When I was a youngster…
(Oh, rats! I remember promising myself that when I got old, I would never, never utter that phrase. Sigh.)
Nevertheless, when I was a youngster way back in the 1960’s, I was fascinated by tornadoes. And quite concerned about them as well.
I think I was concerned because every thunderstorm seemed to bring on adult speculation about whether a tornado was be in the offing. The stronger the storm, it seemed, the closer many adults edged toward tornado panic. They usually tried to hide their fear and worry, but it was there for all the world – including the “younguns” – to see.
Fortunately, there was a severe weather alerting system in place. I didn’t know it at the time, but the system was fairly new. Weather alerts were issued for specific areas and localities. They were issued by regional National Weather Service meteorologists, via teletype, to local law enforcement agencies and the media. Upon receipt of an alert, law enforcement and other emergency service providers would put their response plan into action, and the media – radio and television of course – would broadcast the alert.
There were basically four alert levels. A Thunderstorm Watch meant that conditions were right for the formation of thunderstorms. A Thunderstorm Warning meant that a thunderstorm was present in the area. A Tornado Watch meant that conditions were right for a tornado to form. A Tornado Warning meant that a tornado had actually formed and was near by.
When a Thunderstorm Watch was issued, it was basically a reminder that a thunderstorm might pop up at some point, so you should keep an eye on the sky while you went about your daily business.
A Thunderstorm Warning reminded you that there was a thunderstorm present or nearby. Thunderstorms, as the language of the warning stated, can produce high winds, hail, and lightning. Though never explicitly spelled out, the message was clear. Take a close look at what the storm is doing and act accordingly. Maybe you should get yourself and your tractor out of the field. Maybe you should head your horse for the barn. Or get off the lake or the golf course or get your kids out of the swimming pool. On the other hand, perhaps the storm was passing safely clear and you could continue with whatever activity you were engaged in, keeping a close eye on the weather just in case.
A Tornado Watch meant that the weather in the area – usually including energetic thunderstorms – was conducive to tornado formation. In general, you were supposed to pay a little closer attention to the weather during a tornado watch, and be aware of the increased chance of a tornado forming.
The Tornado Warning, however, was a different kettle of fish. A Tornado Warning meant that a tornado had actually formed and been verified by a reliable observer. It was considered to be a real emergency, and with tornadoes being both unpredictable and destructive, it meant that you should take shelter immediately. In the basement. Or lacking a basement, in the strongest interior room of your house, preferably one without windows. If you lived in a mobile home, you could climb in the bathtub (which were all made of cast iron back in the day) and drag a mattress over the top of the tub. Or you could find a ditch to hunker down in.
I remember spending long, frightened minutes in dank, musty basements while tornadoes flailed about “somewhere nearby.” The experience was always too frightening to be an adventure.
But that was then.
Beginning several years ago, the rules changed. Now the National Weather Service only issues Tornado Warnings. At least in my neck of the woods. Every time there’s a thunderstorm, I get a television announcement and a reverse-911 call, saying, “The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning for Kimball County. At (time, say 6:15), National Weather Service Doppler Radar identified a thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado at (location) moving (direction and speed).” There’s always a long spiel about taking precautions and an expiration time for the warning. The alerts are usually repeated every 10-15 minutes.
In my opinion, this is pretty much useless information. Worse, it’s taken all the power from the phrase Tornado Warning. People hear the phrase all the time now, pretty much whenever there are dark clouds in the sky. Human nature being what it is, tornado warning now means “dark clouds.”
Perhaps the bureaucrats who designed the “new” alert system never heard the fable of the boy who cried wolf. More likely, they are pre-defending themselves against criticism should there ever actually be a tornado.
In some sense, we’re fortunate that tornadoes developing here in the tri-state region rarely exceed F-0 or F-1 power, producing winds from about 70-112 mph. Though still quite dangerous, they generally lack the destructive force of tornadoes formed at lower elevations.
At any rate, and again, in my opinion, Big Brother has failed in his self-appointed task to protect us (first himself, then us) from everything.
So we’re on our own. Which isn’t an entirely bad thing. We still have powerful minds and good analytical skills at our disposal, and we can all do our own tornado-potential analysis with each and every storm. There’s some very good information on tornadoes available on the internet (a lot of garbage, too, so read carefully). We can all prepare ourselves and use our own initiative to protect ourselves. Just like everyone did back in the old days.