Forecasters: Clearer Warnings Could Save Lives

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) -- Listen up: If dangerous weather is on the way, the National Weather Service wants you to pay attention. So it plans to change the way some local weather warnings are worded to emphasize just how dangerous a storm can be. National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said authorities hope to revamp guidelines for local forecasters to include more detailed language before the 2009 Atlantic hurricane season officially begins June 1.

It means that when the weather is getting dangerous, the weather service warnings that flash across TV screens and air on the radio alerts would say so, clearly and up front.

"In any particular storm situation you always want to have as clear and concise language as you can to get the message across, and also so folks realize the gravity of the situation," Feltgen said.

The new guidelines would not just affect statements for hurricanes. Officials say a variety of local weather statements could be more clear about potential danger. A report on an outbreak of tornadoes that ripped through the South in February 2008 found that some local statements failed to convey the peril. The storms killed more than 50 people and destroyed hundreds of homes.

"Wording such as 'extremely dangerous and life threatening situation' should have been employed more often in tornado warnings and follow-up severe weather statements," says the report, which was released this month.

It continues, "Many call-to-action statements that did not convey the urgency of the event were used. ... Statements such as 'this is an extremely dangerous and life threatening situation' would increase the level of significance of these products."

Officials also pointed to local weather statements issued when Hurricane Ike blasted into Texas last year. A local statement released on Sept. 13, the day the storm hit Galveston, warned residents that the dangerous tropical system would likely cause severe inundation, but that warning was not at the beginning of the dispatch.

The statement said "neighborhoods that are affected by the storm surge ... And possibly entire coastal communities ... will be inundated during the period of peak storm tide. Many residences of average construction directly on the coast will be destroyed."

Put simply, that meant coastal communities were going to be flooded. Hurricane Ike was blamed for at least 72 deaths, including 37 in Texas.

Feltgen said the descriptions would be part of "call-to-action" statements from the local weather service offices. The statements are released after the National Hurricane Center sends out an advisory on a storm system. Local statements already include more detail on where a storm could hit than national advisories do, Feltgen said. The national advisory plots a broader course for the tropical system.

"It would be nearly impossible for the National Hurricane Center advisory to contain all that because it varies - literally - from county to county," Feltgen said.

About 75 percent of the homes in Galveston sustained damage from Ike's winds, rain and 12-foot storm surge when the hurricane roared ashore last fall.

"There's obviously the sense that some people underestimated the strength of it," said Kent Prochazka, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service's Houston/Galveston office. "Whether that was because they didn't read the product or they didn't have access to it ... unfortunately you're going to have to ask them and some of those people are dead."


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