PHOTO by M.K. Davis The Yazoo tornado, April 2010
JACKSON, Miss.–Tornado warning- you hear that term a lot here in Mississippi, and when you do it can be really easy to dismiss it as another false alarm. But with new terms that could be added to warnings for bigger and badder storms, you might not be so quick to let a warning pass you by. And it could save your life.
The new wording goes into effect Tuesday, March 25, said National Weather Service Warning Coordinator Steve Wilkinson.
“What we’re trying to do with this is differentiate between the weaker tornadoes and the stronger tornadoes,” he said. “So the weaker tornadoes would have a basic tornado warning. We would encourage people to take them serious. But, the higher-end tornadoes are gonna be broken up into two categories.”
The first category is “considerable”.
“Considerable means there’s a considerable amount of damage expected, and we would use that when there’s a confirmation of a tornado. “
Wilkinson said that may be for a tornado they estimate to be a possible EF2 to EF3. Winds could be from 136 to 200 mph. He said that’s very strong damage, but not the absolute worst.
“Catastrophic” would be used in a very rare situation where EF4 to EF5 damage was expected. Those winds could be from 166 to well over 300 mph. That’s enough to level neighborhoods, like the Smithville, Miss. Tornado from April 2011.
That outbreak and the one in 2010 both helped contribute to new research that shows people sometimes need the extra wording to make them pay attention and get to shelter, or as Wilkinson put it, pull out all the stops” to shelter themselves from a potentially devastating storm.
During the Joplin, Missouri tornado in May 2011, some people did not heed the warnings and the sirens because of the “cry wolf” factor. The tornado warning issued was standard fare, and did not motivate some people to seek shelter.
Wilkinson said the new wording will more accurately depict what is happening with the twister, whether it is a Doppler radar indicated twister, or whether or not it has been sighted, and if it has been, if it is a particularly violent tornado, such as the ones that hit Smithville in 2011 or Yazoo City in 2010.
He said that wording is also now available for severe thunderstorms when they are expected to produce a significant amont of damage. One he cited in particular, was the hail storm of 2013.
“It was a really devastating event. We have something called a particularly dangerous situation.”
The rest of the warning would detail what the impact could be, he said.
Wilkinson said in the case of tornadoes, they’ll be using dual polarization radar, which can sometimes show whether or not a tornado is actually on the ground. The upgrade was put in last year.
Also still being used is the term “tornado emergency”, which can now be placed at the very beginning of the warning, so people know right away to listen up.
That means a dangerous tornado is on the ground and is headed toward a populated area.
“It’s tied to the “catastrophic” tag. Our expectation is that this potentially an EF4 or 5.”
Wilkinson said all these modifications are designed to make you pay attention when there is a very dangerous situation. For the big picture, it’s to save lives whenever it’s possible.