. You are both very important to public safety.

  9. Avatar says:

    I agree with James…there were way too many tornado warnings. The “crying wolf” syndrome is getting worse. If there is a severe thunderstorm warning for a county, then people with sense should be aware that there is bad weather at or near where you are. What did people do a long time ago before weather radar? They heard thunder, looked out the window, and had sense enough to realize a storm was coming and took necessary precautions. The NWS needs to re-evaluate it’s warning process.

    If there is long-form coverage, a double box should not be in the mix. Who cares about DWTS. Many ABC programs are available for free on Or, people can simply change the channel.

    I believe James did an excellent job trying to decipher and explain all of the ridiculous warnings/polygons and statements from the NWS. They need to get their act together.

  10. Marcia R. says:

    I always have and always will agree with James Spann because I trust his judgment.

  11. AM says:

    It’s best to go with your gut on this James. You have the patience of Job when it comes to this job of dealing with the emotions of the masses in a career field that can get people REALLY keyed up when weather extremes come our way. There are so many people who fear bad weather and so many people who think nothing of it, so it’s impossible to find a middle ground to please everyone.

  12. Chris says:


  13. Terri Baker says:

    Like some other viewers have already expressed, I trust James Spann’s judgment on this issues without question. Let him make the decision.

  14. Brandon says:

    I agree that it was confusing with all of the warnings. James stated that what the main threat would be, and from today’s evaluations it seems like that was what it turned out to be. I understand that It is extremely hard to identify a tornado within a squall line, so if there is anything worth watching then do that. Honestly I believe people were getting to the point where people understood the significance, but took the warnings as if they were maybe a little over the edge.

  15. Ron P. says:

    We have dodged the bullet for the last few years…until last night! Watched a spectacular light show as the electrical wires came down and fried everything in site. Trees were swirling…not just pushed in one direction… tornado or not? I dont know…just glad we had adequate time to prep, inform my kids who were at their respective evening events to stay ther until all was clear.
    James- keep on doing what you do so well! I believe last night was handled appropriately, from my impacted household perspective…power is still out as of 11:30 today.
    God Bless!

  16. Roger nr4dw says:

    My experience is: better to warn and nothing happen regardless, I have almost been close enough to a twister to spit in it!!.. I say go ahead and warn..anyhow…I do not get in the closet every time a tornado warning is issued…But I am one who believes in the gathering of knowledge and having radar up either on tv or on web I can see for myself where the possible twister is in relation to my location…. Just my thoughts

  17. Melissa says:

    I appreciated the long-form coverage last night. I had family in the paths of three of the “spin-ups.” I was able to warn one who had already lost power, and one who had power; neither was aware of what was going on. I was also able to check on one who is weather-aware, to make sure they were unharmed.

    My irritation from last night concerns the double-box. I understand that some shallow people must have their celebrity entertainment, despite potentially life-threatening occurrences outdoors, thus the perceived necessity of the double-box. However, and I know I’m in the minority here, I do not have a television for entertainment – I have one for obtaining necessary information. I get my programming OTA, so I was very disappointed when I tuned to 9.2 to get weather coverage full-screen, and found a double-box there, too! Please remember that you still have some viewers with small CRT TVs, and a rooftop antenna. It was nearly impossible for me to see the small weather box that was skewed at an odd angle, which was why I was disappointed to see this on the sub-channel. I was really expecting to see it full-screen over there. I do not have reliable internet access, so checking on the online stream was not an option for me.

    Speaking of the sub-channel, do any cable or satellite subscribers get the sub-channel? I know that I have family and friends that subscribe to cable or satellite service, and no one I know has access to the sub-channel. This might be a point to address with the cable and satellite companies.

    And to answer your question, I believe that if there is evidence of a tornado, the storm should be tornado-warned.

    In the case of a line of storms with high winds, especially if the line has a history of producing damage, perhaps the NWS could begin issuing high wind warnings.

  18. Chris says:

    I agree with James the cry wolf thing is getting really bad. I love weather but it is way to hard to warn for a spin up. I am all for tornado warnings when it is a supercell kinda day. But for this kinda system I say Sever t-storm warning with the possibility of a spin up along that line in the warning.

