Enhanced warnings may better communicate severe weather risks

by: Katie Virtue Updated:


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Sharon Brown couldn’t believe her eyes when she stepped out the back door of her Harrisburg home during the early morning hours of March 3. A tornado ripped through everything, snapping trees, crushing a doghouse and tearing apart a garage with steel beams. The more than 100-mph winds even toppled a 60,000-pound RV.

“It just came and went, just that fast -- in the blink of an eye,” Brown said.

And it came without any warning from the National Weather Service. The tornado touched down just after 2 a.m., and in only three minutes it left a path of destruction across the Mecklenburg and Cabarrus county line. 

Brown is frustrated that she and her two sons were not better prepared for the severe storm.

“With all the technology we've got, you would think that we would be better on top of storms,” she said.  

It seems that the National Weather Service feels the same way. The organization is partnering with UNC Chapel Hill to research how it can better communicate the biggest risks before severe weather strikes.

Typically, severe thunderstorm warnings and tornado warnings contain basic information, such as a storm's location and its speed. But starting this April, five weather service offices will take regular warnings to a whole new level.

For example, current warnings use stock phrases such as “a tornado is likely developing” and suggestions to “seek shelter in an interior room.” But the new enhanced warnings will contain bullet points with very specific details about the storm. A tornado may be described explicitly as “a life-threatening situation” that will cause “extensive damage to homes.”

The project began after devastating storms nearly destroyed Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo., last year. When necessary, the new impact-based warnings will use words like “catastrophic” so that people stand up, pay attention and take shelter if they have to.  

The enhanced warnings will be tested in parts of Kansas, Missouri and Illinois through this summer. Then, a pair of researchers in Chapel Hill will evaluate the results. Jessica Losego is one of them.

“We'll have a set of questions to go out with and just find out basically whether these warnings made a difference for them,” Losego said.  

Losego will interview emergency managers and members of the media to find out how they will use the new information included in each warning. She wants to know if they'll make decisions more quickly and confidently, especially when they are trying to protect and help the public.

“We're not quite sure yet what effect it will really have on the public yet,” she said. “So we'll need some storms in Missouri and eastern Kansas to really assess whether it makes a difference or not.”

The National Weather Service will study the results closely, with the goal of expanding the warnings nationwide. In the meantime, Brown said she will be ready with a weather radio by her side when the next storm strikes.

“We are going to rebuild,” she said. “We've got plans.”