Tornado Warnings May Have Had Desired Effect

Over 100 tornadoes touched down Saturday in the Great Plains, causing millions of dollars in damage across Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. Despite the wreckage, there were few fatalities, a result perhaps due in part to the National Weather Service's warnings. Russell Schneider of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., offers his insight.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

If you were listening to the radio around Wichita, Kansas, last night, you'd have heard this terrifying warning from the National Weather Service.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is a life-threatening situation. You could be killed if not underground or in a tornado shelter. Complete destruction of entire neighborhoods is likely. Mass devastation is highly likely, making the area unrecognizable to survivors.

RAZ: More than 100 tornadoes touched down in Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa over the past 36 hours. And while they caused millions in damage, and tragically five people were killed, most people made it out OK. Part of that may have had to do with new early warning technology the National Weather Service is using and also a network of storm chasers who send in regular updates like this one from last night near Salina, Kansas.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I do see condensation on the ground. It is now a tornado. Repeat. A tornado is on the ground.

RAZ: Russell Schneider is the director of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, and he joins me now. Russell, first of all, how severe were these storms in comparison to others you've seen in recent years?

RUSSELL SCHNEIDER: Oh, these were powerful storms, certainly one of the larger tornado outbreaks we'll experience this spring. Powerful tornadoes are common within the Great Plains each year. This is a remarkably strong outbreak. Not as big as the outbreak over the Southeast United States on April 27th of last year. And there's others that are larger still, but it was a very powerful storm system. Probably the strongest that we'll see in the Great Plains this year.

RAZ: Now, the warnings from the National Weather Service were, you know, as we heard, they were very strong. Is that usual?

SCHNEIDER: Well, this is a new experimental program that has been implemented at just a couple offices this year in response to the Joplin tornado. Wichita, Kansas, who issued that particular warning is one of those offices, and it's an attempt to provide more information on what is known by the forecasters at the moment that they issue that warning so that folks in the path of that specific storm in that specific community would hear the message that there's a very large tornado approaching their area, and they need to take shelter immediately.

Tornado warnings like that aren't issued for every storm, and so that's important to note. That was one specific storm with a, I believe, a strong tornado confirmed on the ground approaching that area.

RAZ: Russell, looking ahead, is it going to be a particularly violent spring for tornadoes and other severe weather?

SCHNEIDER: Well, every spring is pretty violent for tornadoes and severe weather. This is our peak time of year, and April is the beginning of that peak. We had an early storm in March, and March is also not uncommon to have very strong and powerful tornado outbreaks. As we move into May, they'll become more widespread across the United States and into the Midwest region. And, of course, it doesn't start to taper off until August - late July and into August - and we start the cycle over again.

RAZ: That's Russell Schneider. He's the director of NOAA's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. Russell, thank you so much.

SCHNEIDER: Oh, you're welcome.

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