S.E. La. Tornado Outbreak: the line, the response, the takeaway

 

By: Josh Eachus

Days like Tuesday aren’t “fun” for meteorologists. Sure, your adrenaline pumps; weather is THE story, maybe forecasting or broadcasting the big tornado outbreak is what you dreamed of as a kid. But that adolescent excitement, that trigger-happy, model-tweeting teenager in you, is quickly jettisoned out of a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed state of being when the tornado outbreak isn’t just a figment of your imagination, or a college test, but a palpable, heart-pulsing REALITY.

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2/24/16 – home destroyed by EF-2 tornado in Livingston, La.

I’ve been nervous coming into work four times in my 6 year broadcasting career—my first day on the job at WTOV-9 in Steubenville, my first weathercast at WTOV-9, my first weathercast here at WBRZ in Baton Rouge and then just recently—on the morning of Tuesday, February 23. My fiancée said I was ghostly looking the night before. I barely slept prior to the normal 3:30am alarm knowing that for the first time, my forecast area was under a “moderate risk” of severe weather. The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) doesn’t haphazardly paint red on the map unless something serious is afoot, especially on the Gulf Coast. For goodness sakes, how is a meteorologist to sleep when forecast models were returning helicity values over 600 m/s2, which is more than double an “adequate” value for tornadic storms! I drove in to work on a foggy morning, white-knuckled hands steering the wheel over the, normal, empty highway. In fact, the whole morning was normal, my breakfast, my pre-show forecasting routine, even my sleepy-eyed co-workers. Yet for the weather savvy person, everything seems so abnormal when you know at the end of the day, normal would actually be an impossible bliss for many.

The 5-7am broadcast took on a less cheery demeanor than usual; my co-anchors detected the sincerity and urgency in my forecasts. With each hit, I reinforced the serious risk at hand and encouraged viewers to stay connected to weather updates throughout the day, by any means necessary. Away from the normal banter of “follow us on social media, download our app, watch our channel, get out the weather radio,” I took the message of interconnectedness to another level this time. “Let your neighbors know, check on the elderly, call those who don’t have or aren’t fortunate enough to have television, radio or internet.” The show wrapped up with newsroom staff grasping that a full day of weather coverage was ahead. Never have I joined a morning newsroom meeting and said the word tornado without using “maybe” as a preface. I blankly said to my co-workers, “There WILL be tornadoes today.”

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Graphic shown on WBRZ-TV to encourage networking during severe weather outbreak

From there, anxiety wore off, adrenaline turned on and civic responsibility was the driving force behind every decision and action for the remainder of the day. What happened next is well-documented, quite possibly, quoting colleague Dave Nussbaum of WWL-TV in New Orleans, “the worst tornado outbreak in Southeast Louisiana recorded history.” 13 twisters were confirmed by the National Weather Service New Orleans/Baton Rouge, with an EF-3, two EF-2’s three EF-1’s and seven EF-0’s (two in Southern Mississippi).    

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Tornado Ratings (EF Scale) determined by National Weather Service storm survey team

As a meteorologist and Ph.D. student fully engulfed in the social sciences—studying the sociology of disasters as we speak—I can’t help but come away from such events with more questions than answers . Where does the weather enterprise draw lines with regard to forecasting and communicating high impact events? How do we respond as people and to people in significant weather situation? What can we take away from a deadly tornado outbreak to make the next forecast better?

Where do we draw the line?

I suspect many reading this will have a different answer, but I pose the question, where do YOU draw the line when high impact weather approaches? I can answer from a broadcasting standpoint. There are some confident people in this profession (large egos), myself to an extent, but there comes a point where competition and self-righteousness need checked. The Storm Prediction Center has some of, if not the most brilliant severe weather forecasters in the United States. While we all may have our own insights, why deviate from the official outlook—one with a great verification record?

In a low impact event, might I have a different temperature or pop forecast than colleagues? Sure. What fun is it if we all play the same type of game? But in this instance, when lives are at stake, we all need to follow the “coach’s lead” and put on a disciplined performance. Bottom line, this is the structure of the United States weather enterprise—with a mighty good track record in recent severe weather events.

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Actual storm reports overlaying Storm Prediction Center Outlook for 2/23/16

Drawing station or company-specific outlooks, issuing rogue watches and warnings, declaring special days—only adds to the bevy of terminology that may already confuse forecast users. Integrated Warning Team (IWT) research has shown that more forecast users get the message when government and private weather sectors work together, communicating one clear message and readily sharing breaking information.

How do we respond?

To Technology: There are so many platforms to reach people now. At least here at WBRZ, we were on two television channels, one radio station, two websites and one mobile app. Even more recent technological advances have us broadcasting the backstage environment in our weather center via smartphone on both Facebook and Periscope. But isn’t the point of these social networks to interact? Questions abound, almost all went unaddressed as our time was devoted to live television coverage. At one point, my partner, Meteorologist Robert Gauthreaux III, placed a sign next to both feeds that directed those with questions to our television channel, live-streaming website or app for some answers. So, should we even broadcast from these platforms in such an event if interaction isn’t possible? Does that leave some, “out in the rain?” For my money, the stream should go on, the more visibility with potentially life-saving information, the better.

