The Final Link in the Integrated Warning System

As Christmas Day twilight descended on Mobile, AL, so did a supercell bearing a significant (EF2) tornado shown in the video below.

The tornado looks like a violent wedge; but fortunately for the residents of Mobile, it wasn’t as intense as it looked. The huge apparent size was related to the low cloud base above the condensation funnel, making the tornado seem fatter than it was. Maximum path width was “only” 200 yards, according to the NWS Mobile damage survey (map).

Nonetheless, this tornado had the potential to cause mass causalities, moving through such a densely populated area. Were the very same event to happen in the 1950s or before, when tornado forecasting and warning were primitive to nonexistent, I safely can surmise there would have been scores of deaths. Perhaps some of the lack of deaths and injuries in Mobile was pure serendipity. It probably helped that most businesses were closed, and being Christmas, fewer folks were out and about than usual for that hour of a weekday. However, I’d like to attribute much of that “good luck” to the success of what legendary severe-weather scientist and forecaster Al Moller long ago termed the Integrated Warning System.

The Integrated Warning System is the entire hazard-notification and response process, composed not only of the NWS (from advanced outreach to outlooks to watches to warnings), but also private and media meteorologists, storm spotters, emergency management, law enforcement and all users of severe-weather information. The last and most crucial link in the Integrated Warning System is each individual, who ultimately bears the responsibility for his/her own weather awareness and preparedness.

If any link in that chain breaks, the Integrated Warning System can fail. Bad forecasts can lead to a breakdown, as can hardware or software failures of radar and warning equipment systems, or a lack of competent and well-positioned storm spotters, or inadequate preparation by state, county and local entities tasked with risk reduction. Even if every function works well right down to the individual citizen, the Integrated Warning System still breaks down when the person(s) being warned do not received the warning, or ignore it, or don’t prepare for the potential emergency.

That brings me to the following video, a collection of snippets from security cameras at a Walgreen’s drug store in Mobile.

I find this footage simultaneously fascinating, disappointing and nearly miraculous. Over the last several years, fortuitously placed security cameras have allowed us to get inside tornadoes safely to better appreciate their destructive power and flow characteristics. They also have shown how folks who easily could have been hurt or killed somehow escaped serious injury. That was the case here.

Without contacting them and performing surveys and interviews, it’s not possible to get inside the heads of those in that store and presume their motivations for being there at that time, and the reasons for being so obviously unprepared and unaware of impending danger. We only can see that they were.

It is fair to wonder, “why?” It’s not as if residents of the area should have been unaware that tornadoes can happen there in December. After all, another damaging tornado cut a path through the same city just five days before. The Christmas Day severe weather threat was noted in both local weather discussions and national outlooks several days out and on into the same day. The area had been under a PDS (particularly dangerous situation) tornado watch for four hours, and was under a highest-level (“tornado emergency”) form of warning from NWS Mobile. This tornado absolutely, positively did not “hit without warning” in a literal sense! Yet it’s clear that some either didn’t comprehend the danger or chose to ignore it.

Clearly much work remains to be done on the social-science side of the Integrated Warning System to reduce the level of misunderstanding and unawareness of severe weather threats. I say “reduce” and not “eliminate”, pragmatically realizing that the flip side of our freedoms as individuals in this nation include the right to be as unprepared as we wish, and that some unfortunately will exercise that freedom. Meanwhile I’m thankful the event was nowhere nearly as terrible as it could have been!


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