This was one of the most commonly used phrases by the victims of the December 26, 2015, tornado outbreak. Twelve tornadoes impacted parts of North Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, killing thirteen. For several days leading up to the event, nearly every forecaster and meteorologist were talking about severe weather in North Texas on the day after Christmas 2015. The Storm Prediction Center had highlighted the area for days in advance. Our office had been talking about active weather for that weekend for over a week.
And yet, “we didn’t know it was coming”.
The forecasts for this event were good and the meteorological set-up for the event was fascinating. I won’t go into that here, as I would rather expand on something equally as fascinating revealed from conversations with survivors during the damage surveys: a gap between what the weather community thought it was saying and what our North Texas communities were hearing.
Most of us weather geeks have heard of the Garland tornado, where nine people in cars lost their lives. In the same path was the city of Rowlett, which received more damage than Garland. Several victims relayed the same type of story that they didn’t know (or realize) the tornado was bearing down on them.
Some of the reasons?
“Garland is to the west, this tornado came from the south.” True, most of Garland is to the west, but a small sliver of the city of Garland extends south and southwest of Rowlett.
“Tornadoes don’t happen in December, so I wasn’t paying attention.”
“I just didn’t know it was coming.”
There are also two broadcasted stories of people in cars, receiving information from friends or family, telling them they were driving into the warned area. In both cases, the information wasn’t believed and the drivers became two of the outbreak’s twelve tornado fatalities.
Glenn Heights is a small city in southern Dallas County that took a nearly direct hit from an EF-3 tornado. We talked to both families whose houses suffered EF-3 damage. They told our crew they had no idea the tornado was upon them until they heard the trees breaking and the house cracking. Then, and only then, did they take shelter. All survived with minor injuries. The family next door told us that while they were watching television that night, they assumed they were fine as the broadcast meteorologist kept mentioning Red Oak. (Red Oak is a bigger city on I-35E about 10 miles away, which was mentioned in NWSChat several times as a reference point). That assumption quickly changed when the trees started breaking and the house began to fall apart.
How does the weather community prepare folks for “we didn’t know it was coming”? How do we attempt to bridge this communication gap? From our conversations with the victims, three general trends show up:
- “unusual” time of year
- uncertain geographic recognition of the threat
- non-personalization of the threats
This outbreak occurred the day after Christmas, a time when most families were still having family celebrations and/or spending time with things that were not weather-related. For them, the first indication of bad storms was when the storms arrived.
Where do we go from here? As a weather community, we will always be looking for that perfect forecast. This event, and likely others, highlight the need to continue to communicate all aspects of the storms, from the first indication in a multi-day outlook, to the time when the event is unfolding. The forecast, and the warning, is the start of the conversation. Let’s keep talking.