The Tornado Warning system in the United States has improved exponentially over the past several years and undoubtedly saves hundreds to perhaps thousands of lives every severe weather season. However, every time a large, destructive tornado occurs and leads to any loss of life, the question always remains, "What could we have done better?"
One of the main problems with our current warning system is not detecting and tracking the tornado, it is communicating the warning to the public and making sure as many as possible receive the warning, and more importantly, that they take appropriate action. Especially in the plains and the southeast, many residents will often say that they hear tornado sirens go off, but that it happens all the time, and they have come to almost tune it out. Some have experienced tornado warnings time and time again, and so do not take them as seriously as they should. And yes, it is true that there is a "false alarm" rate, meaning that tornado warnings do often times predict tornadoes that never touch down. But the tornado that killed roughly 150 people in Joplin, Missouri last year had an average warning time of 20 minutes! The average warning time for most storms is around 12 minutes. So many of the time, the warning is there, but residents still choose to ignore it because of the false alarms they have experienced in the past.
A few local tornado offices in Kansas and Missouri are working to take action against this problem. They have begun a test of a new warning system that will aim to distinguish run-of-the-mill tornado warnings from very severe and life-threatening tornado situations. The new warnings will use words and phrases like "catastrophic", "un-survivable", and "mass devastation" to describe tornadoes. These warnings will be tested through the course of the 2012 severe weather season, and then, pending effectiveness, may be put in place permanently. The hope is that the new warnings will be able to better convey the seriousness of the situation at hand, which in turn will lead to more lives saved.
Fortunately, in Virginia we do not often see tornadoes that would warrant a "mass devastation" type of warning. But, especially across the Southside, we do see our share of strong tornadoes. Even an update to the warning system to differentiate weak from strong tornadoes would help us to better relay the severity of the situation to our viewers.