J. Pat Carter/AP
This May 3, 1999, funnel became the F-5 storm that damaged thousands of buildings in central Okahoma. University of Oklahoma storm chasers and observers are anticipating the annual tornado season as it approaches the central part of the country.
For many, the only way they learn a tornado is approaching are sirens. In the spring and summer, tornado sirens go off a lot more when twisters roar across Alabama, which has been hit by 900 since 2000, accounting for a quarter of all U.S. tornado deaths.
"I am still surprised that so many people rely on just one source of getting warned, and that has to change," said Jim Stefkovich, meteorologist in charge of the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service.
James Spann, a longtime television meteorologist at Birmingham's ABC affiliate, says the reliance on sirens has led to dozens of deaths over the years. "In the siren mentality, it's the idea that you're always going to hear a tornado siren before a tornado strikes. And I believe it's a farce."
Sirens are decades-old air-raid technology from World War II that were designed, principally, to warn people who are outdoors of threats. Today, homes are built and insulated so well that outdoor warnings rarely make it inside. And since the killer tornadoes last year in Alabama, weather experts have ramped up educational efforts.
In Tuscaloosa, where a massive tornado obliterated part of the town last April, a dozen volunteers recently sat at tables inside a supermarket, programming $30 weather radios, which broadcast warnings when bad weather is near.
Dozens of people line up in a Tuscaloosa, Ala., supermarket. They're buying weather alert radios and having them programmed to receive specific warnings about bad weather. Tuscaloosa was hit by a monster tornado that decimated parts of the town last April.
Dozens of people line up in a Tuscaloosa, Ala., supermarket. They're buying weather alert radios and having them programmed to receive specific warnings about bad weather. Tuscaloosa was hit by a monster tornado that decimated parts of the town last April. Russell Lewis/NPR
Experts say that every home should have a minimum of one of these radios. Hundreds of people showed up to purchase and learn how to use the devices. Among them was Martha Moore, who already owned a radio but was buying some for relatives.
"For some reason everybody thinks it's not going to happen to them, and then when it does, it's a little too late to make those preparations," she said.
Next-Generation Weather Alerts
Last year was the deadliest tornado season in the United States since 1917 — 550 people died. And even though the start of the traditional tornado season is weeks away, 49 people have already died this year in places like Henryville, Ind., West Liberty, Ky., and Birmingham, Ala.
Preparation, and the lack thereof, have gotten the attention of those in the weather industry and social scientists. Both groups are trying to learn what people were thinking during the storms and how they reacted.
Laura Myers, a researcher at Mississippi State University, says she and her team have conducted more than 2,000 interviews.
- There have been 16,002 confirmed tornadoes in the U.S.
- 1,204 people have been killed by tornadoes.
- Nearly 25 percent of these people (296 people) have died in Alabama. (242 of these deaths came from a particularly deadly 2011 tornado season.)
— National Weather Service
"[People] wanted additional confirmation," Myers says. "They wanted to know they were directly in the path of the storm. If they got it through the television, then they checked their radios. They checked their smartphones. They called people. Many people went outside to see if they could see it coming."
That kind of thinking has led some in the private sector to see opportunities. Weather radios warn people when bad weather approaches a county, but counties can be huge — hundreds of miles across — causing many to ignore warnings.
New technology aims to change that. One is a $10 smartphone application called iMap Weather Radio created by Weather Decision Technologies.
Forecasters now issue next-generation alerts that focus on much smaller geographical areas where bad weather is expected. Company Vice President Mark Taylor says this application uses the phone's GPS to determine whether someone is actually threatened.
Computer screens at the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service show forecast models. Meteorologists use the information to predict severe weather. During Alabama's tornado outbreak on April 27, 2011, forecasters were forced to take shelter when one of the twisters came close to their offices.
Computer screens at the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service show forecast models. Meteorologists use the information to predict severe weather. During Alabama's tornado outbreak on April 27, 2011, forecasters were forced to take shelter when one of the twisters came close to their offices. Russell Lewis/NPR
"There's no reason at this point why people should die because they didn't know," Taylor says. "The day of not knowing that you were in danger — I think it's very frustrating that it still exists, that people say, 'We didn't know.' "
Of course, not everyone can afford a smartphone. Birmingham meteorologist Spann says he and his colleagues recognize their own limitations. "We're not as good as we think we are, and we have to accept that and work on it and be better, and admit the warning process has some work to do."
The National Weather Service is updating its radar sites across the country. It will help forecasters predict the weather better, but that doesn't mean people will pay attention.