WHAT OTHERS SAY: If a tornado warning sounds, seek shelter. Period

Monday, September 26, 2011 | 9:23 a.m. CDT

An analysis of the response to Joplin’s tornado warning reads like a variation of Aesop’s Fable "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."

An assessment of the devastating tornado by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded a vast majority of Joplin residents failed to seek shelter immediately upon hearing the initial warning because of widespread disregard for sirens.

The disregard is based on experience.

Just as the shepherd boy's false cries of "Wolf! Wolf!" were not followed by the appearance of the predator, so past siren soundings were not followed by a tornado.

The moral, of course, is when the destructive force does appear, people accustomed to ignoring false alarms fail to react to a real threat.

Two obvious remedies are:

  • Discontinue false alarms, as characterized by the shepherd boy who learned his lesson.
  • Add another, more urgent, level of alarm.

The latter was suggested by the leader of the assessment team, Richard Wagenmaker, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Detroit.

Characterizing existing tornado sirens as a "basic template," Wagenmaker said: "Once there became an awareness that something big was going on, we wanted the severe weather statements and warning to project a heightened sense of urgency — something along the lines of 'this is a very large and dangerous tornado and don’t mess around, basically.'"

Under this concept, in addition to tornado watches and warnings, we also would have some type of mega-warning.

The idea bears remarkable similarity to Homeland Security color-coded, five-tiered threat levels — which largely were confusing and now are defunct.

If fault must be found for the lack of response to the sirens, we believe it rests more with human nature than the warning system.

Tornadoes, like wolves, are natural phenomena.

A wolf that is sighted is a threat. Precautions are advised, even though the wolf may prey on your neighbor’s sheep rather than your own, or spare them all.

Similarly, a tornado sighting indicates a threat and precautions are wise.

Is the moral of this story to add "really vicious, voracious wolf" to "wolf watch" and "wolf warning?"

We think not. We believe the moral simply is to use common sense and seek shelter when a tornado warning sounds.

Copyright Jefferson City News Tribune. Reprinted with permission.

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