WICHITA, Kan. — When weather radios start sounding warnings in the Wichita area this spring, the computerized voice nicknamed Chance Storms won't just alert listeners to severe thunderstorms or tornado warnings. It will tell people how bad the storm will be and what type of damage to expect.
In addition to saying a tornado warning has been issued, Storms might say, "Life-threatening situation. Extensive damage to homes and buildings. Uprooted trees and debris will restrict access into many areas."
The change is part of a pilot project testing "impact-based warnings" in five National Weather Service offices: Wichita, Topeka, Kansas City, Springfield and St. Louis.
The pilot project, which launches on April 2, is designed to more clearly describe the threat and potential impact severe storms pose so residents in the warning areas can quickly make informed decisions about taking shelter, weather officials say.
"We're trying to make it simplified and more to the point," said Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the Wichita office.
The language used in warnings and special weather statements was selected with help from social scientists who conducted interviews with survivors of the tornado outbreak in the Deep South last year.
Jay Prater, chief meteorologist for KAKE-TV in Wichita, said he welcomes the pilot project.
"People want that additional information: 'Is this a Greensburg/Udall day? Or is this a weak, brief land spout day?'" Prater said.
Greensburg, Kan., was destroyed by a tornado on May 4, 2007; Udall, Kan., on May 25, 1955.
The project is designed to help emergency managers and others in decision-making positions better know which storms pose a significant impact on a city or region, Hayes said. Members of the media also will receive the enhanced warnings so they can convey the threat and potential impact to viewers, listeners and readers. The enhanced warnings also will be broadcast on NOAA weather radios.
The test comes on the heels of the deadliest year for tornadoes in decades.
There were 550 people killed by tornadoes last year, including three in Kansas — one in Lyon County on May 21 and two in Stafford County on May 24. That total has been topped just three times in recorded history: 1925, with 794 deaths; 1936, with 552; and 1917, with 551.
Last April saw 753 tornadoes touch down, making it easily the busiest month for tornadoes since records began being kept.
The 158 people killed by the tornado that struck Joplin on May 22 is the highest death toll for any tornado since record-keeping began in 1950.
The events of 2011 "helped precipitate" the pilot project, Hayes said. "However, it's something we as an agency have thought about for years."
The criteria for issuing severe thunderstorm or tornado warnings won't change, Hayes said.
Severe thunderstorm warnings will still be issued when hailstones reach 1 inch in diameter or winds of 60 miles an hour are recorded. If the storm has baseball-sized hail or winds of 80 miles an hour, the weather service will issue a special statement that the storm has become "very dangerous."
Tornado warnings will still be issued when radar indicates rotation within a strong thunderstorm.
The new special weather statements will be added any time forecasters think there is the potential for significant impact upon residents or property, Hayes said.
Forecasters will continue to update the potential impact if storms intensify, Hayes said. If a confirmed tornado has the capacity to inflict catastrophic damage — similar to what happened in Joplin — the offices have the option to issue a new warning.
"It may be in everyone's best interest to be alerted again," Hayes said.
But those should be "very rare," he said.
Laura Myers, a research professor at the Social Sciences Research Center at Mississippi State University, said the pilot project appears to be a promising step forward.
"They don't need a lot of distinctions," Myers said of residents facing the threat of severe weather. "They just need to know how bad it is."
Myers lives in Alabama, and she said she's already noticed a clear change in how warnings are being issued there even though Alabama isn't part of the pilot project.
Along with a warning, she said, forecasters in Alabama are giving the proximity and path of the storm and actions people should take.
"We're hoping that people are going to be more apt to listen," Myers said. "It's still a very uphill battle."