To Ourselves: One mustn’t overlook the personal side of these events. Lives are lost and homes are destroyed—these are disasters in which you were involved. The moment that fact is forgotten, it may be time to consider another field. Perspective is important. While not prudent to hold oneself personally accountable for loss of life (perhaps a bit arrogant to do so, in fact), the weather enterprise as a whole must take responsibility. Understanding why two people perished will be important to improving future messages. Do I think it is a warning lead time issue? No. Do I think it is a communication issue? Maybe. Primarily, I think it is an issue with pre-event awareness; a societal mindset that “it won’t happen to me.” We need better outreach—especially to communities most lacking multiple or strong communication channels.

To Others: Within that same context of societal mindset, invariably high impact weather events spike feedback coming into various outlets. Even during this outbreak, emails, Facebook messages and tweets flooded our networks, many of which went unanswered—some justifiably so, others regrettably as staffing simply doesn’t allow.

A common and sometimes head-scratching question following a watch or warning is “what about my town?” On the surface, it is easy to be dismissive. “Oh, they should know where they live,” or, “tough break if they don’t understand the forecast.” But realize this, you are their lifeline—they have chosen you, turned to you and an answer could make all the difference. My heart always dips a little when I see these types of questions AFTER the fact when I am reviewing social media. How can we feasibly reply to these people DURING the event? I just hope everything turned out OK.

Then of course there are the trolls, for whom we tend to be much less sympathetic. Here is an email I received time-stamped in the middle of an EF-2 tornado rolling through one of our most populated Parishes:

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Email received by the WBRZ Weather Team at 12:50pm; EF-2 tornado in progress

 

I’m sure there is a high road to take here, but once the dust settled and I had learned of lost lives, it was difficult to do. My response was to send several damage photos to this person with the text, “Take a look at the photos. Even if it didn’t happen at your house, other people matter. Consider yourself fortunate. –Josh.” There was no further response from this individual. We received a few others, but that was the most brutally ignorant.

I digress from focusing on the negative, there are so many highly positive emails that come in—the kind that remind you why you get out of bed at 3:30 every morning. I wouldn’t be entirely honest if I said this was read with completely dry eyes.

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Email received by the WBRZ Weather Team at 9:19am 2/24/16

Many more words of thanks and encouragement came in throughout the day. Realize that no matter the state of television, the internet, public and private entities—as long as there is weather, people will need forecasts and as long as people need forecasts, meteorologists will have a job and that job is important.

What do we take away?

Per that last email image, I will take away an effort fairly well executed by the weather enterprise. Our local IWT activated prior to the event, the forecast message seemed unified within the region and information was disseminated quickly and thoroughly on many platforms. Yes, two people died. I’ve since learned that the two deceased were in the Sugar Hill RV Park—males from the Carolinas. That particular park is known to host out of area plant workers, but it is unknown if that is why those two gentlemen were there. Thus, we don’t yet and may never have any additional context. There are things that are out of our control. One woman told us she doesn’t pay attention to weather forecasts because whatever happens is God’s will. I also spoke to a man in that same RV Park.

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Sugar Hill RV Park in Convent, La. 2/24/16

He said he was aware of the threat and even received the tornado warning—just didn’t believe it would happen. He was rolled in his RV multiple times with a baby and bible in hand. He, his baby and wife all survived with minor scratches.

Then this:

He and his wife lived and were unhurt.

I was sad to hear from his granddaughter, that the elderly man has dementia. She explained to me that her grandfather keeps asking to go home—while she and her family must repeatedly explain to him, that he no longer has one.

What do we take away? These aren’t just tornadoes, these aren’t just homes, not just lives. These are people, people like you and me, with stories. Let’s continue to make these stories have a positive outcome. Let’s work on communicating these events better before, during and even after. Let’s make the story of meteorology one of life-saving. Let’s make every forecast a little more social.

4 thoughts on “S.E. La. Tornado Outbreak: the line, the response, the takeaway

  1. […] have mainstreamed forecast users to expect worse. Furthermore, the area is not far removed from a significant tornado outbreak and is hyper-sensitive to the term “severe weather.” Right now, attentiveness and preparedness […]

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  2. Great article!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks very much! This is an eloquent way of looking at it. While very different fields, with regard to the communication aspect, the same principles apply–there are times to engage and times were it simply isn’t possible.

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  4. librarians are sometimes faced with similar circumstances– like meteorologists we are involved with information. if a question arises which seems overly simple or lazy-minded, it has to be regarded initially with the same degree of respect as questions from those who have done at least some of their ‘homework’. but if it protracts beyond a certain point, some triage may be in order– you just can’t afford to spend a lot of time explaining to someone the basics of how things work when there are others in the public needing your help. especially in the recent emergency, you undoubtedly had to apportion your time and expertise to the social aspects of your job while paying careful attention to the brutally scientific elements of what was happening at *that* moment. you’ve picked a fascinating area of study for your PhD, one where meteorology and sociology overlap, and i look forward to reading the resulting work– you write at least as well as you speak.

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