  19. townrunner says:

    I’ll repost my original thoughts yesterday before the storms formed- from James’ “Severe Weather Potential” post….. As for the earlier post about an EF-1 coming out of a system like this- that is highly unlikely- maybe an EF-0.
    “I’m sure there will be a Tornado Watch issued, maybe rightly so. But what ever happened to a good ole’ Thunderstorm Watch- it seems to be overkill for every system to come with Tornado Watches. I do understand the “better safe than sorry” attitude. But I for one also used to take Tornado Watches more seriously- now, it’s just another Tornado Watch. Maybe the NWS will prove me wrong. But the threat of tornadoes seems extremely low. Thanks for allowing me to vent and all responses are welcome. It’s just how I feel.”

    Well, yesterday’s event only solidifies my above statement.

  20. Jon says:

    From the EM perspective, I say definitely do NOT go with TOR for spin-ups. James is right on the money in his opinions. The fact is that an isolated SVR can be just as deadly, if not more so, than an embedded EF0-1 spin-up–and yet, most counties do not activate sirens for SVR. I think the warning thought process for QLCS events needs to be seriously re-evaluated. It’s a pointless waste of effort. Just blanket the line with SVR and call it a night. Save the TOR’s for the killer cells.

  21. chloe says:

    James, I am gonna do as you asked: Tell it like I see it. First, I COULD NOT BELIEVE that you were straying from your position of PUTTING WEATHER FIRST when there is a tornado warning!!! ABC could have reshown DWTS. Also, you SEEMED to be out of sorts: Was it too many warnings at once? Did you not have complete information? I could not figure that out. But, right before dusk (probably 7:15 – 7:25), I noticed the weird color of the sky, and “tornado” popped into my head. I NEVER do this, but I checked other channels, and Fox6 was showing a spinning disc and they started naming areas which should take cover–and Vestavia was one of those areas. Immediately I got into my closet and the wind was already howling–probably not as loud as a large tornado, but a definite howl–and I could hear limbs hitting my house. The power went off.

    One of the areas where trees are down is the southern crest of Shades Mountain near U.S. 31 in Vestavia. I live south of that area off 31 near Pizitz Middle School. My power was not restored until around 9:30 this morning.

  22. Jared says:

    James, You are completely right… In a situation like last night, the WHOLE line is capable of producing damage equal too or greater than a small spin up tornado. Honestly, tornado warnings need to be saved for hurricanes, supercells, and lines where CLEAR TIGHT circulation is found… If people do not take severe thunderstorm warnings seriously, then God help them… but we cannot ruin the importance of tornado warnings on an event like last night. Blanket the whole line with SVR TSTORM warnings and maybe have an upgrade option (severe tstorm emergency) if particularly high winds are expected (>80mph) and OR small spinup tornadoes are possible. Tornado warnings need to be taken SERIOUSLY! Stop the crying wolf! Great job last night though!

  23. Matt Graves says:

    I mostly agree. Most people I know do not take tornado warnings all that seriously anymore, or find them confusing.

    The best idea, in my opinion, would be to coordinate with other NWS offices dealing with the same squall line and just issue one blanket polygon severe thunderstorm warning ahead of the line wherever a strong potential for wind/hail damage exists – and just update that as the line moves through, you know, give reasonable lead time and also cancel out the areas no longer affected.

    If some spots started to show rotation, a severe weather statement could be issued – and maybe tone alerted on NOAA radio – to say that there is some rotation near (say) Cullman and that although not immediately likely, sometimes severe thunderstorms unexpectedly produce brief tornadoes.

    I would only issue a tornado warning in a line like yesterday’s if I got a reliable report of one either on the ground or developing, or if I saw a tight couplet of rotation that really persisted and I was getting damage reports specifically from the areas that couplet was in. I do think the false alarm ratio needs to come down. If only an average of two out of ten tornado warnings actually end up producing tornadoes . . . it’s no wonder people get tired of hearing them.

    For broadcasters, I really think they should only do brief cut-ins for the kind of warnings we had yesterday and do long-form coverage when a tornado has either been confirmed or is shown on radar in a more tornadic environment than what we had yesterday.

