Ignoring warnings could be fatal

BY SUSAN KIM | Washington | January 1, 2000

More than 1,000 people were rescued from rooftops and homes when Hurricane Floyd submerged North Carolina in September.

Many were in dire circumstances because they ignored evacuation warnings, said Charlie Moeller, a Church World Service disaster resource facilitator.

When disaster looms, some people enter a "state of denial," he said. "They say 'it won't happen to me.' "

But denial wasn't on the minds of most Oklahomans when monster tornadoes hit the state May 3. Residents had an average warning lead time of 18 minutes.

And that's only because tornado lead times have doubled over the past decade, said John Ogren, who oversees warning coordination for the

National Weather Service.

There were 44 fatalities in Oklahoma -- a extraordinarily low number, given the size of the twisters that crushed houses and tossed cars around.

Clear, accurate warnings saved countless lives, and the local Norman, Okla. forecast office of the National Weather Service received a Gold

Medal commendation from the U.S. Department of Commerce this month because the excellent warnings it issued that day.

"Lord knows how many lives we were able to save," said Ogren, who at the time was warnings coordination meteorologist in Kansas, where

huge tornadoes also ripped through communities May 3.

But even when warnings are excellent -- some people don't seem to hear them. "You warn people, and then it's up to them to listen," said


In Florida, a popular post-hurricane season tale is that evacuation officials showed up at people's doors with body bags, saying if they didn't leave, they'd eventually have to be carried away.

Florida didn't take the hurricane devastation North Carolina bore, although survivors are certainly suffering there. Do this year's "near-miss" hurricanes mean people won't listen next time?

"It's a question nobody can really answer," said Moeller. "For example, South Carolina took a lot of heat for poorly organizing its evacuation

(for Hurricane Floyd). People were sitting on the Interstate for hours. The next one will be better planned -- but will people listen?"

How to make people listen is an ongoing discussion between meteorologists, social scientists, and emergency management officials, said Ogren.

Deciding when to warn the public -- and what to tell them -- is a serious responsibility. Before issuing a public warning, state and local emergency management departments gear up internally, and fire and police departments, or amateur radio operators, may be put on alert,

said Chris Adams, research scientist and co-director of the Flash Flood Laboratory at Colorado State University.

Even if a warning isn't issued, emergency management officials go through preparation exercises, said Adams. "We encourage state and local government to go into a preparation mode. That type of gearing up is a good exercise."

Officials must then decide when an event is critical enough to alert the public.

And improvements in the science of forecasting -- or even vastly increased lead time -- don't necessarily mean the public will take heed.

Ogren said he remembers when a flash flood in eastern Kentucky caused needless fatalities. "It was raining and raining, and we issued a flash

flood warning. There was even time for the sheriff to go door-to-door and warn people."

"But one family wouldn't leave. They said 'we've lived here all our lives, and it's never happened.' A 20-foot wall of water came through that hollow and they didn't live."

And offering people more lead time doesn't mean they'll use it to ensure their safety, added Ogden. "There are people -- many people -- who will say, 'oh, I have half an hour before the tornado. I can go out and get a gallon of milk.'"

In fact, increased lead time may even make people apathetic, because they don't believe it will happen to them.

"When people get a warning, they want to verify that warning," said Randy Duncan, an emergency services manager in Kansas. "People want

to look out a window and see a tornado, or see a television picture of a tornado, or call a friend who's seen it."

That's partly why, when warnings are issued, they're as specific as possible. "For example, a good specific warning answers the questions,

'Where is the tornado? What direction is it headed? What's the speed? What area is under threat?'"

But forecasters can only be so specific, even with state-of-the-art radar and storm tracking systems. "This one guy in Kansas was just irate because one of the warnings he saw on television didn't specifically mention Haysville," said Ogren. "But it mentioned a town just a couple of miles away."

Residents can find out warning information by listening to the radio, watching television, purchasing a weather radio -- and keeping it turned up -- reading the newspapers, and contacting their local emergency management office.

While it may be an excellent tool for disseminating disaster response information, it isn't ideal to rely on the Internet as a source for warnings. "The Internet wouldn't be a good warning system because it's likely to fail during the actual disaster," said Jim Purpura, a warning coordination meteorologist in Norman, Okla.

Ultimately, people are responsible for themselves, added Ogren. "We're got radar, storm spotters, the news media -- but if people aren't paying attention it won't matter."

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