An unprecedented weather event happened in south central Kansas on April 8, 2015 and it had nothing to do with what was going on in the sky.
The intense, unrelenting hype about the recent chance of storms and accompanying severe weather would have made you think that we Kansans had never had such a chance before. One friend of mine went out to buy fresh batteries for her storm kit and could find none left in stock at several locations. Churches and schools cancelled events. At Beltone, I was booked solid for the day, but by 9AM most had cancelled because it was “too dangerous” for them to go out for an appointment. Social media was packed with severe weather information (much of which I shared) and the city and area was nearly in a panic. Every “tornado tank” in America was in the city. FEMA was issuing special advisories. TWC was doing live interviews with the fire chief. I can only imagine how stressful the day was on those that are truly frightened of storms or who have actually been through a tornado before.
So, what happened? Why was this time different than previous times? I have several theories. Here are a few of them. I doubt one single thing caused the irrationality, but put them all together and it is a recipe for mental and financial disaster.
Reason #1: Media reporting. Let me say up front, I love the media and have many friends still in the business…heck I am still in the business in several ways. What the average person at home doesn’t understand is how incredibly high the pressure has gotten to perform, especially in severe weather situations. Ratings are everything. In the “olden days,” they used to be kept by paper and pencil, sent in by families and compiled about two weeks after the ratings period ended. There were several ratings periods a year. Now, with new technology, ratings can be seen the next day and in some cases in real-time broken down into minute-by-minute segments. This kind of information causes the station owners to put a lot of pressure from the top down to perform so that more money can be charged for commercials. It is what keeps them in business. Profit margins have gotten smaller and smaller, so the difference between being #1 and #2 in any given event has been greatly magnified. The final result of this in severe weather situations is to build up as much expectation as possible in advance of the storm, to cover even the smallest storms in real-time, to be on the air the most, stay on the air the longest and after the event promote the fact that you were there and what a great job you did.
Reason #2: SPC’s new outlook system. Let me also say that I love the SPC and have many friends that work for the National Weather Service. This year, they introduced a 7 tier, 7 color scale for the impact of severe storms to replace the 3 tier, 3 color system. While I am all about “the more data the better,” it seems to have had an impact where the “bull’s eye” looks SO much more ominous than it used to. For example, a moderate risk used to be an orange area surrounded by yellow and green (much like the radar colors you see). Now, a moderate risk is surrounded by 4 colors which makes it look more intense. You may think I am crazy with this one, but I have no doubt it is contributing to the “over-hype” factor.
Reason #3: People have a very short memory. I wrote a chapter about this in my book, but it never ceases to amaze me that from year-to-year even I forget how a season feels and how I react to it. This time of year, it is hard to remember that by late May/early June, we will be having thunderstorms several times a week that are more severe than the storms were yesterday, and people will go about their business like nothing is wrong. The college I teach for sent out a memo yesterday afternoon saying they were flooded with questions about whether they were cancelling classes for the evening. The response was spot-on. Paraphrasing here, “We have NEVER closed school due to a forecast of thunderstorms or even actual thunderstorms before, so we don’t see a need to now. All of our facilities have safety officers and shelters for severe weather should a warning be issued.” And, quite honestly, that should have been all of our reactions this time. We are Kansans, we get literally thousands of thunderstorms a year. Some of them are severe. Some are more severe than others. Should we take it lightly when a warning is issued? Absolutely not. Should we be running around like chickens with their heads cut off screaming that the sky is falling (mixed metaphor), cancelling everything in our plans HOURS before the first storm has even developed. Absolutely not.
When it is time to panic, have a plan, execute it, then panic. When there is a 30% chance of spring-time thunderstorms with an “Enhanced Risk” (would have been “Slight Risk” a year ago) of severe weather, pay attention, go about your business and if a warning is issued, go to shelter. Otherwise, remember: we are Kansans, we are tough, we have been through this before and will go through it again too many times to count, don’t get caught up in the scare mongering of anyone (including me).
Now…get out and enjoy the beautiful spring weather, and if that includes the occasional thunderstorm, enjoy it and be safe!