    Just some ideas. I talked with my brother about this a while back, and he was surprised to learn of your opinion, James, and he said, “I have to agree with him, because when I hear `tornado warning’ now, I don’t think, `Oh my God, I better take cover.’ I think, `Let’s watch the guy on TV just on the off chance there’s a tornado nearby.'” He doesn’t get mad at cutting off TV programs, but he just says, hey, usually nothing happens when there’s a tornado warning, so he’s only going to take cover if somebody is really raving about it or says it’s on the ground. And my bro is a very smart and logical type of guy. He had a friend whose house was blown apart in the Veteran’s Day Outbreak of 2002, so it’s not that he doesn’t care about the danger. He just realizes that most warnings are false alarms. I have to admit, James, when I first heard you saying such things on the podcast, I was a little taken aback, but after talking to him and some other regular people about it, I’m agreeing with you more and more. It’s getting to be like the boy who cried wolf sometimes.

  24. chloe says:

    Second verse: I DEFINITELY think a tornado WARNING should be given when there is the possibility of spin-ups. IMO, the thunderstorm warnings now allow weather with very damaging winds and large hail–and much more dangerous weather than usually included in a thunderstorm.

    So, NO WAY do I want to have to fear SMALL TORNADOES when I hear THUNDERSTORM WARNING. Be specific and use the TORNADO WARNING, please.

    You have the capability to identify these areas, SO USE IT AND WARN US!!!! Yes, you have previously warned areas that seemed to have no damage, but last night lots of areas HAD DAMAGE WITH NO SPECIFIC WARNINGS.

  25. Tommy says:

    As a firefighter I can see both sides. However, I believe the EMA community likes to be told the “worse case scenario”. Therefore the EMA forecast should be different then what the meteorologists actually believe is going to happen, which should be the public forecast. No, you cannot warn against a 5 minute or even a 10 minute tornado. It’s just not enough time to go from radar to warning to EMA/broadcasters to the public. It creates false sirens, which create a false sense of security. A big help to this would be to only set off the sirens close to the tornado. Say, within 5 straight line miles and 10 or 15 miles ahead. As far as the technical side of that, I am no help. Surely it can be done though.

  26. Bluff Park Resident says:

    I really appreciate your total live coverage policy and just wish it had been full-screen last night as the “probable” tornado passed overhead in Bluff Park. I was in my safe place with my small digital TV and would have preferred to see the large radar rather than the boxed screens with the dancers more prominent. On my small digital TV it was impossible to see the weather portion, and I have to admit that since I was in the line of the severe weather, I jumped to another channel to see the full-screen radar. TV entertainment should never take precedence over the safety of people, and I honestly mean that even when the storm isn’t in my area of Alabama.

  27. Mary Frances says:

    I’d like it if the tornado sirens were targeted by community, rather than having all of Jeff Co’s sirens go off at once.

    I want to know when I should bring the kids down from their bedrooms, whether due to tornado risk or straight-wind risk.

    I think the tornado warnings should be reserved for actual or suspected tornadoes. Squall lines that are dangerous enough that people should take cover should have a different warning – perhaps a different siren warning. If the severe thunderstorm warning is a “take cover now!!” kind of warning then we need better education on that fact.

  28. Erica says:

    I agree that they should issue Severe Thunderstorm Warnings and make it a point to stress the possibility of small, short-lived tornadoes. I have seen how complacent that people can get by the end of each tornado season, so tornado warning for events such as these should be avoided for the most part, in my opinion.

  29. Lynn says:

    Sounds like many of you are right to some degree. There were too many warnings, but we need the warnings, tv programming was interrupted too much, but what’s more important your safety or a neighbors or our ability to watch a tv show?

    Seems in some situations (like yestereday) that there could be a balance of running a ticker along the bottom of the screen AND giving live updates during commercials or parts of the scheduled show.

    The ticker, a map in the corner of screen, and live updates at 10-15 intervals should balance the need of safety for the public with the wants of viewers and the need of the station to adhere to the program schedule.

    This suggestion doesn’t apply to more dangerous storms that could cause significantly worse injury & damage that we sometimes see.

    It’s a judgment call – and James & staff should have the freedom to make that call based off the facts of any given weather situation.

