In Joplin tornado's aftermath, NOAA considers warning system changes

The Kansas City StarSeptember 21, 2011 

Lives were saved in Joplin, Mo., because sirens screamed and TVs and radios broadcast warnings minutes before an EF5 tornado swept through the city, ultimately killing 162 people.

But, according to a government report released Tuesday, more lives might have been saved had people not grown so “desensitized” to such warnings, causing them to either delay taking cover or ignore the initial threat.

Officials are now investigating possible changes to the warning system. The changes would require coordination with local municipalities and other agencies.

Among the ideas:

•Tornado sirens that sound at different pitches, duration or rhythms to help residents distinguish between smaller tornadoes and potentially “large killers.”

•More powerful wording on television and the Internet to drive home the threat of more powerful tornadoes.

•More effective use of social media.

•A more standardized color code on TV or online to delineate between storms of different severity.

“The vast majority of Joplin residents did not immediately take protective action upon receiving a first indication of risk, regardless of the source of the warning,” said the report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the National Weather Service.

Most residents, the report concludes, waited for confirmatory warnings on television, radio or through other means before taking cover, including standing outside to watch the gathering storm.

“Most importantly,” the report says, “the perceived frequency of siren activation in Joplin led the majority of survey participants to become desensitized or complacent to this method of warning.”

In June, not long after the May 22 tornado ripped a six-mile-long swath through the Missouri city of 50,000, the National Weather Service sent an assessment team to Joplin to determine how well people were warned of the tornado. The team interviewed about 100 residents.

Although people heard the sirens, the report said, “it was common in the interviews to hear residents refer to ‘storms always blowing over and missing Joplin,’ or that there seemed like there was a ‘protective bubble’ around Joplin. …

“Many noted that they ‘hear sirens all the time, (sirens) go off for dark clouds,’ they are ‘bombarded with (sirens) so often that we don’t pay attention.’ ”

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