“We didn’t know it was coming.”

By: Mark Fox

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.

DFWTOR

“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.

http://thescoopblog.dallasnews.com/2015/12/heartbreaking-call-during-storm-was-couples-last.html/

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.


 

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26 thoughts on ““We didn’t know it was coming.”

  1. […] no further than last week’s thewxsocial.com post on tornadoes that affected the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex following the Christmas Holiday. The common theme was a general lack of awareness. While surprise […]

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  2. […] both the National Weather Service and media have been talking about impending severe weather for up to four days in advance. The fact that said severe weather event occurred in December is irrelevant. When is severe weather […]

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  3. […] do we still hear “we didn’t know it was coming” so often after severe weather […]

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  4. Perhaps a Tornado “Emergency” should of been issued. Just as it was during the tornadoes in Dallas and Tarrant Counties back in 2012. With the amount of radar indicated “warnings” were getting now, fatigue may be setting in. I know that all seven of our Cumulus Radio stations were simulcasting continuous coverage….the word was out. Maybe it’s time for new terminology.

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  5. I live in red oak, probably 5 miles from were it hit. Both mine and my husbands phones kept going off with warnings, as did our house alarm and tv warnings. Over and over again.Yes the tornado warnings did not sound until after it hit, however simply looking outside, I could tell it was bad.

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  6. I wonder how many that “didn’t know it was coming” had a NOAA weather radio. Personally I think every home should have one. I admittedly am a weather geek but I knew about the probability of these storms happening on DFW a week in advance and I live in Houston. I was going crazy doing what could to warn friends in DFW as it began to unfold. Like some have said more and more education is part of the answer. What I don’t understand is why people refuse to take responsibility for their own well being when knowing your weather is part of that. Kind of like the saying “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”.

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    • Good question. All I know is everyone we talked to either got the warning from broadcast TV or their cell phone.

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    • Remember that one of the comments regarded the time of year. If it isn’t the “usual time” for severe weather, some may not have their radios on, or if its a handheld, not have it to hand.

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  7. Perhaps, but the other day we had a massive hail outbreak in Fort Worth Texas between 2 and 7 AM and not one forecaster (at least I saw) the night before warned of this, only saying the storms would be a ‘real soaker’. Not one mention of the golf ball sized hail that damaged cars homes and stripped trees while leaving up to 2 inches of ice on the ground. So, it goes both ways. If the forecasters were a bit more accurate more of the time, I don’t think you’d have the ‘little boy who called wolf’ scenerio.

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    • Another case of what was in the forecast wasn’t necessarily being fully communicated. Thunderstorms and large hail were indeed in the forecast, and had been mentioned in the Hazardous Weather Outlook for a few days before that storm (https://mesonet.agron.iastate.edu/wx/afos/p.php?dir=next&pil=HWOFWD&e=201603150934)

      Still a lot of work to be done. Did the forecast say “large hail in Fort Worth & Arlington, but absolutely nowhere else?” No. If it had, would anyone have believed it?

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      • Personally, I check the weather regularly. We have horses and need to know what is forecasted to keep our animals safe. In this case, I knew rain was expected. Before going to bed I checked my weather apps on my phone one last time and did not see a significant weather threat. I believe a 52% chance of thundershowers at 5am. Nothing about the threat of hail. For me, the frustration is in the inconsistency of forecasts from one source to another. I take responsibility for this in not checking multiple sources, but I was very surprised to learn of the hail in the morning. We were fortunate in that it missed us entirely. It was a good wake up call to be extra diligent. Even well-intentioned people become complacent.

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  8. One problem I can see is that folks now are not real aware of maps and what is near them. I suggest that forecasters need to be able to access a list of major stores/shopping centers. Then use those as landmarks. Ie “The path will take it close to the Bass Pro shop on Lake Ray Hubbard’ or for a different area it could be ” The path will be close to the Wal-Mart and Target stores at I-20 and Hampton.” I think they would be better than the nearby hospital, because folks DRIVE to those.

    I will point out that those of us that might have been endangered by the Glenn Heights storm, did not get a lot of info. I was switching stations and checking the internet since I live in south Oak Cliff, near the I 35/67 intersection.

    Check the various forecasters out ahead of time and have an idea who is more accurate. I used to love to watch Troy on Ch 8, but he failed badly during the Ft Worth storm. He cut to the tower cam to look at a lowering cloud on the north side of Ft Worth and instead he the camera had a perfect view into the tornado! It was obvious that he could not see what the tower cam saw. I tend to not trust Ch * now for severe storms. Ch 5 has always been solid in my opinion. I have followed storms and such since the 1957 Oak Cliff tornado touched down about a half mile from us. I was almost 6, but I will never forget seeing it and the destruction afterward.

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  9. Speaking from my own experience, the tornado’s timing was the reason why I wasn’t more aware of what was going on weather-wise. As a matter of routine, I’m the person in my family watching weather warnings and sending texts and phone calls to family to make sure they know about severe weather in their area. On this day, the day after Christmas, I was disconnected from nightly television. I was enjoying time with family doing holiday-type things. If it had been any other time of the year, I feel sure I would have been involved in my usual due diligence calling and texting family to be careful. The most dangerous aspect of the Dec. 26 Garland tornado was, in my opinion, the particular day it happened showed up. Any other day of the year and I would have been far more aware of what was going on, and I imagine that’s true for many of the area residents.