    James, thanks for your work yesterday to keep all of us informed. Many of us out here appreciate your efforts even if yesterday was not consistent with the classic set up for a large tornado outbreak.

  30. Randall says:

    I feel like this. If there is a chance of tornado’s and a warning is issued, you should be on the air. How many times has small tornado’s spun up that your radar did not show. For example, two weeks after the April 8th 1998 Tornado, In Oxford and Anniston Area was a small tornado that I chased and all the TV media’s radar did not show anything. But everyone saw it and some experienced it. that is a prime example of a small spin up tornado. I say we go live and warn people. Prepare and be prepared for the worst at any time.

  31. Bluff Park Resident says:

    Weather reports only during commercial breaks, or 10-15 minute intervals, or scrolls across the screen won’t warn people in time to take shelter. Had that been the case last night, I and many others, would not have been in our safe places in time as trees came down from the Bessemer Airport, along Shades Crest, and over into Vestavia from a small spin-off. People’s safety first….then entertainment!

  32. Gail says:

    People should take all severe weather WARNINGS serious, and take cover. You never know when high winds can bring down trees and power lines that can kill, it doesn’t have to be a EF5 on the ground to kill you. As for the split screen last night with trying to please everyone, I say if abc3340 or any other station for that matter feels the need to cover the severe weather event, THEN COVER THE WEATHER EVENT, and leave the other programs for reruns. I could not see the weather box enough to tell what was going on, lucky for me I depend on the weather radio first and formost. By the way, I am a F5 survivor from the Smithfield tornado, so I am very much in touch with what can come out of the sky and thank God I’m here today to tell people take ALL WARNINGS SERIOUSLY! And if you don’t have a NOAA weather radio, run, don’t walk, to the nearest store and buy it today!

  33. mikey says:

    Since I live in Oak Grove, when my family heres a siren we turn it on to Spann, its like automatic to do so. I understand that people do get tired of there shows being interrupted. But it will only take one tornado small or big in a community to wake people up about the weather and the dangers of storms. Having said that I did think there were to many tornado warnings for these storms based on broad circulation. I always had the understanding that a severe thunderstorm warning meant that the winds were at least 55mph and I look at that like it could produce a tornado, so I would have taken cover or at least been more observant. Maybe the NWS should have this in the warning when issuing a tstorm warning, because I think people dont take them serious enough. If we could get into peoples head that a severe t storm can produce a tornado at anytime maybe they would take them serious. This would take care of broad cir. warnings being tornado warnings, help Spann out from having to be on t.v. talking basically about a severe t storm. just my thoughts but anyways when your on Spann we are watching no matter what!

  34. thunder says:

    We have to remember that the NWS has upped there definition of a severe thunderstorm warning for the hail part. There are about anywhere from 20 – 40 percent less Severe thunderstorms warnings issued now based on what part of the country you live in (here it is probably about 20 percent). That means that severe thunderstorm warnings need to be taken more seriously and that they mean more than they use to. I realize that hail was not the issue last night. We had tornado warnings on March 27, and what did people do in Gadsden and around Jasper? They just kept on driving and going about there business when the threat was seen on towercam on both of those instances. We could see the low hanging ominous clouds. People are too apathetic. There are cone warnings for severe thunderstorm warnings and tornado warnings. The answer is for everyone to have a tornado and a severe thunderstorm warning plan. The winds were 90 to 100 miles per hour based on the survery reports received today across Tuscaloosa, Pickens, Jefferson, Bibb, and Walker counties. That is way more than 58 miles per hour which is the definition of a severe thunderstorm warning. I agreed with the Jefferson country warning when the storm came over Bessemer and Vestavia. It had a hook to it. The Cleburne county storm had a slight hook to it as well. The rest of them with what I could see did not have a hook at all. It is a judgement call. The weather service did there job they did the best job they could. There job is to issue warnings based on what they see. I do not know the answer to James question, but I do know the last couple of years have had some mean severe thunderstorms warnings that have caused much damage, just like last night. Take warnings seriously. That is the screaming message of the last two Monday nights in a row.

  35. thunder says:

    By the way, you must have a NOAA weather radio. It is the best way to get warnings.

