Proposed federal bill seeks more tornado warning time

by The City Wire staff ( 8 views 

Residents often have a few minutes to take action and seek shelter once a tornado warning has been issued. But a piece of legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives aims to increase the time individuals have to prepare for the worst.

House Resolution 2413, a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, aims to increase warning times beyond one hour by funding a research program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

According to Steve Piltz, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Tulsa, such advances would be a drastic improvement over current warnings.

"The average (today) is about 14 minutes, give or take a minute or so," he said. "Some will have 30 minutes and some will have zero minutes."

While encouraged by the move to improve warning times, Piltz said any advancements would be extremely difficult to improve warning times.

"To actually do forecasts, you'd have to do it down to the individual clouds. It would take a tremendous amount of data and computer models. It's a very tall order."

And that tall order will be expensive, according to the Congressional Budget Office, which has estimated that implementing the legislation from 2014-2019 would cost $530 million.

Chief Meteorologist Drew Michaels of KHBS/KHOG-TV in Rogers said the variety of factors involved, including financial resources, will probably limit efforts to improve warning lead times in the near future.

"Research is always ongoing, but I still think we're a bit out. We've made some great, great strides in upgrading radar technology," he said. "With dual-pole radar, you can see so much more of the storm. But we're probably still beyond that. I'm not sure, with the amount of money you throw in, if it's really feasible."

Michaels said any effort to increase the amount of times from the issuance of a warning to the actual strike of a tornado would likely involve a combined effort of computer data and storm spotters in the field, similar to what is used today.

"I think you'd need a coordinated effort with spotters, as well, to be watching those clouds as they break the (atmospheric) cap, as they develop. I don't know (how much lead time is possible). I still think an hour's worth of time, we're still beyond that. Do I think we'll get there? I think so. I just don't know when."

Dennis Gilstrap, director of emergency management for Crawford County, agreed with Michaels' assessment.

"It depends on the data that they have," he said. "But if they say they are going to try to get all warnings an hour out, I don't see how they can do that, personally."

He specifically mentioned how he has watched from his office as storm systems rolling across Oklahoma have broken apart before entering Arkansas and vice versa, redeveloping quickly with little to no warning.

Michaels pointed to an instant messaging system local emergency managers and media outlets are using that connects them with the National Weather Service, which he said has increased communication and getting vital information out to the public quicker.

"They have a chat program that allows different emergency managers and television meteorologists to be on there and pick their brain," he said. "We're actually getting that information even faster, which is great. That really is the Weather Service doing their due diligence. Being interactive more than they were in the past. When you have a coordinated effort, it helps."

Piltz said should the legislation pass and scientists make advancements in tornado forecasting, the programs already in place could allow the weather service to get warnings out quicker without causing a panic among the public.

"I could see a tornado warning being as it is (with an average 14 minute lead time), but a manager of a large venue (such as an outdoor concert venue), you can't get them to shelter in 14 minutes. So they would have higher end information coming to them."

Local members of Congress have so far been noncommittal on supporting HR 2413. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said he would "monitor this bill and other life-saving legislation closely." Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, said through his spokesperson that he was still reviewing the legislation and would "carefully monitor all legislation dealing with impact of severe weather on Arkansans' lives."

Bridenstine said the research must move forward to save more lives in his home state of Oklahoma, which was hit with a series of tornadoes in May of last year, resulting in the deaths of dozens of people and causing billions of dollars in property damage.

"By making weather research and the protection of lives and property NOAA’s top priority, the bill before us today takes a small but important first step toward achieving this goal.”

A spokesperson for Rep. Markwayne Mullin, an Oklahoma Republican representing much of eastern Oklahoma including the western section of the Fort Smith region, said "we will not be commenting at this time."

As for whether Congress will be able to pass the measure, which has already made its way out of committee and is waiting on a vote in the House, Plitz said it would be difficult to get passage.

"Oh gosh, I don't know. It's something that gets difficult because you have Congress telling an agency what it should be doing."