Policy Buzz: Senate Hearing Follows Tornado Outbreak

by Caitlin Buzzas, AMS Policy Program
On May 3, Dr. William Hooke, Director of the AMS Policy Program, testified before Senator John Rockefeller (D-WV) and other members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. He was joined by Bob Ryan, Senior Meteorologist at ABC7/WJLA-TV, Dr. Anne Kiremidjian of Stanford University and Dr. Clint Dawson of the University of Texas, together they discussed “America’s Natural Disaster Preparedness: Are Federal Investments Paying Off?”
As the hearing was convened in part as a response to the earthquake in Japan, Dr. Kiremidjian focused her testimony on earthquake and tsunami issues. Dr. Dawson discussed advances in storm surge modeling.
This hearing (full video here) took place soon after one of the worst weather disasters in the U.S. of the last century with tornadoes killing at least 327 in the South East. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) this may have been the largest tornado outbreak in U.S. history. Although this disaster was horrific in terms of the many lives lost and the huge economic toll, the hearing gave our community the needed opportunity to highlight what we do and the importance of accurate weather forecasts and earth observation systems.
Dr. Hooke stated in his testimony that these systems and science play an especially important role in the United States:

Because of its size and location, the United States bears a unique degree of risk from natural hazards. We suffer as many winter storms as Russia or China, and as many hurricanes as China or Japan. Our coasts are exposed not just to storms but to earthquakes and tsunamis. Dust bowls and wildfire have shaped our history. And 70% of the world’s tornadoes, and some 90% of the truly damaging ones, occur on our soil.

Ryan emphasized in his testimony that amidst the many scientific improvements, the whole weather forecast process is a multisector enterprise that depends on the capabilities of, and cooperation with, Federal agencies.  The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) is an example of that critical Federal capability. As Congress decides what to cut in the upcoming budget deliberations, programs such as the JPSS will have to get the recognition they deserve to keep functioning. The data and imagery obtained from JPSS will increase the timeliness and accuracy of public warnings and forecasts of climate and weather events, thus reducing the potential loss of life and property. This has a direct effect on the health and stability of our national economy. It is important, even in a time of economic hardship, to keep programs like JPSS fully functional for the long-term health of the country. Both Hooke and Ryan made this point. Said Ryan:

Some may argue that loss of polar orbiting data will not degrade our current weather/climate observing and forecasting skill . . . but, what if they are wrong! Polar and geostationary weather satellites are an integral and critical core element of providing very accurate weather forecasts and life saving planning and decision making for weather and other natural disasters from tornadoes and hurricanes to fires, drought, dangerous air quality and oil spills.

As Dr. Hooke highlighted in his testimony there are several other things that can be done to improve our current disaster preparedness:

  • Maintain our essential warnings system
  • Bring to bear not just meteorology and engineering, but also social science
  • Learn from experience
  • Build public-private partnerships
  • Explore No-Adverse Impact Policies for flood and other hazards
  • Track progress/keep score. (There’s more about this proposal on Dr. Hooke’s blog, Living on the Real World.)

The issues that our community deals with everyday, highlighted through a hearing of this kind, are not just important to the world of science and meteorology, but important to the health and stability of the American economy and public as a whole. I believe that Senator Rockefeller, Senator Nelson, Senator Boxer and others left the hearing with not only a greater understanding of our community and the important role that we play in the health of our country, but with a continued desire to highlight the importance of our work.

Moove Over, Dr. Fujita!

Thanks to Paul Douglas and D.J. Kayser for a report on Josh Wurman’s presentation at St. Cloud State University about the Doppler on Wheels project (based at the Center for Severe Storm Research in Boulder, Colorado).

Dr. Wurman explained that since the DOW project started about 15 years ago, the vehicles have seen between 160-170 tornadoes, about 15-20 of them with the VORTEX 2 project which was aimed at better understanding tornado formation and to hopefully push the lead time out for tornadic storms. Part of Dr. Wurman’s research is also to study the lower level winds of a tornado in hopes to come up with an even better Fujita Scale (yes, different from the current Enhanced Fujita Scale) and hopefully be able to better warn areas that would be impacted by tornadoes, especially since there is currently little ability to forecast the intensity, duration, and size of tornadoes, unlike we can with hurricanes.

Even with that kind of experience it doesn’t look like Wurman’s udder tornado scale will be putting Fujita’s version to pasture any time soon.