  36. Person says:

    My family lives in riverchase and last night we were literally hunkered down in the basement with cushions of the couch covering us up expecting a tornado to move over our heads. That was kind

  37. Person says:

    of the last straw with us because we are usually just like oh it’s just another tornado warning but now we will never take oneseriously again. We’ve grown so used to this stuff that unless it’s within a few hundred feet of us we just sit on the sofa and watch it on tv or even stand on the porch and watch the tornado go by. But more than half the time there isn’t anything anywhere that actually happens, it’s all “radar-indicated” now. We were really better off without NEXRAD to cause so many false alarms.

  38. Josh says:

    Unfortunately it will continue to get worse as most of these offices are increasingly staffed with paranoid “mesophrenics”. This is especially true in the management ranks! The CYA response is continuing to grow, just look at SPC for instance. Do they even issue SVR watches now? It seems that anytime they put out a box for the southeast it is a tornado watch. A moderate risk at one time meant much more than it does today. A slight risk is a joke now. Don’t get me started on severe thunderstorm warnings as they are now thrown out like candy. The hail criteria was raised and the wind criteria should be raised as well. Soon, we will be under a watch almost everyday in the summer for pulse severe storms. It’s all about CYA…CYA!

  39. John Talbot says:

    Go with a SVR warning like you stated. UNLESS there is a STRONG indication or a funnel spotted that you would the pull the trigger on a TOR warning. As far as the risk categories go, I have seen more action come out of a “slight risk” than a “moderate”. Too many times you have a CAP in place during a moderate or high risk & the SPC is simply looking at if the CAP breaks, then BOOM! The ONLY thing that I disagree with Spann about is when he classifies a “slight risk” as the SPC standard risk, it takes away from other folks taking a slight risk seriously. IMO, a general thunderstorm risk would be their standard. A slight risk does have some meaning behind it.

  40. BaseballMom says:

    After reading the storm reports from the NWS it amazes me that there is even a discussion about whether to warn or not to warn. The straight line winds were measured at 90-100 mph. That’s small hurricane winds. That would be like saying to not warn those along the coast because the hurricane isn’t big enough to interupt DWTS. There was significant damage and thankfully no one was injured but it was possible. My child was on a bus coming home from a baseball game. It was very important, to me, that I know where the storm was, where it was headed and if they were going to be in danger. And quite frankly…at that point in time (or any point in time) I could have not cared less if Kirsti Alley fell on her butt while she was *dancing*. WARN!!!!!

  41. James Spann says:

    Hi BaseballMom… You missed the point… there would be warnings for the whole line, but severe thunderstorm warnings with the clear message that widespread damaging wind is likely. Issuing tornado warnings when there are no tornadoes makes no sense… that would be like issuing a tsunami warning for a flash flood situation. Both are dangerous, but radically different.

  42. James, How are you? It has been a long time since we talked and visited together at the Southeast Severe Weather Symposium on the Super Outbreak in 1974.

    I think you touch on a very good point in your blog. As you know, I moved from the Storm Prediction Center to be MIC in Indianapolis, IN where we deal with QLCS-type tornadoes very frequently.

    First of all, we need to realize that there are TWO types of severe thunderstorms: 1) those storms defined by the NWS as hail greater than 1-inch in diameter, convective winds of 58 mph or greater, and/or tornadoes. The other being as what THE PUBLIC perceives to be severe.

    I make this point because when someone’s home is damaged, whether it is a possible tornado or damaging winds, they swear it is a tornado. Studies by Tim Marshall made after the May 3, 1999 tornado in Oklahoma City points out that many homes are built to withstand 90-100 mph winds, depending on the code of that state, but for the most part they are built to withstand this force of wind. Once winds achieve this force,(which is equivalent to EF1 damage).

    Straight-line winds of 60-110 mph creates similar damage to EF1 damage from a tornado. They are very hard to detect on radar, when when they are detected, the couplet is there for one scan, no more than two.

    The question then remains; how does the public react to severe thunderstorm warnings? Do they act similarly to tornado warnings? We have counties in Indiana that sound the sirens when there is a severe thunderstorm warning in a tornado watch. This will change for the immediate Marion County that houses Indianapolis, but other emergency officials may not want to make the change because of the supposed threat of a tornado in the severe thunderstorm warning area, as stated in the NWS warning call to action.

