82% of local tornado warnings don't bring confirmed twister - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Tornado false alarms: 82% of local warnings don't bring confirmed twister

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When tornado sirens went off in Chatham County at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday – some residents jumped out of bed and ran to get their families in a safe place. Others just rolled over.

It's a problem the National Weather Service – and WTOC Meteorologist Pat Prokop are looking to solve.

According to NWS figures, only 18 percent of the tornado warnings in the Coastal Empire and Lowcountry since 2008 resulted in a confirmed twister. The national average is 25 percent.

"If you keep putting out warnings, you're going to get a cry wolf situation," Prokop said. "And I'm sure the National Weather Service is very aware of that as well."

Deadly tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, brought the problem to the forefront for the National Weather Service.

"We found that a lot of people wait to take shelter until they're confident something will happen, and that's not until the event's on top of them, and they don't have time to take shelter," said Jim Keeney, a NWS meteorologist in Kansas City.

That's why the weather service piloted a program last year in Missouri and Kansas. The idea: more information would make people take a warning more seriously. That meant including sources in their alerts -- whether a tornado was sited by a first responder or trained spotter or there was just rotation in the clouds. The revised warnings also included how much damage the tornado might cause.

The pilot ended Nov. 30, and surveys after 2012 twisters indicated the program was successful enough to expand to the entire Midwest region.

Prokop has a simpler idea.

"I would like to have a situation where if radar indicates a tornado to put out like a tornado alert, instead of a tornado warning," he said.

Prokop says it's important to remember that it's the little tornadoes, like the kind Tuesday's storms might have produced, that are hard to predict. And those are the ones that are the most common in the Coastal Empire and Lowcountry.

"It's easy to forecast major tornadoes," Prokop said. "It's like trying to hit a beach ball with a baseball bat. It's easy to hit. These storms like we had yesterday, which have the possibility to produce small tornadoes are like trying to hit a little pea with a baseball bat. It's much more difficult."

The NWS installed new radar in Charleston in late October that may improve warning accuracy.

"That technology will enable us to see debris picked up by a tornado, what we call a debris ball," NWS Charleston Meteorologist John Quagliariello said. "Often once you see that signature on the radar, that there's a debris ball, you know there's a tornado producing damage."

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