Once upon a time, the sound of an alarm was cause for, well, alarm. But nowadays we’re bombarded by so many sirens, beeps, and buzzers that they barely register. For those living in Tornado Alley, this desensitization can be deadly. Enter the National Weather Service with some adrenaline-inducing new tornado alerts.
“There is quite a lot of over-warning going on; it's kind of the car-alarm syndrome,” Col Galyean, a meteorologist with The Weather Channel, told Reuters. “The idea is to better convey the impact that a storm is likely to have on a community.”
The new warnings—rolled out Monday in five NWS offices in Kansas and Missouri—will use disquieting lingo to make a strong point, according to a sample printed in the Washington Post. “Complete devastation of entire neighborhoods is likely,” “mass devastation is highly likely,” and “tornado may be unsurvivable if shelter is not sought,” are just a few examples of how NWS plans to drive the message home.
The purpose of the alerts isn’t to create panic, but to give residents a clear understanding of the threat they’re facing. Often warnings are sounded as a precautionary measure. But when tornadoes don’t touch down (and they don't about three quarters of the time), people become conditioned to ignore them.
"We have found in Mississippi and Alabama and various other Southern states that people feel they would constantly be going to a shelter if they heeded every tornado warning," Mississippi State University sociologist Laura Myer told the Associated Press.
To counteract that perception, the new warnings will be based on information from dual polarization Doppler radar to determine if the storm is collecting debris and how destructive it is, according to Reuters. Really rambunctious storms will warrant the more explicit messages, which will be sent to forecasters and emergency managers for redistribution
"We've chosen words and phrases in our warnings to really highlight those days where lives are on the line," Mike Hudson, a meteorologist in the Kansas City NWS office, told CNN. "You want to get (people) to respond in a way that will get them motivated to seek shelter."
That hasn’t always been the case at the NWS, according to a Slate warning system retrospective. Not only did the service lack the technology to make scary “mass devastation” predictions, it also operated on the then-prevalent (but since challenged) belief that giving the public the straight dope on emergency situations would result in mass panic.
Now, more than 60 years later, it’s mass complacency that must be battled. “We'd like to think that as soon as we say there is a tornado warning, everyone would run to the basement,” Ken Harding, also of Kansas City NWS office, told the Associated Press. “That's not how it is. They will channel flip, look out the window or call neighbors. A lot of times people don't react until they see it.”