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    • I would tend to agree. This is exactly what we heard during the damage surveys and assessments. In my opinion, it was larger than just the one day, as most of us meteorologists were talking about this for a week or so before Christmas. Very difficult to get people interested in the weather when it isn’t a priority. And lets face it, tornadoes are not usually an issue near Christmas.

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  10. I would — strongly — contend it is not our job to make people take shelter. As long as we have CLEARLY described the threat and urged action, that is the end of our responsibility.

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    • I kind of have empathy for the people who made the comments. I’m a weather buff so I would not have been caught by surprise since I’d have been watching radar while having my nose pressed against the window watching with anticipation. Education is the only answer. As for the NWS reference point, that is very tricky. Again, education might be the only answer. Non weather people get tone deaf after a while to constant harping about being safe during warnings. It’s human nature.

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      • Excellent points and description of the underlying issue. Research shows over and over again that most people will not take shelter until they personally feel threatened.

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  11. I know that among my friends there is a heavy layer of “WX alarm fatigue”. My friends perceive that the many watches and warnings are almost never followed by them personally experiencing damaging weather. As a result, they consider the warnings to me a cue to head outdoors with beer and a camera to watch the storms. The WX forecasting community has a difficult task of balancing too many vs too few alerts.

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  12. We know there was a Watch and a TOR/Considerable up well before the storm arrived. On the survey did you all encounter anyone who DID know it was coming and took cover? I assumed there were more of them than not. Considering the population impacted, probably several thousand, the fatality numbers are still pretty low.

    Now, obviously, better is the goal. Stories like the above need to be eradicated. Pounding the message home, is the only way to do that. Last week, I saw a facebook post showing cars driving through flooding, and 838 likes on the comment below “They tell you not to do that!!” so we had 1 person doing the wrong thing, and 838 people that knew what the right answer was. Probably more than would have had facebook existed in 2006.

    I’d be interested to see how many TOR false alarms Dallas County and that community had had since the implementation of WEA. My guess is not very many given the offices track record and efforts in that arena. Did some folks still disable the WEAs? Were the FFWs and amber alerts causing them to do that? Did folks get the alert and still not react because it was December? Did most folks react and only a few folks didn’t or didn’t feel like there was anything they could do? Did folks get the warning, intend to react, but just not move quickly enough? I think the main thing killing people in 2016 is they expect the environmental cues to ramp up more slowly than they actually do. There is relative quiet, a soft roar, and then their roof flies off. Not enough time to get to shelter if they are at a window.

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    • Interesting questions, and I haven’t looked at much of the data about tornado false alarms and WEA. We did run across some people who turned off the alerts during the May floods, when we had a ton of flash flooding.

      To answer the questions: from those I talked to, not one said they expected the tornado near them. For most people, they knew about the storms, but they said they were not aware of the tornado. Reasons ranged from “I thought it was in another town” “Didn’t think about a tornado being a threat” or “Station X was talking about another storm.” So, a lot of people got the warnings, but it wasn’t personal to them

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  13. It’s a choice people choose to make, not to stay or be aware. I grew up in west Texas, the Permian Basin. Lots of severe storms hit there too. I learned at an early age to be weather aware, and that tornados can happen anytime of the year, in any place, even places where they don’t normally occur. We had heard the alerts and the warnings that this would likely be a severe event and monitored the storms closely. We are up in Grayson County and we watched the tracking on tv and our phones. We chose to get all the NOAA alerts because we want too and because we know that things change rapidly.

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  14. I think it is more of people don’t think it will happen to them. I get told, I live in the part of the Metroplex that gets the tornados, east Metroplex does not. We are building a storm shelter. I have been told, I hope that doesn’t lower your home value. I have lived her for 40 years and never seen one. Oh you must be one of those transplants from the North, toranods are nothing around here, if we get any they are little ones that might blow over your outdoor chair, it is hail you need to worry about. You have a better chance of winning the lottery then being in a tornado. My mother was in the Rowlett tornado. She refuses to get a storm shelter now, because she feels she is a vetern now. But when the alarm went off . Also, she lived on the Rockwall/Dallas border (DALROCK), and she has it set for Rockwall County, because she doesn’t want to get all the alerts for Dallas county. Her weather radio never went off. Not sure because it is a RED CROSS weather radio and they admit to faults in the programming, or a tornado warning was never set for Rockwall county. When she was watching the news and heard the sirens go off, she tried to get my father into the safe area. He told her ‘Tornado’s don’t cross water.” “We have nothing to worry about, Rowlett doesn’t get tornado’s” and he preceed to watch TV. She pushed and got him into the room. He refuses to get a shelter too.

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    • Tornado Warnings were in effect for Dallas and Rockwall Counties. Can’t really speak to the radio not going off, however.

      Lot of myths out there about tornadoes. They don’t happen in the winter. They don’t cross water. They do.

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  15. That why we watch Pete Delkus on WFAA there is absolutely no one else I want to see do the weather when there is a severe weather threat! Shout out to Pete 🙂

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  16. We were watching Fox 4, Evan Andrews. He was saying it was doubtful a tornado would touch down again, and if it did, it would be “thready” and weak. He was very smug and sure of himself. That was right before we heard 4 transformers blow in succession, as the tornado touched down. I’ve lived in Texas all of my life. Tornado warnings are nothing new, and unfortunately, people tend to lean toward them not producing anything major, especially when news folk are laughing it off, as well. I think the December tornados were a big wake up call to all of us. My son panics during severe weather, so we were taking somewhat of a comfort in what the meteorologist was saying. We ran to the porch and it was still and quiet, but I could hear and feel the vibrations of the tornado a few miles from us. It is still hard to believe.

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