No Do-Overs for Plainfield, Please

If ever there was a day meteorologists might like to do over, it was exactly 20 years ago today, on 28 August 1990. Somehow, on an afternoon originally projected to have a mere moderate risk of severe weather, an F-5 tornado—the only such powerful tornado in August in U.S. history—struck northern Illinois, killing 29 people in the small town of Plainfield, just 30 miles southwest of Chicago.
The sky turned black, and few people knew what happened as the rain-wrapped tornado ripped through the landscape. Almost no one saw the funnel. (Paul Sirvatka, just then starting up his College of DuPage storm chasing program was a rare exception.) Even though another tornado was spotted earlier in the afternoon in northern Illinois, no sirens wailed in Plainfield until too late. No tornado warnings were issued until too late.
Tom Skilling (WGNE-TV) broadcast a report this week for the 20th anniversary of the tragic tornado, explaining why warnings would likely be much better should similar weather now threaten the Chicago area.

The gist of the story: back in 1990 Chicagoland didn’t have NEXRAD Doppler radar and other recent advances in observing and modeling. Also, the aftermath led to a reorganization of the overworked Weather Service meteorologists in Illinois, narrowing the purview of the Chicago office and adding more offices to help cover the state.
While most stories in the media (for example, also here) have been showing why 20 years have made a repeat of Plainfield’s helplessness less likely, Gino Izzo of the NWS Chicago office decided to have a do-over anyway–on the computer. At his presentation for the AMS Conference on Broadcast Meteorology in June, Izzo described how he reran the severe weather forecasts for 28 August 1990 using the North American Regional Reanalysis and the most up-to-date model of 2010, the Weather Research & Forecast model (WRF) from UCAR.
With a nested 4 km grid at its most detailed, Izzo ran the WRF overnight–it took 10 hours on the available computer in the office–and found that in fact, with the observational limits of 1990, the latest, greatest numerical forecasting doesn’t really improve the severe weather outlooks for the Plainfield disaster. The WRF moved the likely areas of severe weather (not tornadoes necessarily, but probably winds associated with a bow echo) too far eastward. Only when the model time horizon was getting within a few hours of the killer tornado did the severe weather outlook for northern Illinois start to look moderate, as the model begins to slow down the eastward progress of the cold front.
Audio and slides from Izzo’s striking presentation are available on the AMS meeting archive. The message is pretty clear: no matter how good the models get, Doppler radar, wind profilers, aircraft-based soundings, and satellites make a huge difference in our severe weather safety these days.
Of course, with or without better warnings, a repeat of the Plainfield disaster would be potentially catastrophic. The area has more than doubled its population since 1990. And 28 August just happened to be one day before school resumed for the fall—few people were at the high school that was totally destroyed that day. Even just a day’s difference, let alone two decades, could have been critical. Nobody wants a do-over.

Atlanta Tornado and Impacts: Weather 2009

In the evening of March 14, 2008, the Georgia World Congress Center where the 90th Annual Meeting of the AMS is taking place this year was hit by an EF2 tornado. The supercell thunderstorm that produced the tornado was unexpected that day, with an outbreak of tornadoes forecast for, and subsequently realized, the next day.

Portion of 2008 Atlanta tornado track
Track and intensity of Atlanta tornado through downtown. (Adapted from NWS Atlanta tornado report.)

The adjacent Omni Hotel as well as CNN Center and a number of nearby hotels and buildings suffered significant damage in the tornado. CNN Center alone lost more than 1600 windows, and windows are still missing in the tube-shaped Westin Peachtree Plaza tower.
CNN was not broadcasting live from Atlanta that night with programming instead coming from its New York and Washington offices. If the 24-hour network had been live from CNN Center, “It could have been a classic You Tube moment,” says Brandon Miller, a weather producer for CNN International, adding, with “us in the center of the tornado, anchors looking all around, fear on their faces … Fortunately, that didn’t happen.” Miller says CNN didn’t cover the tornado strike itself live, but “covered the heck out of the damage afterwords.”
While this tornado event won’t be presented as part of Impacts: Weather 2009 at the 2010 AMS Annual Meeting, a presentation during this Tuesday session will look at Tornado Effects on a Rural Hospital: Impacts of an EF-3 Tornado that struck Americus, Georgia in March 2007 (2:00 PM, January 19, 2010, B206). A presentation Wednesday morning (9:15 AM, B217) will look at lightning characteristics of the Georgia tornado outbreak the day after the 2008 Atlanta tornado. Its author commented that lightning characteristics of the tornadic storm that struck Atlanta the previous day might also be presented, if time allows.
Also, a poster to be presented Monday will investigate the relationship, if any, between Southeastern tornadoes and drought. A climatological analysis of antecedent drought and spring tornadic activity will be available for viewing during the poster session Observed and Projected Climate Change from 2:30 – 4:00 PM Monday, January 18.