Have mercy on the TV weather departments: Part II


My last blog post was getting a little long, so decided to split it in two. If you haven’t read the first one, please take time to.

The second thing that the local weather departments get tired of hearing is, “You only care about Wichita! You never cover the storms in (insert county/city name here)!”

Let me be shockingly honest with you. You are right. But only partially. Let me explain. In the Wichita/Hutchinson Plus market there are 441,760 homes with roughly 1,000,000 people living in them. The size of the market is huge. When I left my TV job, we were responsible for weather coverage for 78 counties in 3 states and 2 time zones. HUGE. Here is a shocking statistic for you: of those 78 counties, HALF of the population lives in 2 of them. Most of Kansas is rural. VERY rural. There are many counties where there are literally more cattle than people.

Now, here is where an important distinction comes in. Is a city-slicker’s life more valuable than a farmer’s life? ABSOLUTELY not. The difference is the population density. For reasons I am still trying to figure out, half of all Kansans have decided to abandon beautiful, wide-open, flat country to live in a house from which you can literally hit 8 others with a stone’s throw. The view out my back door is of my neighbor’s pantry window. I can count the slats on his Venetian blinds. We humans are strange people.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are actually places in Kansas where you can put down a mile-wide tornado, keep in on the ground for a significant amount of time and distance, and it will not even hit a single building. In contrast, if you put down even a very WEAK tornado in the greater Wichita area, not only will it hit something, it may kill someone.

The final piece in the puzzle is information flow. Many counties may have a few sheriff’s officers, an Emergency Manager and a dispatcher, none of which have the time or desire to keep the news media updated during an event, while in Wichita, practically every cloud that moves over gets reported to the weather department.

So here is the reality. Lets take two identical storms, put one over a very rural area and another over Wichita:

Rural area: IF the tornado even gets reported in the rural area (many times it is just radar-indicated), a “storm track” on the path of the tornado won’t even pick up a single town or landmark that it is headed toward. Usually, a brief break-in to programming occurs but little else. No towns are in the path and absolutely NO updated information is coming in about the storm other than what radar is showing. It is incredibly hard to fill air time with no new information.

Wichita: As the clouds are forming, the phone begins ringing off the hook. As the wall cloud forms, the sirens sound and a half a million people go into panic mode, from the first second the tornado touches down, it is damaging homes, flipping over cars and mobile homes and maybe injuring and killing people. Information of its whereabouts and size come in block-by-block in real-time. Once it exits western Butler County, the “information black out” returns and no new information comes in.

Is this fair? Not always. Is it too “Wichita-centric?” Perhaps. All TV stations by law are required to carry some sort of crawl or graphic when warnings are in effect, and all do, so no county really ever goes COMPLETELY without information, it is just that in areas of more dense populations, the interruptions will likely be longer, contain far more information and be more detailed. It is the nature of the beast. I grew up in western Kingman county, a “data hole” of information. My parents just took personal responsibility for protecting their family, not waiting on expanded information from Wichita that wasn’t going to come. It is a trade off. If you choose to live in a beautiful, rural area, you get less coverage. If you prefer more coverage, come move in down the street…there are about 8 houses packed into an area the size of your front yard.

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