Monday, April 9, 2012

Crying Wolf


The folks at the National Weather Service are again tinkering with the wording of their tornado alerts.  They ARE getting better at warning people who are or soon could be in the path of a tornado, but to me, it’s wasted effort.

I think the old saying has a lot of truth in it: “There are two kinds of people: those who know what’s happening, and those who wonder what’s happening.”  I’m not sure whether my profession is what caused me to try and stay informed and alert to what’s happening in the news and weather, or if it was the other way around.  But I’ve known countless people over the years who basically are unaware of current events.  They seem astonished by a snowstorm that’s been predicted for days by the weather folks; they’re shocked when a new law takes effect, a law that was passed months ago and about which there have been scores of news reports.

When it comes to weather, I think there is a further subdivision among the “people who know what’s happening” category:  the people who are scared into their basement every time the sky clouds up, and the people (like me) who stand on their porch looking at the sky, waiting for the tornado to pop out of the clouds.  I don’t put professional storm-chasers into either sub-division; they’re pros doing a job.  As you are no doubt aware, there are quite a few amateur storm chasers, who are in a category of their own which I will not name.

If you haven’t followed this blog for some time, you may not be aware that I firmly believe the majority of TV weather folks – local and national – are mainly over-the-top nannies, augmented by a marketing department that creates messages saying in essence our families will die if we don’t watch their weather broadcasts.

Here’s a sample of the new language the NWS will test this tornado season in several mid-west/plains states: “THIS IS AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS TORNADO WITH COMPLETE DEVASTATION LIKELY….SEEK SHELTER NOW!!!  MOBILE HOMES AND OUTBUILDINGS WILL OFFER NO SHELTER FROM THIS TORNADO – ABANDON THEM IMMEDIATELY!!”

OK then.   They’re doing this, while admitting to and fully aware that somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of people think the weather folks cry wolf ALL the time.  They’re making the language even MORE over-the-top, while at the same time acknowledging that most people think they’re blowing smoke.

I’m going to bet that if you stopped a hundred people at West Towne or East Towne Mall in Madison and asked them to differentiate between a Tornado Warning and a Tornado Watch, far more than half would get it wrong or wouldn’t know.  Every time there’s a storm forecast, there are still arguments on social media about whether a watch is more urgent than a warning.  Posts like “but it’s only a warning, they haven’t made it a watch yet” are common.

If the National Weather Service thinks more education about terms is necessary, I can understand their frustration and why they’d want to make the language even more stringent.  But every time they warn us, using strong language like above, and the tornado doesn’t form or doesn’t come anywhere near us, they add to the “cry wolf” problem.  It’s a dilemma: two choices, neither one of them desirable.

If I’m swept off my back porch into the vortex of a tornado this season, I’ll die knowing damn well I was taking a risk.  But I won’t kick the bucket thinking “what the hell is happening?!"

8 comments:

  1. I fall into the extra special category of knowing the difference between a watch and warning, know what is happening AND plain ol' ignore the weather service.

    It is a closet hobby of mine to watch Lindmeier and the rest breathlessly spout about the rotation they see on their doppler (this cell is scheduled to be in Palmyra at precisely 8.47pm!), only to have nothing to show for it at the end of the evening, besides a few showers.

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    1. I used to write opinion columns for an online publication (there's an oxymoron!) and once did one about how Lindmeier had SEVEN of those rotation thingys on his map at one time, and how he was spewing verbal warnings to the people near them to take cover immediately, blah blah blah, and how NONE of them were tornados. The column got the most response of anything I ever wrote for the publication, evenly divided between the "they're trying to keep our families safe" meme, and the "these assholes should stop with the hype" meme. I pointed to an Isthmus survey a couple years ago were the majority of respondents felt the local TV weather folks hype EVERYTHING, but that was discounted by many respondents to my column saying something like "well it's better to err on the side of caution" or some similar supportive response. My hope is that at some point in the near future, we'll be able to link/view the raw network feeds of evening prime-time programming, so those of us who have an IQ above room temperature can watch the shows we want, without any of the weather hype.

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  2. On Twitter a few weeks back, somebody (can't remember who) jokingly observed that "watch" and "warning" should be renamed "tornado possible" and "shit, there's a tornado." That would certainly lessen the confusion between the two. It's a better idea than that proposed new warning language, which is a lot like what the Weather Service used in their famous warning of Katrina. Describing every tornado that way is no solution. If they say "complete devastation likely" and it doesn't happen, their credibility is shot.

    Every time the weather goes sideways in the summer, I recall the example of the wise old broadcasters I learned from. The two big rules were "be clear" and "be calm." If we've done that and people are still incapable of understanding, it's neither the fault of the message or the messenger.

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    1. I think I had the same wise old broadcasters for mentors that you did. You can't do much better than "be clear, be calm".

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