    It is necessary for NWS, emergency officials and broadcast media to reiterate the dangers associated with most storms (supercells, squall-lines (QLCS). If we continue to do this together, the public is served and properly prepared. Believe me, I agree with Jim S. as we try to perfect the warnings for the public, but as we find here in central Indiana, it will lead to larger tornado warning polygons with only several minute lead times.

    Be well, my friend.

  43. James Spann says:

    Great comments Dan… thanks so much for stopping by….

  44. Beau Dodson says:

    I just wish they would raise the wind speeds for a severe thunderstorm from 58 mph to 70 mph. That would cut down on a bunch of these silly warnings.

  45. Jason H says:

    This is truly a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” type situation. Say they don’t warn on a spinup and it does do damage, then public asks “why weren’t we warned”.

    I would agree that a Svr T-storm warning with specific wording to the effect of “this storm may produce brief tornadoes without warning” would help, but how many people read or listen to the entire text of a warning, outside of us weather geeks?

  46. George Louth says:

    With basicly three “types” of tornadoes in the southeast (qlcs/lewp spinups, tropical related, and discrete “cell rooted”) (I listed by least to worst damage) I think that with current tech limitations that there should be a higher severe tstrm warning to go with an extreme wind event (80 +). These cause as much threat to life and property as an ef-1 (see BHM storm surveys with 100+ winds) With the event last week in GA we had one tornado death and 5 thunderstorm wind related deaths…BTW great call James, along with when you stayed on air few weeks back with thunderstrom only threat due to extreme wind threat…ABC33/40 is so far ahead of the Atlanta market….

  47. Joe says:

    There’s many different possible solutions to this issue, but unfortunately each come with it’s own set of pros/cons.

    Situation: Line of thunderstorms with widespread straight line winds, isolated spin-up tornadoes.

    Solution 1: Issue tornado warnings.

    -More people hear the warning and take it more seriously (sirens going off that only go off for TORs, weather radios alerting people that have their radio set to only alert for tornado warnings, etc.)

    -Higher detection rate (no “it came without warning” when a spin up tornado is confirmed.

    -Fits the true NWS definition of a tornado warning as signs were present that a tornado could have been developing (even though only a small one)

    -Higher false alarm rate
    -People may start ignoring the warnings and not take it seriously when an EF-5 is coming
    -Takes away from the straight line wind risk elsewhere in the line (which may be just as damaging as the possible spin up tornado)

    Solution 2: Issue Severe T-storm warnings with wording that spin up tornadoes could occur.

    -Gives equal credibility to the whole squall line rather than small sections of the squall
    -Preserves the extra significance of a tornado warning so that it’s less likely to be ignored when issued in the future for strong tornadoes

    -People already do not take Severe T-storm warnings very seriously, thus the risk of injury is higher.
    -Issues of “no warning” will arrise if tornado damage is discovered.
    -People with wx radios only set for Tornado warnings will not know that they need to be taking shelter
    -A lot of outdoor sirens will not sound

    Solution 3: Increase the criteria for our current warnings (ie. higher winds before issuing a severe t-storm warning)

    Pros: Makes the warnings hold more weight

    Cons: Current warning criteria is intense enough to do damage and may lead to confusion, unpreparedness and lack of warning for significant events

    Solution 4: Start over from scratch with the warning process with different named warnings for different criteria (ie. “Weak Tornado Warning”, “Strong Tornado Warning”, “Damaging Wind Warning”, “Extreme Wind Warning”, etc…Same idea as the “PDS watches” or the Saffir Simpson scale to correlate how significant of a threat that a hurricane is)

    -Much more detailed warnings
    -People can customize just how strong of wind or tornado that they want to be warned for by their wx radio (ie. only receive “strong tornado warnings” while those interested in “weak tornado warnings” can set theirs to warn them of such if they choose)
    -A potentially easy to understand (if implemented properly and people take the time to learn) method of warning people on a customized level based on severity.

    -Too many people would not take the time the learn
    -An extreme amount of extra work to reprogram weather radios and warning softwares.

    Ultimately, I think solution 3 would be the most helpful option, but I highly doubt that would be a feasible option anytime in the near future.

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