'Are we really ready?'

On Veteran's Day in 2002, an F4 tornado struck the town of Van Wert, Ohio.

BY SUSAN KIM | BOULDER, Colo. | July 13, 2004

"By midnight that night, some 8,000 people were dead."

—Greg Mandt

On Veteran's Day in 2002, an F4 tornado struck the town of Van Wert, Ohio. Minutes before the twister struck, the National Weather Service (NWS) issued a tornado warning.

Earlier that year Van Wert city officials had placed a series of warning alert systems in public locations. The manager of a movie theater, during a screening of "The Santa Clause 2," quickly shut off the projector, and moved the audience - more than 50 adults and children - into a hallway and restrooms.

Two minutes later, the tornado ripped the roof off the building and threw cars from the parking lot into the theater seats.

During storms so severe they ended up taking 35 lives, nobody in the Van Wert Cinemas was hurt.

It's an example of how the simple act of communication can have dramatic results, said Greg Mandt as he opened the 29th Annual Hazards Research and Applications Workshop in Boulder, Colorado. The annual gathering of researchers, government officials and disaster responders is hosted by the Natural Hazards Center of the University of Colorado at Boulder. The center is a 501(c)3 organization funded through a National Science Foundation grant.

Mandt is director of the Office of Climate, Water and Weather Service at the NWS.

Van Wert fared so well, in part, because it earned a designation as a "StormReady" community by the NWS in 2002, explained Mandt.

StormReady is a nationwide community preparedness program that uses a grassroots approach to help communities develop plans to handle severe weather. The program encourages communities to take a proactive approach to improving local hazardous weather operations by providing emergency managers with specific guidelines on how to improve their hazardous weather operations. NWS StormReady communities are in place across the U.S., from big cities to small towns. StormReady guidelines prepare communities with an action plan that responds to the threat of all types of severe weather.

To be officially StormReady, a community must establish a 24-hour warning point and emergency operations center; have more than one way to receive severe weather warnings and forecasts and to alert the public; create a system that monitors weather conditions locally; promotes the importance of public readiness through community seminars; and develops a formal hazardous weather plan that includes training severe weather spotters and holding emergency exercises.

As an example of how far weather warnings have come, compare the Van Wert response to Sept. 8, 1900, when a hurricane struck Galveston, Texas, plunging half the town under water, said Mandt. "By midnight that night, some 8,000 people were dead," he said.

Disaster-related death tolls may never again be that high in the U.S., but Mandt urged his audience to take a look overseas, as recently as 1998, when Hurricane Mitch struck Central America, dumping 25 inches of rain in less than 24 hours.

"Over 7,000 people perished and another 9,000 were missing," said Mandt.

And in France last summer, a record heat wave killed 10,000 people.

In the U.S., some 7,000 people die due to weather-related traffic accidents.

"Are we really ready?" he asked - and answered himself. "I don't know. We have 3,600 people a day on average moving to our coast. Are they really ready?"

Natural hazards aren't decreasing, he said. Since 1990 there have been 46 weather disasters in the U.S. that have caused $1 billion or more in damage.

"I am looking for help focusing on how to improve and communicate risk associated with natural hazards," Mandt said. "I'm here to learn with you."

The NWS has existed since 1870. "Our purpose is to protect life and property," said Mandt. "We take teamwork very seriously."

One challenge the NWS is currently facing is how to communicate hazard-related uncertainties to the general public, he said. "Tornado warnings function in terms of minutes," he said. "And in the whole spectrum of threats and hazards, warnings are most important."

But preparing for warnings is just as vital, he pointed out. The NWS has increasingly been producing seasonal outlooks for various weather-related events. State and local emergency managers, in turn, use these long-term outlooks for decision-making. "They use a seasonal outlook on drought risk for budget planning," Mandt said. "And so long-range predictions are becoming valuable."

And even the quiet disaster - drought - has three categories: agricultural drought, fire weather drought, and water resources drought. "We sometimes have trouble portraying the possibilities," he said.

And sometimes technology helps - and sometimes it doesn't, he explained. "We are trying to introduce more specificity into winter weather forecasts. But if a snowstorm misses by one pixel of the supermodel, the impact is tremendously different. What can we do to better communicate?"

The NWS is in the process of potentially revising the Fujita Scale, which is used to rate the intensity of a tornado by examining damage caused by the tornado after it has passed over a structure. It uses precise wind speeds to rate the severity of a tornado.

Such fine-tuning may seem like busy work, Mandt said, but it has implications important to the general public. For example, building codes may be revised to reflect upcoming changes in the Fujita Scale.

The ultimate question, however, is how to get people to respond, Mandt concluded. The NWS has run ad campaigns about lightning safety and driving through high water.

The high-water campaign - with the slogan "Turn Around Don't Drown" has met with some success, Mandt said. "We've had people call us and say, 'I remembered that and I didn't drive through the water.' "

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